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It's a big 'dill': A look at the pickleball popularity in the Tampa Bay area

Even Tom Brady is cashing in on the sport that's exploded even more since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Even on a weekend morning, the pickleball courts at Walter Fuller Park in St. Petersburg are filled with players.

"I saw that this was gonna be big," Larry Bergquist of St. Pete said.

Bergquist said he always had an interest in sports. However, at 84 years old, not all sports embraced him like before until he discovered pickleball.

"You don't have to run a long distance like tennis, and it's literally bigger than ping pong, so it fits right in the middle," he said. 

Berquist described it as a "perfect fit" for people his age.

The sport gained more attention from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pickleball grew to have 4.8 million players in 2021, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). 

Tampa and St. Petersburg are slated to add dozens more pickleball courts by the end of 2023.

Recently, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced there will be 49 courts total by the end of next year. Before 2021, there were only nine.

The city of St. Pete is also set to add 16 more courts to its existing 25 outdoor courts and 18 indoor courts, Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator, said.

Jefferis said the city could see even more courts open up since plans are constantly moving. The city already made investments in the creation of more courts before the sport exploded in popularity.

Even more pickleball courts were proposed on the failed sports complex referendum in Largo during the midterm elections.

Homeowners associations are adding pickleball to part of the neighborhood amenities.  

Social connection, injury risk, and just being cooped up from the pandemic all attributed to the popularity, Gregory Johncox said.

"I'm also not surprised because it's always been growing and super popular," Johncox said. 

Credit: Gregory Johncox

RELATED: Tampa to be home of 49 pickleball courts by end of 2023

Johncox, known in the sport as 'Gregory Storm' said he's been involved with pickleball for a decade now. He competes professionally across the country and while he found the sport growing in general beforehand, he hasn't seen such a demand since last year. 

"It's really exploding as far as celebrity status," Johncox said.

Johncox wears many hats in his professional life but said his priorities shifted to coaching for I Love St Pete Pickleball Academy. In addition, he started his own business selling paddles with the company dubbed Reign and Wind or R.A.W. 

Johncox said the sport has also been an outlet for people who've competed in more mainstream sports like tennis but can no longer continue due to the physical demand.

"Everyone's super friendly in pickleball," Johncox said. 

But aside from the sport's inclusivity of all ages and athletic ability, the camaraderie from strangers appears to add to its popularity.

When 10 Tampa Bay visited the courts this week, there were players on vacation taking part and looking for a game to play. 

Bergquist said that's part of the excitement of the game. 

"It's fun. It's always like, 'Who are you gonna see there today?'" Bergquist said.

RELATED: Ever heard of pickleball? Tampa Pickleball Academy teaches people interested in playing

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