GroupWorks Club Spotlight: Kearney Pickleball Club

About 10 years ago, Jim Hopkins was visiting Arizona when he caught a pickleball game. To the public-utility retiree, the paddle sport with the funny name looked fun. There was just one problem: “When I came home to Kearney,” the Nebraskan says of his hometown, “nobody knew what I was talking about.”

That was then, this is now: Earlier this year, the city council of one Kearney, Nebraska, gave the go-ahead to a $212,000-plus plan to build dedicated pickleball courts at a local park. The move was both a nod to a sport’s rising popularity, and the power of group passion.

Hopkins, a GroupWorks member, is co-president of the Kearney Pickleball Club, established last December as a way to advocate and raise money for the city pickleball project. In little more than six months, the club has attracted about 80 members (annual dues: $15), and raised roughly $73,000 of its $112,000 goal for the new courts. (The city of Kearney has pledged to kick in the remaining $100,000 for the project.)

“When we first started playing in Kearney, we’d have four to six people,” Hopkins says. “It just kind of grew from there.”

The same goes for Hopkins’ involvement: He’d never belonged to a pickleball club before he helped run one.

“I got involved because I really like to play,” Hopkins says.

Like other pickleball fans, Hopkins was drawn to the game by the fun factor. “It’s lot easier than tennis; it’s not as hard on your body,” the 71-year-old says.

Invented by a Congressman from Washington state and two friends in 1965, and named after the representative’s family dog (or maybe not), pickleball is now played by 2.8 million people nationwide — and counting, according to a 2017 study conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. “Perhaps no organized sport since baseball, football and basketball matches pickleball’s seduction of so wide a swath of the population,” the New York Times noted in 2014.

Though it’s true the game appeals to all ages, it’s also true, per the trade-association study, that its most fervent devotees — those who play eight or more times a year — are adults aged 65 and older. Pickleball became a sport at the National Senior Games starting in 2013.

Compared to tennis, pickleball, played on a smaller court, and with a Whiffle-like plastic ball that requires less chasing after than a bouncy tennis ball, is, per Hopkins, “definitely a sport that somebody in their 70s can not compete against somebody in their 50s.”

When Hopkins first started playing in Kearney, he found action through Dave Waggoner, a local plumbing and heating specialist, who likewise had discovered the game in Arizona, and was so determined to bring it to Nebraska that he built an indoor court in his shop. Today, Waggoner is Hopkins’ fellow club co-president.

These days, members of the Kearney Pickeball Club meet for games every day of the week — and twice on Wednesdays. Hopkins credits GroupWorks with helping spur the club’s growth.

“I used to text everybody when we were going to play, but then that got to be burdensome,” Hopkins says. “Group-texting was never reliable. My text would drop two or three people.”

Now, with GroupWorks, Hopkins says, communication’s improved. On one end of the spectrum, club-wide announcements about, say, a potluck fundraiser are shared quickly and reliably; on the other end, club members, aware that GroupWorks is a private platform, are comfortable posting their phone numbers, allowing for impromptu game-scheduling.

The instructional videos shared through GroupWorks are an added bonus. “They’ve improved people’s games,” Hopkins says.

And now everybody knows what he’s talking about.