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World’s Largest Indoor Pickleball Facility Opens in Macon

February 19, 2024

December 21, 2023 4:09 PM By: Josephine Bennett

It’s Dec. 16 and the parking lot of the Macon Mall has not been this full for years. But it’s not because of holiday shoppers — people have come from as far away as Wisconsin for Southern Pickleball’s Candy Cane Classic.

They’ve also come to play in the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility.

John Roberts was recently hired to manage the new facility, called Rhythm and Rally.

“You know, 650 players are here, and it stretches the gamut of certainly the Southeast,” Roberts said. “But we probably have 30 to 40 of that number that are your quintessential snowbirds on their way south.”

Inside the mall, competitors battle it out on 32 courts covering two floors of an old Belk department store. The pickleball facility is just part of an overall plan to bring new life to an old mall and establish the city as a destination for the growing sport.

When the Macon Mall opened in 1975, it was a million square feet — at the time, the largest in Georgia. But years later, as indoor malls fell out of favor, Macon’s development shifted to the northern suburbs and most retailers moved out, hurting an already struggling neighborhood.

Alex Morrison is the Executive Director of the Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority as well as Director of Planning and Public Spaces.

“For an entire generation of Americans, the mall was their town center,” he said. “That was their downtown.”

And that was bad for downtown Macon where storefronts stood empty, and many buildings fell into disrepair. But in recent years, Macon’s downtown has experienced a massive resurgence with hundreds of new lofts, restaurants, and retail stores.

“Now it’s shifted back the other way,” Morrison said. “But this [mall] infrastructure is still here,”

Pickleball is just part of an overall plan to transform the mall property and, ultimately, the neighborhood. The city is also putting government offices in vacant storefronts and opening a new 12,000-seat amphitheater in the spring where it’s already booked bands like ZZ Top and country singer Jason Aldean.

The pickleball facility also plays into Macon’s passion for pickleball, a sport that’s been growing thanks to the conversion of a large outdoor tennis facility in 2017.

On a warm November night, all 26 pickleball courts in Tattnall Park teemed with players including Jill Vanderhoek, who’s only been playing for two years but is already taking home gold medals.  She said the city’s investment in pickleball infrastructure made that possible.

“It’s really built something special between the access of being able just to pick up the sport,” she said.

“Being able to come out and learn and get better, and then the courts — like, we have real courts. You don’t necessarily see that sort of investment in other places.”

There are now more than 70 public courts in the city. Low fees to play make pickleball accessible there.

The sport also has cheerleaders like Paul Midkiff, the president of the Macon Pickleball Association. Considered one of the fathers of Macon’s pickleball scene, he started playing in 2017. The former Catholic high school teacher now spreads the gospel of pickleball at Tattnall Park, where he teaches Pickleball 101 to those just starting out.

“I was the tennis player that didn’t want to play pickleball,” Midkiff said. “Thought it was kind of beneath me. But got on the court, played for about 2.5 hours, went home, took a shower, went to Dick’s Sporting Goods, bought two paddles and some balls because I wanted to play the next day and I wanted to teach it to my friends.”

When Midkiff said first took up the sport, the players he met were mostly retirees. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, pickleball exploded in popularity as people looked for opportunities to go outside and many younger players picked up rackets.

“I think if we went back and look at the demographics 20 years ago, the average age of a pickleball player is in the low 30s,” Midkiff said, “and it’s dropping dramatically.”

According to USA Pickleball, it’s the fastest growing sport in the nation. There are thousands of courts and even pickleball franchises dotting every state, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing.

For John Roberts who runs Rhythm and Rally at the mall, Macon’s all-in approach to the sport could put  the city on the map just like The Masters ournament did to another Georgia town.

“It’s been our ambition — and it’s one that I think is now legitimately in our grasp — to make pickleball to Macon what golf is to Augusta and have this be the premier pickleball location,” Roberts said, “at least in the Southeast of the United States … if not the country.”

This “go big or go home” approach is reflected in the number of courts in the city.  And at the rate people are playing pickleball in Macon, it could just get there.

This story comes to Choosemacon.com through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.” Originally reported by Josephine Bennett with GPB News.  gpb.org/news.

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