A large group of Pickleball players pose for a photo on a pickleball court.
Pictured are members of Pickleball Lincoln in 2016. Courtesy of Bill Roehrs.

Less than six years ago, Lincoln didn’t have a single pickleball court.

Today, the city has 10 dedicated courts and an additional 10 dual-striped tennis courts where pickleball can be played. 

Lincoln, like the rest of the nation, is in the midst of a pickleball surge.

From 2019 to 2020, pickleball saw the most significant increase in participation in any U.S. sport, according to the 2021 Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report. In 2020, 4.2 million people played pickleball in the U.S., up 21.3% from 3.46 million in 2019, the report said.

The sport combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. Players use a paddle to hit a ball similar to a whiffle ball over a net on a court one-fourth the size of a tennis court.

But the surge is causing a stir with some of the city’s tennis players who have to share the courts. 

“Here, probably just in the last two years or so, we started to get a little bit of conflict developing there between pickleball users and tennis court users,” said J.J. Yost, planning and facilities manager for Lincoln Parks and Recreation. 

He said it isn’t a big problem yet. But tennis players who are used to having courts open whenever they want to play drop-in or pick-up tennis are starting to get displaced by the expansion of pickleball players.

“Now, they’re not necessarily always available for tennis because they are being used for pickleball,” Yost said. “So we kind of have our eye on that as a potential conflict that might be building just a bit.”

Omaha also is witnessing a pickleball boom. 

The city’s first pickleball tournaments in the fall of 2017 included between 60 and 75 players, said Shane Wampler, recreation supervisor with Omaha’s Park and Recreation Department.  Now, between 120 and 140 players are attending.

“There’s open play everywhere,” Wampler said. “There are leagues. There are tournaments. You know, over the last couple years, prize money is getting more and more prevalent, even at local tournaments. So it’s growing, and it’s trending. It’s trending younger.”

0ED1FB23 C462 4112 A74E A3EE47C979B3IMG 3163 300x225 - The rise of pickleball: Omaha and Lincoln witness the nationwide trend
Darcy McBride (left) and Cindy Jorgensen (right) go up to the net. The two women competed in the Nebraskaland Days Pickleball Tournament in North Platte this past summer.

Although the City of Lincoln’s Park and Recreation Department doesn’t offer any leagues yet, people can join various leagues and tournaments within the community, Yost said. And even with the creation of roughly 20 places to play pickleball, players want more courts.

“Quite honestly, there’s a lot of requests that come in for additional pickleball facilities across the park system,” he said. “Over the last two, three years, it’s taken off, and we’re hearing from all demographics about interest in additional parks or additional pickleball facilities.”

The Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department will embark on a citywide master planning project later this year to try to lay out a plan for developing additional pickleball and tennis court facilities over time in other park spaces, Yost said. 

“This really will be a chance for us to engage the community in the discussion to see what they want in terms of facilities,” he said. “And then help us start to identify what might be some funding sources to build those courts.”

The sport’s popularity has increased so much that former Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler founded the nonprofit organization Pickleball Lincoln five years ago.

“We will always be thankful for his vision to find a sport for senior citizens that would keep people in town, active and healthy,” said Bill Roehrs, the organization’s vice president. 

The organization began with 20 members and now has 785 members — and counting, Roehrs said.

“We’re always working with the parks department to find new places to play,” he said. “And so it’s one of these good problems to have. I would not be surprised if it continues like this. A year from now, if you and I visited, we would probably have over 1,000 members. It’s just going that direction.”

I'm a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln double-majoring in Journalism and Advertising with a minor in business. Throughout college I have held internships reporting for Nebraska Public Media and the Lincoln Journal Star.