Pickleball is a big “dill” in Steamboat Springs10/04/2023 07:00AM ● By Lisa Schlichtman
From Steamboat Magazine Outdoors Edition 2023.
Steamboat Springs, CO - Search the hashtag #pickleballislife and the curious will discover people of all ages posing with small, bright-colored paddles and wide grins on their faces. Devotees of pickleball represent all age groups, not just the over-50 players who dominated pickleball when it started gaining traction a little over a decade ago. Their interest borders on obsessive – but in a good way.
Michael Marchand LaMotte is a recent convert.
The 30-year-old Steamboat Springs resident is a relative newbie to the sport but she picked up the game quickly, which is one of the reasons pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. She was then able to entice a group of girlfriends to start playing, and now, the group of millennials, who call themselves the “Real Dills,” play at 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday night at the Steamboat Tennis and Pickleball Center. Their significant others, who also play, go by the name the “Big Dills.”
“It’s so simple to learn, which is like low pressure, but it’s also fast-paced,” Michael says. “It’s reflex-based, and there are these moments of exhilaration where you slam the ball down or get your paddle under the ball when it’s on the ground and you’re able to hit it back over the net. It’s just something new and exciting.”
She also likes the social aspect of playing a fun game with a close group of friends.
“It’s really starting to pick up to where more of the younger millennial generation is getting into it,” Michael explains. “It’s like this fun, new activity that we’re all discovering together. It’s an hour of just pure fun, and it’s relaxing, and we’re getting in a little extra activity and that’s awesome.”
Sport with a fun factor
The range in age and skill of local pickleball players, and the sheer number of people playing the sport, are two factors that originally drew head pickleball pro Jayson Harris to the Steamboat Tennis and Pickleball Center. It makes the mountain town unique, he says, and has helped Steamboat become home to a vibrant – and growing – pickleball community.
“You come on any given morning and evening and all the courts are packed, and people are trying to find court time. And you get all different skill levels when you have so many people to pull from,” Jayson says.
There’s a ladder that players climb as they progress in pickleball, Jayson says. At first, people play with other beginners, and then they try to get games with people who are better than them so they can become more competitive.
“In a place like Steamboat, you’ve got this really good mix of people who want to drill, they want to take lessons and they want to play,” Jayson says. “So, the tides are rising. Everyone’s kind of getting better together, which is cool to see, and I think people really like that.
“I’m also seeing a lot of new faces each week (an average of 50 new people a week), and that’s kind of crazy,” he adds.
Pickleball’s popularity can be credited, in part, to how easy it is to learn. Give someone a paddle and a ball, and Jayson says he can have them playing a game within an hour.
“But the reason people really get hooked is because once you start playing more, you see there are a lot of nuances to the game, and that’s really fun.”
Barbara Robinson, a certified pickleball coach who also serves as the Steamboat Tennis and Pickleball Center’s social media manager, credits her daily pickleball sessions with helping her keep off the 85 pounds she initially lost as a result of a serious health scare.
She is now one of Steamboat’s biggest pickleball ambassadors.
“Every single person you ask (about why they like pickleball), the one word that comes up every single time is fun,” Barbara says. “They say, ‘that was fun,’ ‘I had fun learning’ and ‘this is my happy place.’ And that’s really what pickleball does for people. Every sport has its fun aspects but this overarching fun element that pickleball has is something I haven’t heard with any other sport.”
Barbara says the sport is also very accessible in terms of cost and time commitment. It can cost $100 a day to golf and $200 a day to ski, and pickleball, by contrast, costs anywhere from $12 to $17 for two hours of open play.
“With pickleball you can put on your court shoes and go play for 40 minutes and go home feeling like you’ve had a workout,” Barbara says.
New year-round pickleball center on the horizon
With the growing popularity of the sport, pickleball court rentals exploded – increasing more than 500% from 2017 to 2020. Loretta Conway, who serves as executive director of the Tennis and Pickleball Center in Steamboat, says the facility is now hosting three new player clinics every week, and on average, 150 people come to the facility to play pickleball each day.
This rising interest in the sport created a need for more courts and sparked an ambitious plan to build a new year-round pickleball center with 20 new dedicated pickleball courts in the same complex as the Tennis Center.
The Court Sports for Life Foundation was formed in October 2019, and as of Jan. 1, 2021, the nonprofit has contracted with the city of Steamboat Springs to own and operate the Steamboat Springs Tennis and Pickleball Center. To date, the foundation has raised over $7 million toward building the new pickleball center, new outdoor tennis courts and additional parking. Combined with a $3.5 million loan, the effort is very close to reaching its $11 million fundraising goal.
The new pickleball center will be fully erected by December 2023 – a year ahead of schedule – and more courts means a stronger bottom line for the complex, Loretta predicts.
“Our revenue doubled in the last four years because of pickleball, and we think it’s going to double again within a year of the new building being done,” she says.
Moz and Debbie Modzelewski have been key players in supporting expansion of the sport in Steamboat. Moz serves as chairman of the Court Sports For Life Foundation board, and Debbie helps with the fundraising.
The couple came to Steamboat as tennis players and now play more pickleball than tennis. They picked up the sport about six years ago. They both say pickleball is a more social game, easy to learn and faster paced.
“I timed it once, and in pickleball, you hit the ball about three times as much as you do in doubles tennis,” Moz said. “Because you’re closer to each other (because of the smaller court size), rallies tend to last longer, and it’s a little bit easier to keep the ball in play. And you only need to play pickleball for about a day before you’re having fun.”
Debbie says pickleball gives people an opportunity to play with a greater range of players. In particular, she loves seeing multi-generations of family members playing together.
“There’s one family that plays with grandparents, parents and 6- and 7-year-old grandkids,” Debbie says. “They put the kid in the middle of two adults and call it triples. It’s just so fun.”
The joy people get from playing pickleball has fueled the successful “Steamboat Relishes Pickleball” fundraising campaign, which has appealed to visitors and locals alike and attracted large and small donors. This broad support has translated into millions of dollars of donations with more than half coming from donations smaller than $1,000.
“This is energizing from a board chair’s perspective,” Moz says. “Obviously, the community is generous, but I’ve been impressed not only with the generosity with money but their generosity of time and expertise. I also think people realize this is not a hoity-toity private tennis club and so it fits in with Steamboat’s vibe.”
Taking pickleball to the professional level
If anyone needs more proof that pickleball is popular in Steamboat, they should look to the newly formed National Pickleball League. In March, the league’s first six teams were announced, and one of the teams is owned by two Steamboat Springs couples, Chris and Amanda Montgomery and Mario and Jen Boschi.
The new team will be known as the Denver Iconics, and its roster includes 18 pickleball professionals, age 50 and older, who will compete in regular league play running from June through September. The players hail from all over the country, and Mario Boschi and Chris Montgomery are members of the team.
“We’re excited to be associated with this organization and watch it grow from the ground up,” says Mario, who holds a Level II IPTPA certification and teaches pickleball in Steamboat Springs and Denver. “We, as co-owners and players, are given the opportunity to play against or with the top players in the world.”
“I also believe the NPL and the Denver Iconics will provide other opportunities, such as hometown pickleball events, tournaments and clinics, and giving back to communities, such as Denver and Steamboat Springs; this is something that means a lot to me,” Mario adds.
Chris’s interest in purchasing a team and joining the newest national league stems from his business background — he is the managing partner at Four Points Funding— and his sheer passion for pickleball. He’s been playing since 2014 and has witnessed the sport’s rapid growth.
“I’ve always dreamed of owning or being part of a sports team, and this is our opportunity,” Chris says. “This is a chance to be in on the ground floor in bringing team pickleball to the champions pro (over 50) scene.”
He also wants his team, with roots in Steamboat, to win and be competitive.
“In the short term, we want to prove the viability of the team concept,” Chris says. “We also want to put out a fun, exciting product and win the inaugural championship. Long term, we want to build a team that people can rally around and have fun supporting.”