Pickleball becomes a hit in Montana with opening of Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork, Montana
By DAVID REESE/Montana Living
People are flocking to the sport in droves, attracted by its simplicity, strategic challenge and exercise.
And now the Flathead Valley has its own “pickleball” facility.
Yes, the name is at once catchy and strange, but pickleball is taking off around the country, and with the construction of the Jewel Basin Event Center in Bigfork, Montana, locals and visitors will have a chance to try the sport for themselves and see why pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in America.
The event center, near the intersection of Montana 82 and Montana 35 just north of downtown Bigfork, will be the home of the Two Rivers Pickleball Club. The center has six outdoor courts and four indoor courts, plus club facilities and an event and conference center.
The center is perfect for not just pickleball, but also musical events, conferences and weddings, according to club co-founder Jim Lafferty, who brought the idea for a local pickleball club to the Flathead Valley.
As an event or conference center, the Jewel Basin Event Center seats 800 people indoors and also has an outdoor stage area for musical events.
The center is looking for June 1 opening. “That’s a bit of a race but I think we’ll pull it off,” Lafferty said.
Lafferty and his wife moved to Bigfork from Texas to retire, and Lafferty wanted to bring the pickleball club atmosphere to Bigfork. “That passion for the sport is what drove us to do something in Montana,” Lafferty said. “We wanted to build a center and let the sport take off with it.”
Lafferty and his wife belonged to a pickleball club in Texas that had over 600 members. The Bigfork club has already sold nearly 200 memberships. “Pickleball and the club became a part of our life,” Lafferty said. “We wanted to share the idea of what a club is all about for pickleball players. That passion is what drove the idea.”
The Jewel Basin Event Center allows for sanctioned events for up to 250 players, and the Bigfork center will have its first tournament July 16-18, 2021.
But what, exactly, is pickleball?
Well, it’s a sport that, Lafferty said, combines aspects of tennis with badminton and table tennis. A pickleball court is just 20 feet wide and 44 feet long.
Pickleball is taking off among Baby Boomers who are looking for a sport that is fun and easy on the body. The sport is played in singles or doubles, but it’s mainly a doubles game, as “it’s tough to cover the court in singles,” Lafferty, a professional pickleball instructor, said.
The sport is played with a three-inch diameter ball with holes in it, a short-handled paddle on a court with a net. “It’s like ping-pong standing on a table,” Lafferty said.
A fast-paced, strategic game, pickleball is seeing converts from tennis, which, as a player ages, can be tough on the knees. Lafferty is a lifelong United States Tennis Association (USTA) player who made the change to a kinder, gentler sport. “I wasn’t mobile enough to keep that going,” he said. “After playing pickleball it didn’t take long for me to dump all my racquets from tennis and I never looked back.”
Keith Ori, a partner in the Jewel Basin Event Center and an avid pickleball player, puts it this way: Pickleball may be the most social and most competitive sport that my wife, Sue, and I have ever taken part in. Playing is addictive and it is hard to leave the court after playing nearly 2 hours because of the competition, camaraderie and social aspects of the game.”
Communities are now converting some of their old tennis courts into pickleball courts, Ori said. “Cities and counties are spending their money wisely on the renovation of courts due to these growing numbers, because they recognize the health and wellness benefits that seniors are getting by keeping active.”
Last year the United States had about 4.25 million registered players and grew over 20 percent, Lafferty said.
“It’s been driven in the last decade by the Baby Boomer crowd wanting to stay active and healthy,” he said. “With pickleball they still get out and enjoy a recreational sport. You don’t have to be a super athlete to get really good at the sport. Older folks can get a lot of exercise, have fun and they can get really good at it.”
The sport is popular with people who like to travel, and Bigfork is the first domestic location for this year’s itinerary on pickleballtrips.com, a booking company that schedules tours around the world. The Bigfork stop was so popular, Lafferty said, that it sold out in three days and the travel company has since added two more trips to Bigfork this year.
Pickleball dates back about 60 years to the Seattle area where it got its start. The name’s origin is debatable, with some people saying it’s derived from the name of the Cocker Spaniel that the sport’s founders named it after. Others say pickleball came from the name of the “pickle” rowing crew members — the second string of rowers. “It’s an incredible sport with a funny name,” Lafferty said. “I’ve never met anyone who has tried it and said it’s not for me. It makes people happy.”
Jim Lafferty is a pickleball teaching professional and one of the founders of the Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork, Montana.