On a trip to Naples, Florida in 2015, Michael Wertz’s son introduced him to pickleball, a wildly popular sport that’s a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Since it’s easy to learn, Wertz enjoyed playing from the start and then took it a step further.
As a board member of the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, with a dad suffering from Parkinson’s, Wertz was curious to see if there could be a connection between the sport and the disease. He discovered that people with Parkinson’s who regularly played pickleball were suppressing symptoms and feeling better. That made sense, says Wertz, since exercise is a key component in managing the disease. And because pickleball is both social and addictive, it leads to frequent play.
Wertz, a South Hills resident and owner of Apple Box Studios, then suggested to the foundation‘s board that they figure out some way to tie into the growing sport. In 2016, they held the first pickleball tournament in Pittsburgh which attracted about 200 players. In the second year it more than doubled and growth continued year after year.
After pandemic-related setbacks, the Gamma Pickleball Classic will return for the sixth time to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Aug. 5-7 with more than 1,000 players from across the country participating. Gamma Sports, a tennis and pickleball gear company based in Pittsburgh, took over the tournament from the foundation in 2019.
Some of the best players in the country will compete for $30,000 in cash prizes in the sport that is named after the “pickle boat” — the last boat to finish a race in the sport of rowing. Pickleball is considered by many to be the fastest-growing sport in the country. For good reason, says Wertz, who ticks off several: It’s easy to learn and social — most games are doubles — and with a smaller court than tennis, there’s not as much running so it’s easier on the body.
“It’s a game of strategy and agility over speed and strength,” says Wertz. “A smart person can beat a player who’s more powerful.”
It made sense for Gamma Sports to take over the evolving tournament, now one of the largest indoor competitions in the country. The company that is headquartered on Washington’s Landing initially made tennis equipment. Five years ago, Gamma launched a pickleball line which now accounts for a quarter of its revenue and continues to grow.
The tournament is a marketing opportunity for us, says Josh Taylor-Martin, who heads up marketing for Gamma Sports and says the company is number five in the country for pickleball gear. “But the bigger opportunity for pickleball in Pittsburgh is the emphasis we can bring to our event and at the same time help the Parkinson’s Foundation. Two noble efforts.”
There is no other pickleball brand that runs a tournament like this, he adds, rattling off an alphabet soup of competitions including PPA, APP and USAPA. Most are held outside of cities where land is more abundant. This one is not only indoors but it’s also Downtown — a rarity.
“So players and visitors can eat at a restaurant or go to the Warhol. They get to know us as a city,” he says.
On Friday night of the tournament weekend, Gamma Sports will host a group including the pros, referees and sightseeing committee at PNC Park. They’ll feature a cookie table and charge one dollar per cookie with all proceeds going to the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.
The foundation aims to make pickleball the official sport of the Parkinson’s community.
“Any sport is beneficial to those with Parkinson’s but the competition and camaraderie of pickleball make it attractive to those struggling to stay on a steady exercise routine,” says the foundation’s website. “Many play religiously as therapy, to suppress symptoms, allowing them to play long after they are diagnosed.”
While the pickleball tournament will attract new folks to Pittsburgh and act as an economic driver and sightseeing vehicle, a big benefit is the health aspect. “Keep people active and keep people moving,” says Taylor-Martin. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Though the sport came out 50 years ago in the state of Washington as a family game and caught on in recent years with the senior set, it’s now taking off with youth.
“My son just started a league in Greensboro, North Carolina,” says Wertz, who notes that Robert Morris University just started a league as well. “The great thing about pickleball — even though it’s a game of finesse — is that it’s a high-speed game and it’s very addictive in the sense that it takes good reactive skills. It can move really fast.”
And don’t miss this Doors Open Pittsburgh tour of the Gamma Sports facilities on Saturday, August 13, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.