By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Laura Gainor had just launched a marketing company, Vossberg Gainor, while living in Chicago when pickleball hit her radar quite by accident in 2019.
“I was introduced to USA Pickleball through my husband because he used to have George Bauernfeind as a client at a previous agency. George is the chief marketing officer for USA Pickleball,” said Gainor, whose husband works in sports marketing.
USA Pickleball became Gainor’s client, and Gainor quickly realized that she wanted to learn to play the sport to be a more effective pickleball marketing consultant.
“On my one-year anniversary of launching Vossberg Gainor, I rebranded my website to have the unique niche of Pickleball Marketing. USA Pickleball continues to be a client, among others,” she said.
In October 2020, Gainor and her family moved to Nocatee, specifically because of its 12 new pickleball courts (for Nocatee residents only). She normally plays twice a day, every day.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in the USA, and it is a thriving social sport with a huge friend network,” said Gainor, 38. “It actually became more popular during the pandemic because people could play outside and socialize safely.”
Gainor’s enthusiasm for the sport can be found throughout Ponte Vedra Beach — both indoors and outdoors.
Reza Shafii plays pickleball three days a week at the Ponte Vedra YMCA every morning. He has been doing so since 2018 when he moved from Maryland where he also loved playing pickleball. There, he saw the numbers go from 20 people playing to 300 before he and his wife moved to Florida to be near his daughter and grandchildren.
“If you start this game, you won’t know when to quit,” said Shafii. “The fundamentals are the key. My goal is to encourage people to play better.”
Shafii said the camaraderie in pickleball is very different than in other sports, and it also provides an excellent cardiovascular workout. He added that any Ponte Vedra YMCA member can join in on the game at any time, and the Y offers wooden paddles for beginners.
“The advantage of this game is fellowship,” said Shafii, 71.
Shafii has taught his grandchildren how to play pickleball and loves the multi-generational aspect of the sport. It is an easy way to teach respect and compassion for each other, he said.
USA Pickleball Ambassador Mike Guyot, a Nocatee resident, was introduced to pickleball 14 years ago while living in The Villages near Ocala. Before long, he became an instructor with a 4.0 rating (skill level ratings fall between 0 – 5.0 in half point increments). Next Guyot captained teams and became a member of the Pickleball Community Volunteer Group. Once he moved to Nocatee, Guyot continued to play and was looking for ways to reach more pickleball players. That’s when he became an USA Pickleball Ambassador.
“The primary goal of an ambassador is to help the sport grow, welcome people and train players,” said Guyot, 72.
According to USA Pickleball reports, there are 4.2 million players in the United States, and the average age for all players is 41 years old. Also, 2020 marked the 55th anniversary of pickleball being invented by three fathers looking to keep their bored children active in the summer. Two stories exist about the origin of the game’s name, according to USA Pickleball. The prevailing one is that one of the fathers got a dog a year or so after the game was invented and named it Pickles. The dog often ran off with the ball, and so, when an official game name was needed, well, “pickleball” stuck.
The growing popularity of pickleball did not go unnoticed by Austin Taylor and Mike Miles, The Yards’ finance and operations director and general manager, respectively. They took over the Oak Bridge Club after it failed as a golf course and country club, said Miles. Construction of 12 pickleball courts, slated to open in October, is currently underway at this Ponte Vedra Beach sports and social venue, located at the Oak Bridge Club in Sawgrass. It also includes a renovated 12-hole golf course.
“After a great deal of research, we landed on pickleball, and our whole business model is for profit,” said Miles. “This is pay to play, and we may or may not have memberships. There will be no fighting for court space as you will get your own court, and you will be treated as a member during that time.”
Miles said “Pickle Garden at The Yards” will include LED lighting, covered social areas, a cabana available to rent and a pro shop with equipment rentals. Taylor added that this is a venue where clinics, tournaments and programs will be held while still meeting the needs of all types of players by offering a reasonable hourly rate — all open to the public.
To find public courts and play times, Gainor suggests checking out places2play.org.
Photo by Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Nocatee resident Mike Smiley playing pickleball recently at one of the 12 courts in the area.