With winter's waning daylight comes another cause for seasonal despondence: empty pickleball courts stripped of their nets and dignity, their gates sealed off with padlocks ensuring that even the most tempted devotees stay out.
I admit I wasn't prepared for how crestfallen I'd feel when the nets came down at my regular outdoor pickleball haunts. A scene that delivered so much joy over the spring and summer went seemingly underground after that first snowfall of the year. But as it turns out, you can find a pickleball game in Minnesota's colder months — if you know where to look.
"There's actually a lot of options, but they're not well seen," said Twila Jesso, co-founder of the North Star Pickleball Association and administrator of the Facebook page Pickleball Minnesota.
This fall I started playing at my local community center once a week on gymnasium floors. Playing in a gym is not a pure pickleball experience — one can inadvertently whack the ball at a basketball hoop or a low ceiling. And because the gym is reserved for various uses, the rainbow of colored lines on the floor can feel disorienting during play. The ball also bounces differently than on an outdoor court, and the gym lighting can strain middle-aged eyes while you're chasing a fast-paced shot.
But the regulars there, mostly retired women, have been welcoming, and they can teach novices like me a good deal about the game. (They asked me recently if I used to play volleyball because of all the "diving" I was doing. Um, no, ladies — that's just clumsiness, and it's killing my back!)
Jesso says if you don't mind the makeshift nature of these gymnasium courts, they are your best bet. In some places, you can play for hours after paying a drop-in fee as low as $2.
More and more indoor pickleball destinations are cropping up to meet the demand, and court reservations in many cases fill up at a lightning pace in winter. Lucky Shots and Minneapolis Cider Co. in Minneapolis, Mega Pickle & Pong in Chanhassen, Picklebarn in Mankato, and the Premier Pickleball Club of Minnesota in Brooklyn Park all offer an outdoor court surface in indoor settings.
I share this with you because we, the casually obsessed, are legion. I was shocked to learn that our humble, warmth-averse state of Minnesota ranks fourth in the nation for our googling of "pickleball." Less surprisingly, we shoot up to No. 2 for our searches of "indoor pickleball," behind only Utah. People want to bang their pickleball and dink it, too — and cities, centers and private businesses have responded.
"Minnesota has done an extremely good job," said Chris Olson, a 26-year-old amateur player from Bloomington known for his paddle reviews and podcast he co-hosts under the Pickleball Studio brand. "When I first started playing, I was told Minnesota is a good hub for pickleball. I was like, 'There's no way that's true. Four or five months of our year, you can't even play outside.' But as I've traveled to a lot of different states — I've played tournaments all across the country — Minnesota is actually very spoiled with courts. The amount of outdoor courts we have is ridiculous."
Another reason for the expansion is a Minnesota-based behemoth: Life Time. The fitness club chain says it operates more dedicated pickleball courts than any other entity in the United States, a claim confirmed by the sport's national governing body. Life Time has built 365 courts in less than a year and a half, and plans to top 600 by the end of 2023. In Minnesota alone, there are 10 clubs with permanent courts, including its north Bloomington club that was cleared out to make way for a pickleball facility.
The vision behind the expansion belongs to CEO Bahram Akradi, an enthusiast of the game who "was the one who saw pickleball coming. I did not. He reminds me every couple of hours," said Ajay Pant, Life Time's vice president overseeing racquet sports.
Pant, a lifelong tennis player, added, "What pickleball is doing, tennis has failed miserably."
Now he understands pickleball's potency: An incredibly easy learning curve. A social and inclusive vibe. A plethora of health benefits. Lots of touches on the ball. He notes that the average point in tennis lasts for only three hits, while the average pickleball rally goes on for nine.
"When people start to get more rallies in, all kinds of good chemicals are released in the brain, and it tells you to get happy-happy," Pant explained. "There's nothing not to like."
Life Time's steep fees are not for everybody, though. A mediocre player, I can't justify a $340 monthly club membership for a family of four. Which is why I'll probably keep playing on a gym floor this winter — at least until my backhand improves.
You don't need a crystal ball to see that in the next year or so, there will be even more options for indoor play. A number of beer-and-paddle concepts are being planned in suburbs like Maple Grove and Roseville. Pant said meaningful competition will only make the industry better. And he thinks recreational pickleball hasn't begun to even remotely touch where the growth is headed.
"People are going bananas," he said, "because there are too many good things going on with this sport."
So keep on dinking and keep your skills fresh, Minnesota. You know that glorious first outdoor game of 2023 is going to be worth the wait.
How to find an indoor pickleball court near you
- Check your local city government website and call nearby recreation hubs like the YMCA or a Jewish community center for pickleball offerings. You may be surprised to learn there are hidden gems at nearby elementary schools with modest drop-in fees or punch cards.
- While you can find plenty of lists of local courts on the internet, a map maintained by the Twin Cities Pickleball Club (bit.ly/3VzkzDH) stands out from the pack because the locations are color-coded to indicate indoor or outdoor spaces, and whether they are "real" or "lined" courts. Another resource is places2play.org, operated by USA Pickleball, but double-check with local organizers to make sure playing times are up to date.
- Join Pickleball Minnesota, Twin Cities Pickleball Club Group or other Facebook groups to learn about options in your area. It's common for members to share information about leagues and open play. There are smaller groups on Facebook that cater to pickleball communities by city, or even to specific parks or facilities.
- Consider indoor pickleball destinations such as Lucky Shots and Mega Pickle & Pong, which allow you to book a court or sign up for open play in advance. Life Time members can also use the pickleball courts at various locations across the Twin Cities.