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Pickleball growth is sweet for those who love the sport

 Pickleball players at Courtside Kitchen in Fort Worth.
Courtside Kitchen
Pickleball players at Courtside Kitchen in Fort Worth.

Former BNSF Railway CEO Matt Rose has a new passion project far removed from his days leading one of the country’s largest railroads.

It’s pickleball, the nation’s fastest-growing sport. Rose is a partner in the recently opened Grapevine location of Chicken N Pickle, an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex that offers pickleball and other games along with a restaurant and bar.

The former rail executive said Chicken N Pickle founder Dave Johnson is a friend from college.

“He called me and said he was looking for locations down here, and I thought we should have one in Tarrant County,” Rose said.

The Grapevine Chicken N Pickle is the seventh to open and the largest, sitting on six acres, Rose said. Along with pickleball, the site offers games like cornhole and jenga.

Kansas City-based Chicken N Picklehas opened several locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in Grand Prairie, Allen and Grapevine.

 Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate, center, cuts the ribbon held by Matt Rose at the opening of Chicken N Pickle in Grapevine.
Chicken N Pickle
Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate, center, cuts the ribbon held by Matt Rose at the opening of Chicken N Pickle in Grapevine.

“There are places to eat, to drink and games for kids,” said Rose. “It’s a place to hang out.”

The reason is pretty simple: pickleball is hot. It’s the fastest-growing sport in the country, according to statistics from the Association of Pickleball Professionals. The association’s 2023 Pickleball Participation Reportsays that 36.5 million Americans played pickleball at least once between August 2021 and August 2022. That’s up from 5 million in 2021, though that was coming off a pandemic year, according to the APP.

One of those who has picked up a pickleball racquet is Sue Latterell, a Keller resident who started playing in 2021 during a trip to Miami.

“I enjoyed it and it’s one thing that my husband and I can do together,” she said. “It’s easy to pick up and it seems to attract all ages. Unlike a lot of sports, I can play with 20-year-olds and the next game I’m playing people my age or older.”

Latterell usually plays near her home, but has also taken her racquet to several area courts that have popped up in northeast Tarrant County.

“It’s a great sport for meeting people,” she said.

Aside from attracting new players and fans, the sport is attracting business, too. Pickleball can be as much of a social activity as a sport, so several combination restaurant/bar/pickleball courts have opened recently in Tarrant County. The sport is attracting sponsors and celebrities, too.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, Lebron James, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Gary Vee and others are pouring money into the sport.

Brands like Chase, Hertz, Michalob, Miller Lite and Sketchers have backed pickleball at varying sponsorship levels. The sport is also showing up on screen. The Association of Pickleball Professionals has an agreement with CBS and ESPN to broadcast more pickleball tournaments.

The sport traces its origins to Washington state in 1965 when a congressman and a businessman were looking to play badminton, but could only find table tennis balls and paddles. There is some controversy surrounding the name of the sport. According to Pickleball.com, there are two theories. One is that it was named after the family dog, a cockapoo, of one of the sport’s originators. The other is that it’s named after the mashup of rowers in a boat who didn’t make the first team, known as the pickle boat.

Whether of nautical or canine origins, the sport has seen phenomenal growth in the past decade. The United States Amateur Pickleball Association has grown from 10,000 members in 2015 to more than 53,000 today.

Several municipalities have either added pickleball courts or have converted tennis courts to accommodate the sport’s growth. Southlake City Council in June 2022 authorized the construction of a $3.4 million pickleball complex at Bicentennial Park.

Another person who was attracted by the social aspect of the game was Matt L. Johnson, an entrepreneur and owner of the Holiday auto dealerships in Whitesboro and Graham. He became a pickleball fan when he was looking for something for his family to do during the pandemic. After playing with the family, he decided to invest in the game by opening Courtside Kitchen, in the space formerly occupied by the Mopac Event Center at 1615 Rogers Road, near University Drive and Interstate 30.

“At first, we were going to do just pickleball courts and then we decided we needed to add food and drinks,” he said.

Johnson partnered with Christian Lehrmann, an executive chef who has worked atTinie’s Mexican Cuisine, for the project.

Johnson already owned the Mopac Event Center. Events like weddings, receptions and other social events were winding down because of the pandemic. So Johnson measured the site and saw he could have nine pickleball courts on the site.

Courtside Kitchen opened in the summer of 2021 just as pickleball was rallying following the pandemic. The name is sort of a pun, at least to seasoned pickleball players. “Kitchen” is slangfor a non-volley zone on a pickleball court.

They have been busy since opening, Johnson said.

“We were the first or at least one of the first in the area that combined pickleball with food,” he said. “And we’re a full service restaurant. Since this is such a social game, it goes together with a restaurant setting very well.”

Johnson said he is looking at other locations to open a Courtside Kitchen.

Coming this summer at 6635 N.E. Loop 820 in North Richland Hills will be an “eatertainment” concept from Volli Entertainment.

 Rendering of Volli Entertainment’s North Richland Hills pickleball facility.
Volli Entertainment
Rendering of Volli Entertainment’s North Richland Hills pickleball facility.

John Oldham, chief operating officer for the South Carolina-based company, said the facility will offer pickleball, darts and food options in the location’s 63,000 square feet. Along with the seven indoor pickleball courts, Volli Entertainment will have dats, golf simulators, shuffleboard, minigolf, cornhole and an adventure park.

“Pickleball has proven to be popular with families and our concept fits into that,” he said.

For players like Latterell, the growth in the sport means that more courts will be available.

“As long as the number of courts keeps up with the number of players, I’ll be happy,” she said.

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bob Francis | Fort Worth Report