Pickleball comes to Fenway Park as growing sport reaches the big leagues
Jul 11, 2023, 3:35 PM | Updated: 4:32 pm
BOSTON (AP) — The pickleball craze is hitting the big leagues.
Courts for the tennis/badminton/ping pong hybrid were being laid out in Fenway Park on Tuesday in preparation for a weekend that will give fans of the sport a chance to watch the pros play or even give it a try themselves in the outfield of the Red Sox historic home.
“Not only is it pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the U.S., but also it’s pickleball inside of Fenway,” Pickle4 America President Ben Weinberger said in an interview while standing where the Red Sox right fielder would usually play. “We’ll be welcoming hundreds of amateur athletes in the next four days. To give them an opportunity to step on the field, as we are right now, is pretty special to us.”
The Pickle4 Ballpark Series running from Wednesday to Sunday will include an exhibition with top-ranked players from the Professional Pickleball Association Tour; tickets for spectators go for as little as $10. But amateurs of all levels can also reserve time on one of a dozen courts for $200 per person, which also gets them a racket.
Weinberger said pre-registration for the spots over what was originally four days filled up so quickly that they added a fifth; that sold out, too. When they’re done in Boston, they’ll do the same thing at the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park.
“We tried to make this so that everybody can come if they want to play,” Weinberger said, adding that there will be a free kids clinic with the pros. “We really want to give the pickleball ecosystem this incredible sort of iconic opportunity and all of the experiences that go along with it.”
The oldest ballpark in the major leagues, Fenway has hosted the Red Sox as its primary tenant since the week the Titanic sank in 1912. But it has long been borrowed by other sports, including the NFL and college football, boxing, soccer and hockey.
Since the team’s current owners took over in 2002, Fenway has expanded its portfolio to include Shakespeare in the Park, movies and more than 100 concerts in all.
More than 120,000 people passed through the park for offseason events this winter alone – even with the Red Sox missing the postseason – with thousands more taking the tours that make Fenway one of the top tourist attractions in New England.
“We’re always looking to stretch our creative minds and find new things we can do for Fenway,” said Mark Lev, the president of Fenway Sports Management. “Baseball is at the core of everything we do. But to the extent we can use it for other events, it’s a great thing.”
Pickleball is played in singles or doubles, on a court that looks like a shrunken tennis court. Play with the hard paddles and brightly colored, perforated plastic balls is fast but involves less running than tennis.
The sport was originally invented in 1965 by some Washington state vacationers, including a former U.S Congressman who — depending on which origin story you believe — either couldn’t find badminton shuttlecock or was just looking to keep their bored kids entertained. It took off during the pandemic, when it provided cooped-up quarantiners a chance to get outside with minimal equipment, with some televised exhibitions to give the sport a spotlight.
Although the courts are often laid out over repurposed tennis courts, which can lead to conflict with tennis players or with neighbors bothered by the loud popping of the plastic ball, the Fenway courts will rest on plywood and a layer of plastic designed to protect the ballpark grass.
Lev said the organization’s priority remains the baseball team, which returns from the All-Star break and a six-game road trip on July 21.
“Our most valuable player is Dave Mellor, our groundskeeper,” Lev said. “We wouldn’t be doing this unless Dave felt confident that the ballpark could be restored to game-ready condition.”
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