In pickleball, Macon serves up a perfect match
By Olivia Walter
Photography by Matt Odom
At this point, there are two types of people in the world: The ones who have a puzzled look questioning what the heck “pickleball” is when someone mentions it, and the ones who are telling everyone to come out and try pickleball. It’s the fastest growing sport in the United States, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and many media reports. In Macon particularly, pickleball has risen in popularity exponentially in the last three years.
Paul Midkiff first stepped foot on a pickleball court when he was invited to play at Joe McDaniel’s house on a Saturday afternoon in 2018. McDaniel is considered the godfather of Macon Pickleball. After teaching hundreds in the area how to play, he has recently been inducted into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame for the work he’s done as a pickleball ambassador in the state.
After just a few hours of playing at McDaniel’s home, Midkiff left and immediately drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods to purchase his own paddle set. He was hooked.
And that’s the story for millions of pickleballers all over the country. Pickleball was invented in 1965 by a group of dads in Washington state as a fun crossover between ping pong, badminton and tennis. The game is played with a paddle and a plastic wiffle ball. And the name? It is sometimes said to have come from the old family dog, Pickles.
Midkiff loved pickleball immediately, and he began sparking that love for pickleball in anyone else in Macon that he could talk to about it. “I mean, selfishly, I wanted to play and get more people out to play with,” Midkiff said, “I needed to find a way to communicate with all of the other pickleballers in our area, so that’s when I took over the Macon Pickleball Facebook page and started working on plans for a newsletter.”
And with that, Macon Pickleball began to take shape. Midkiff knew that the Macon Tennis Association had previously created a successful model, so he started working to create a similar group for pickleball.
In December 2019, with Midkiff as the board president, the incorporation paperwork was signed to create the Macon Pickleball Association. At the time of its inception, the Macon Pickleball Association had just under 50 members. It has now skyrocketed to over 300 signed members and 750+ newsletter subscribers. The Macon Pickleball Association regularly holds beginners’ clinics, skill and cardio clinics, round robins and, crucially, hosts tournaments at the Tattnall Square Pickleball and Tennis Center.
March 2020 may not have seemed like a time that sparked joy in people, but Macon Pickleball made one major announcement that had the association thrilled to look toward the future – the renovation of Tattnall Square Pickleball and Tennis Center. This renovation, funded by SPLOST dollars, upgraded the facility from four pickleball courts to 17 pickleball courts. The improvements included a championship showcase court, making the facility one of the premiere places to play pickleball in the state. And similar to the cornfield in Iowa, “If you build it, they will come” rang true for Maconites as they began to host pickleball tournaments.
“For the logical, physical reasons, we have one of the best facilities in the state with 17 dedicated courts – and the ability to expand to 25 courts, which allows us to run higher volume tournaments than most places in Georgia,” stated John Roberts, Macon Pickleball ambassador and board member. “Beyond the facility, there are the geographic advantages of being in the middle of the state and then beyond the physical infrastructure and the geographic luxury, Macon has the best people.”
According to Roberts, the people of Macon Pickleball have a phenomenal reputation as one of the most welcoming groups in the sport. And their genuine warmth and hospitality has permeated through the events and tournaments they host.
Roberts, who had over 15 years of experience leading events in collegiate athletics, formed grand plans for pickleball tournaments in Macon. With the help of Midkiff and the Macon Pickleball army that was growing, Macon hosted its first tournament of significance in October 2020. It was the Habitat for Humanity Home Court Pickleball Tournament, now a multi-day tournament that draws between 200 – 300 registrants and continues to grow each year. All proceeds go to the Macon Area Habitat for Humanity.
With the success of that tournament came many more Macon-hosted pickleball events that have drawn hundreds of participants, including the Pinkest Pickleball Party on the Planet during the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Macon Love Tournament and The Macon Beer Bash.
Macon won a competitive bid to host the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association (GRPA) State Pickleball Championship as well as the Georgia Pickleball Association (GPA) State Championship in 2021 and 2022. And with over 30 other pickleball facilities in the state, the GPA awarded Tattnall Square Pickleball and Tennis Center with the Facility of the Year Award in 2021.
One thing that Macon Pickleball does to make the tournament experience special is getting local community organizations and businesses involved. To kick off a Macon Pickleball tournament, a local business hosts a player party for all of the people playing to enjoy one another and socialize. Player party hosts have included Fall Line Brewing Company, The Society Garden and Just Tap’d.
Walking into a tournament at Tattnall Square Park, there’s a party environment that’s hard to miss out on, with music playing, the roaring voice of John Roberts over the PA, blankets and chairs set up all around and laughter as people catch up with some of their closest friends. A typical day at a Macon Pickleball tournament can start with fresh bagels from Macon Bagels, then progress further to win gift cards to any number of local sponsors during a day of play including Piedmont Brewery and Kitchen, JAG’s Pizzeria and Pub, Your Pie, Macon Beer Company, The Brick, Fall Line Brewing Co., The Society Garden, Just Tap’d and more.
“With the popularity of the tournaments we are hosting, you also see the local economy benefit greatly,” Roberts said. “With the people that are coming in from out of town, hotel nights increase and people are eating out and going to local shopping.”
“We are lucky to have a mayor and county commission that sees the benefit and value of pickleball and recognizes that Macon has an opportunity to carve a niche out for itself in that space and the locality can reap the benefits of that economic impact.” Roberts added.
Early on in discussions circling around Macon-Bibb County partnering to revitalize the Macon Mall, there was a need to create uses for the anchor department stores. One of the items that kept coming up in conversation was athletics and recreation. At this time, pickleball was growing at a rapid pace in Macon, with the city hosting a tournament or two every month. “We were seeing the tourism potential of the ability to have more tournaments that can host people year-round. And the notion of using one of the anchor departments as an indoor pickleball facility was born,” explained Macon-Bibb County’s Director of Planning and Public Spaces, Alex Morrison.
Conversations with Morrison, Mayor Lester Miller and Gary Wheat with Visit Macon galvanized around the notion that pickleball was growing in popularity. To appeal to players on the professional level, Macon could get in early on building an indoor facility, and with the amount of square feet available, there was an opportunity to build the largest indoor facility in the world.
The current design plans feature 32 total courts, with 16 courts on both the upper and lower levels of the former Belk department store. The nets are considered high scale temporary nets, so that the layout of the facility can have maximum flexibility. There will also be a pickleball pro shop, locker room facilities and flooring that is identical to the courts that pickleballers play on in an outdoor setting. This facility will have the ability to host pro-level tournaments, drawing in hundreds of thousands of registrants each year.
Morrison puts it this way: “Once you start putting it in people’s minds that Macon has this facility that can host tournaments year-round, in air-conditioned space, people are going to come from miles around to play here.”
Currently, cancellations and delays for poor weather are common during tournaments. “People will understand that if you register for a tournament in Macon, even if it starts outdoors, you’re going to get to play the full weekend because this indoor facility that is weatherproof and outfitted for pickleball,” Morrison noted. “Then bigger tournaments come, more sales for other stores and restaurants come. When we are using the Eisenhower corridor in a new way, it will really start breeding economic opportunity for people in that district.”
The Macon Mall was once remembered as a central hub for people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds to get together, have fun and make memories. Pickleball advocates like Morrison aim to rejuvenate that area by connecting people back to that original purpose.
“It’s really been a pleasure to see how much Macon Pickleball has been a unifier of a lot of different groups. In the time I’ve been playing and watching, you’ve started to see more people of all different ages, abilities, racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds all sharing the courts. I think that pickleball is one of those few activities that no matter who you are, you can enjoy this sport. And we hope the pivotal mall project can be an invitation even further outside the state to show that Macon really is something special,” Morrison said.
He’s not the only one who thinks pickleball is truly for all. Andrea Lee, supervisor of the Elaine H. Lucas Senior Center, decided to introduce her constituents to the game in June of 2021. Lee, with the help of Midkiff, began a beginners pickleball class for seniors twice a week for six weeks. At the end of the session, 40 seniors attended their pickleball “graduation,” where the participants all got medals and played in a tournament. The session was so popular that they begged to bring it back, and this time there were nearly double the number of attendees. For Lee, it’s not just about being physically healthy, it’s about making connections and being engaged in something that will truly benefit the soul.
Many of the Elaine H. Lucas Senior Center pickleball players fell in love with the game, and one can now find them playing regularly at Tattnall Square Park. “That was my ultimate goal,” Lee stated. “I’m trying to change the cultural norms and bridge the gap of different demographics with this sport. I am trying to break the race barriers.”
Sports like tennis, golf, baseball and softball are normally perceived as having a majority Caucasian participation. Meanwhile, football, basketball, track and field are seen as sports with a majority African American participation. Lee sees pickleball as a bridge between a younger generation to older generations, as well as with Caucasian and African American people, making pickleball an “all us” sport. Macon Pickleball makes inclusion its main objective by not only hosting the seniors’ classes, but by creating an adaptive pickleball program for those with special needs, participating in a camp with children at Jay’s Hope, taping a temporary court in the middle of the street during Open Streets and hosting a tournament with proceeds going to help the Brookdale Resource Center.
One of the original Senior Center pickleball graduates was Rudy Mendes. The passion Rudy had for the sport was something he aspired to share with communities who hadn’t yet caught on. Mendes quickly became a USA Pickleball Ambassador for the state of Georgia.
“My wife and I started traveling to tournaments and watching a lot of pickleball, and one thing we noticed was that we didn’t see a lot of people of color,” Mendes shared. “I thought, wow! This is such a great game, I think more people in my community would love the opportunity to play.”
From there, Mendes made it his goal to share and teach the game in neighborhoods across Macon, especially Black-led communities. Mendes has hosted pickleball games in the street during community festivals in Pleasant Hill, taught the game to campers at Union Baptist Church and held a summer camp at the Tubman Museum for kids to join in on the fun. Mendes brings his teaching partner, a puppet, for a fun and catchy way to teach the game to youth and break the ice.
There are reasons why pickleball is uniquely enjoyable for a wide range of ages. The simple structure of the game makes it notably easy to learn. It is a sport that can keep people active without overexerting – the matches are entertaining for hours without getting winded. Compared to tennis, it’s easier on the joints and the equipment is more financially accessible because of its durability.
Most importantly, it seems, players have fun. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Pickleball has created an extremely welcoming environment where anyone can join in and enjoy themselves, meet new people and laugh until their face muscles hurt.
“I’ve never spent time on a pickleball court without hearing uncontrollable laughter at some point while playing,” Midkiff chuckled. “It’s really the great unifier among people. I’ve met some of my greatest friends that I would have never known had I not played pickleball, and I’m thankful for what this game has gifted me.”
If you are interested in learning how to play pickleball or want to know about pickleball events coming up, contact Paul Midkiff:
Facebook: Macon Pickleball
Pickleball’s impact is a pretty big dill – and growing!
By Nora Jorgensen
Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America, and its popularity has become a draw for new visitors, leaving a positive economic impact on Macon. Ann Starley, sports development manager for Visit Macon, commented: “When anybody comes here, whether they put gas in their car, pick up fast food, go shopping, eat downtown – it has an economic impact to our community.”
In the coming years, Macon Pickleball is expected to have an even larger footprint for the city, as the group expands to more tournaments and a new facility becomes available at the Macon Mall. This year, Macon Pickleball is hosting seven tournaments, with four still to come. While the number of participants in the past range from 150 to 400, the tourism bureau expects this number to increase drastically. Visit Macon estimates that the total economic impact of all 2022 Pickleball tournaments will be $391,976, which continues major year-over-year increases. “So as long as they keep adding tournaments, as the Georgia Pickleball Association keeps sanctioning tournaments, the economic impact is going to continue to grow for the sport,” Starley concluded.
While Macon tournaments attract local players, there are more out-of-town visitors as Macon Pickleball grows a bigger name for itself. The Macon Area Habitat for Humanity HomeCourt Tournament is expected to become an official Georgia Pickleball Association sanctioned event for 2022, and Macon was also reelected to hold the Georgia Recreation & Parks Association State Championship after a successful first time hosting the championship in 2021.
Macon also expects a spike in visitors because it is building the largest indoor pickleball facility in the world next year. Steven Fulbright, vice president of sales and services for Visit Macon, explained that while the funding mechanisms are complicated, Macon-Bibb County’s government supports using the former Macon Mall site for a state-of-the-art pickleball center, and the Urban Development Authority has issued revenue bonds to fund the facility. Fulbright believes they “will be able to recoup those funds very quickly by having tournaments and the people renting the space and things of that nature.”
Is it surprising that Macon has become such a hotspot for pickleball? Starley believes “it has everything to do with the community itself…. and how supportive and how passionate they are about the sport.” Paul Midkiff has greatly helped in growing Macon Pickleball’s presence locally and statewide. Fulbright noted that Macon had an advantage because it was able to convert Tattnall Square Park into pickleball courts and had the infrastructure and resources to facilitate hosting pickleball events. Come check out one of the upcoming tournaments — they are open to the public!