The lights have just come on at Gilbert Regional Park, and pickleball paddles line the fences, signaling it’s time for the park’s busiest time of day. Playing under the lights is special for any athlete, adding an extra level of atmosphere that is hard to top, and Gilbert Regional has just come alive.

Pickleball, a game played with a paddle and balls on a truncated tennis court, has become the fastest-growing sport in the country, with professional and recreational leagues popping up across the nation.

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The Association of Pickleball Players reported in March 2023 that 48.3 percent of Americans had played at least one pickleball game, a number that represents 19% of the country.

The Sports Fitness Industry Association has seen unprecedented growth for the sport since 2021, with pickleball seeing players increase by 158.6% in the past three years.

Arizona has been one of the biggest embracers of the sport, with the state’s 1,663 courts ranking fifth in the country behind California, Florida, Texas and Illinois – all of which have a significantly higher population than Arizona.

Gilbert Regional Park plays host to 16 courts and packs each most days and nights of the week. Fully finishing renovations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020, Gilbert Regional has fostered a special community that revolves around all things pickleball.

“I would say that from my observations, it’s definitely the highest traffic we see for the courts at [Gilbert] Regional,” Gilbert Recreation director Joe Alongi said. “Obviously, the playground gets a ton of usage, but as far as sports courts and pickleball, it’s just on a different level.”

Pickleball has become the playground for the people not permitted on the jungle gym any longer, but the game isn’t the only draw that has people coming back to consistently compete.

“The game is very addictive, first of all, so it’s super fun,” said Gilbert Regional pickleball player Dan Shin, who plays daily. “The game in itself is super entertaining, but I think it’s this community of people that you get to know. I mean, I literally know, probably, in the mornings, especially every single person on the court. If not, I’ll meet some new people and get to know them right away.”

Gilbert Regional’s pickleball courts are open from dawn until after dusk. Players can show up at 5:30 a.m. and play until 10 p.m. While the night crowd is often the more busy and crowded time, the morning crowd has developed a special relationship. Shin is part of that special morning community that shows up at gate open, plays for a few hours, goes to work and comes back to play when the park is packed at night.

The morning pickleball community got so close that they put together multiple fundraisers for members of the group in need.

“Oh, it’s awesome; we supported a fundraiser for someone who was doing some surgery,” Shin said. “We had a person, a good friend that used to come here on a daily basis, who actually passed away recently, so we raised money for his funeral and his family. It definitely is a community that supports one another.”

While basketball has been the king of pick-up sports for many years, pickleball has an advantage over hoops: almost anyone can play the game. Any gender, any age, any skill level, it doesn’t matter who picks up the paddle. All a player has to do is show up ready to learn. While the game can be played in teams, pickleball is mostly about dominating your own game.

“I think what makes Gilbert or what makes pickleball such a special sport is that it’s very accessible,” Alongi said. “Whether you are an avid athlete or into lots of different sports, or maybe it’s your first time trying to become active, and you’re looking for something to do. It’s just a very easy sport to play and to get relatively good at, and I think in trying to build a park that was inclusive and all-encompassing, I think it just made a lot of sense.”

“The beauty of this game is whether you’re playing against an 80-year-old, which I’ve lost to people in their 80s, or someone who’s in their teens, or someone who’s a beginner or been playing their lifetime, you can still work on your own game,” Shin said.

“If you’re in a group of four, you can mix it up to even out the teams to make it a little more competitive, but at the end of the day, you can always work on your game.”

Gilbert Regional welcomes people of all skill levels and splits teams playing on the 16 courts based on skill level. The park begins flourishing when the sun goes down after everyone leaves work and school, and the courts flood with people of all ages and backgrounds looking for good games.

The courts feature a paddle holder to indicate the next team and help manage the large crowds.

“I think people all over the state know the park is one of the best places to play in the state,” college student Rio Newcombe said. “I even know people from out of state ask, ‘Hey, have you played at Gilbert Regional? That park is awesome.’ It’s just a staple in the state, and everyone knows about it. It’s probably the best facility I’ve played at.”

Gilbert Regional Park has become one of the biggest hubs for pickleball in the Valley, but it has also become one of Arizona’s most thriving communities. Pickleball provides a way for people to connect with others easily and healthily while also scratching an athletic itch, allowing people of all ages to compete.

“It’s easy to hold your own with it, and you have such a wide age range,” Alongi said. “It’s generally a popular sport, not with just one segment. I feel like that naturally lends itself to more collaborative gameplay and just connecting. Whether it’s just making acquaintances or friendships or building up teams, it really does just seem to be more inclusive.”