A Case For the Club

I've never been one for the country club scene. I’m just not a country club kinda guy I suppose. I wasn’t raised as a country club kid and the very notion of exclusivity and shelling out obscene amounts of cash for the privilege never quite sat right with my frugal nature, which I of course pass off as “down-to-earth” sensibilities. 

This hasn’t always been the case, I used to see the merits of a club membership. In my 20’s I played a ton of golf, just about every weekend you would find me out on the course. I would tell everyone how much I loved the game. I was seriously considering joining a club. But then my girlfriend broke up with me I immediately stopped playing. It turned out I didn’t actually love golf, I just hated spending time with her. Golf wasn’t my passion, it was just an excuse.  

Fast forward thirty years and pickleball is my new obsession. I love it. For real this time, it’s no excuse. I discovered the sport shortly before Covid. At first I dismissed it wholeheartedly. Even when my kids wanted to go hit the ball, I was reluctant to play the game. It sounded so stupid, “pickleball?” Really? With its annoying sound, tiny little court, archaic looking paddles, not to mention the only people I knew who played were a generation my senior. I had very little interest. 

I might have never given it a shot had it required me to fork over a bunch of money like I had done years before with golf. But fortunately, pickleball presented me with a zero-spend opportunity to kick the tires. I was invited out to a local park to play with a friend. He met me there with his new Selkirk bag which had a couple of paddles in it. He was generous enough to lend me one, which just so happened to be an Onix Z5. The park had permanent lines and a portable net. My friend was relatively new to the sport so it struck me as odd he had multiple paddles and this awkward, red bag made specifically for pickleball. 

The outing was great, we had fun, and we met some nice people. We played a few more times after that and before I knew it, I was digging pickleball. Who knew? Next step was to buy my own paddle. 

Buying the first

I knew nothing about paddles so I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods and looked at the options. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who knew nothing about paddles, the associate at Dick’s who was assisting me with my purchase also knew nothing about pickleball paddles. This was 2020, so there weren’t even that many to choose from. I wasn’t prepared to spend $150+ on this silly game just yet. At the same time I didn’t want to be perceived as the cheap guy with the wooden paddle. So with my options limited, I did what countless others have done before me, I purchased the only paddle I had ever played with, the Onix Z5. 

The Z5 became my first paddle, a distinction the paddle has for thousands of players who started playing this sport during the Covid years. The paddle only cost me $70, but it made me feel like I was officially a pickleball player, priceless. Owning your own paddle is definitely something you have to do in order to call yourself a pickleball player. I’m not sure of the equation but there is certainly a correlation between how many paddles you own and how obsessed you are with the game. 

“Hello, my name is Jason and I own dozens of paddles.” 

See, as you improve, you pay attention to what paddle other people are playing. The better they are, in some illogical recesses of our brains, the more we attribute their shotmaking success to the paddle they are playing. 

So you enquire about the paddle and they always tell you ‘how amazing it is’ and ‘how much they love it.’ This sport is filled with evangelists. 

You extend your hand and ask if you can hold it. They nod and place it carefully in your hand as if they are handing over their newborn baby. It feels amazing, it feels so much better than your Z5. It’s got a gritty, carbon fiber face, the handle has overgrip, and there’s tape over the edge guard. Your friend proceeds to explain this tape is there to protect the actual edge guard, which is there to protect the edge. This seems redundant, but you don’t want to sound naive so you move on and ask to hit a few balls. You exchange paddles, tossing him your Z5 with the same care you might toss someone a broken golf tee. With the first dink it feels like you’re playing a different sport, you immediately fall in love with this paddle. Even though it has only been a few weeks, this will be the last time you play with your Z5. 

You know damn well that it’s not the paddle that makes your friend a better player than you, it’s the hours of drilling he does. But you also know that drilling is boring, so you order this exact paddle the second you get home. 

When your new paddle arrives, you realize you are now the proud owner of multiple pickleball paddles and you’ll need a bag. A few minutes later an order is placed and a bag is on the way. At this point you believe you are fully invested in pickleball. However, you are wrong, you are just getting started. 

Because next it’s the shoes, eye protection, overgrips, edge tape, lead tape, water bottle, hat, and anything else you are served on social media that might make you play better. The spending seal has been broken and only now are you actually all in on pickleball. 

This was me. But going back to my hesitancy to spending money, there was a line I was not willing to cross. Paying for a club membership. 

Fee to Play

I really believe that one of the beauties of this game was how accessible it is. The fact I could go out to the public park and play for free was part of the allure that got me out there in the first place. Why would I spend money to play at a private club when the local park has everything I could ever want? It was part of the reason I could justify spending money on paddles (and bags, shoes, glasses, etc…)

But things change. The popularity of the game has exploded and no longer can I simply head down to the public park and expect to get a court. Open play is still taking place, but as my game has improved, the level of play at the park hasn’t. New players discover the sport every day, and while that is fantastic and I was once one of those players, it doesn’t make for competitive games. 

It became more challenging to find competitive games and available courts to host them. I live in Atlanta and a few private facilities have been built to help accommodate this demand, with many more being built to meet the exponential growth of this sport. 

Weather or not

I was still hesitant to join a club, not just because of the fees, but I had romanticized the idea of open play and didn’t want to turn my back on that aspect of the game. But as winter rolled around and the crisp autumn days turned to rainy, cold ones, I saw more and more of my pickleball crew take the leap and join a club. Ace Pickleball was a brand new, fourteen court, indoor facility about 20 minutes from my house without traffic. Factor in Atlanta traffic and if I were to go at the wrong time it could take me an hour to get there. It wasn’t exactly in the neighborhood.

But after a few cold mornings in the low 30’s and rain in the forecast, I knew if I wanted to play I was going to need to join a club somewhere. Lifetime Fitness was closer to my house, but there were only three courts and reserving a court was problematic. Atlanta Pickleball Center was a ten court indoor facility in midtown, but open play wasn’t their thing and being in town would mean more traffic to deal with.

I dropped in a few times to Ace, to see how I liked it before making any decision about membership. It immediately exceeded my expectations. Having a new facility like Ace attracted the best players from all over town, migrating there like moths to a flame. But not only was the talent there, which had been difficult to manifest at the public park, but the staff at Ace did a great job of segmenting players by level and making everyone feel like they were part of the community. 

We talk about community a lot in pickleball. The Kitchen is a community and we have seen how impactful it is to have a group of people that share a passion like we do for pickleball. It doesn’t mean we don’t have our differences, people come from all walks of life, political ideologies, and backgrounds, but the common denominator of pickleball is what keeps this community such a positive one. 

Membership has its Privileges 

With great trepidation, I decided to join Ace Pickleball. I told myself it would just be for the cold winter months, convincing myself this was merely a means to an end and I would return to my outdoor roots when Spring had sprung. 

I typically play in the mornings, starting my work day around 10 gives me a chance to play for 1.5-2 hours most mornings. Lucky for me, traffic flows in the opposite direction in the mornings, so there is little traffic to deal with and I can get to Ace in twenty minutes from my house. 

The first day, with the temperature hovering around freezing, I got there around 8am. I hadn’t done my research so I had no expectations in terms of level of play. But I was pleasantly surprised to see some familiar faces, some new faces, and some excellent quality of play. I play at a 4.5-5.0 level, so finding competitive games typically requires some planning. But that morning I played some high level, really competitive games for a couple of hours straight.

It was nice to play with new players, see new styles, and discover some good players I didn’t know were in town. I went back the next day. And the next. And the next. 

The weather was cold, but without a viable indoor option, I would have found a way to make it work outside. But now, with a warm and dry Ace only 20 minutes away and some of the best competition in town, I found myself there each morning. But it really didn’t matter what time I showed up. Some days it was in the afternoon or mid morning, there was always a decent crown and always quality play. 

In the short 6 or so weeks that I have been a member, I have met dozens of players who I have played with and against and exchanged numbers. Many of my crew from the public park have migrated over as well. 

Hundreds of people walk through the doors each day, all there to get their fix of pickleball. But what I noticed last week and what prompted me to write this, was the amount of joy I saw at Ace. It is not often you see so many people, with a diverse mix of ages and races and socioeconomic backgrounds all participating together. Every single one of them are so freaking happy. I made it a point to just look around and take in what I was witnessing. I canvassed the expansive room, there was laughter, cheering, high fives, and paddle taps proliferating about. 

When I look back at the public park, while it was an amazing entry into the sport, it wasn’t like this. Ace feels like an evolution. As much as pickleball brings people together, this club has amplified the euphoria that comes with great pickleball. 

Becoming a member of a private club is a commitment to the sport, and perhaps that is why it feels so different from the play at the public park, where some people are new or still figuring the game out.  Regardless of the reason, there is no doubt that a difference exists. 

OMG

I’m not a religious person, but pickleball has done for me what I believe religion does for many people. It has provided me with a community of people who share a passion. It has provided me with a routine, and something to look forward to each day. It has become an important part of my life, surrounded by good people I now call friends, it makes me healthier, and certainly happier. 

As more and more of these clubs open up around the country, (and there are plenty coming) I believe we will see players find their way to this version of the game, an inside, climate controlled, always accessible, and community driven experience. 

My overall experience has been overwhelmingly positive. There are only two negatives I have experienced thus far. One is the wait times during busy hours, which really hasn’t been too bad, certainly no worse than at the public park. The second negative (and I’m not even sure this is really a negative) is I tend to lose track of time. Much like walking into a casino, I can play for three hours and not even realize it. I have seen people play for six or seven hours. Which is awesome, but also a little concerning. Getting into a rhythm and playing competitive games can really take hold of you and the mantra of “one more game” proves pertinent, this game is very hard to walk away from. 

As someone who was skeptical about the club experience, I have to admit, I was absolutely wrong. My routine has taken hold, my game is improving, my social network is expanding, and everyone I interact with is having so much fun. 

To think we are just in the infancy of the club experience is exciting. I can’t wait to see where these clubs can go with personal training, education, clinics, lessons, tournaments, mixers, ladders, round robins, food, drinks, and whatever else they can dream up to make our pickleball journey even greater. 

Now, off to play some pickleball. See you at the club. 

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