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University Scores With Addition of Pickleball to Campus

By Whitney Rigdon

University of Mississippi

Ole Miss student Luke Stokes (right) returns a shot while playing pickleball with Austin Carle on the new courts behind the Turner Center at the University of Mississippi. The university converted three tennis courts into eight pickleball courts in time for the fall semester. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/ Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The University of Mississippi is serving up one of the country’s fastest-growing sports to students by building several pickleball courts and incorporating the sport into the recreation curriculum.

The university replaced three tennis courts behind the Turner Center with eight new pickleball courts. Ole Miss students, faculty and staff are already taking advantage of the additions. Students have formed a pickleball club and reserved the courts for tournaments, said Jason Shirkey, associate director of campus recreation.

“You’re seeing traffic pick up now, and as we get the word out there and information starts being passed on campus, it will take off, more people will start playing and it will start getting crowded,” Shirkey said. “The athletes are playing; the soccer team plays, some of the baseball guys are playing. It’s a pretty popular sports even with our athletes on campus.”

Interest in the sport – described as a cross between tennis, table tennis and badminton – has grown rapidly. Pickleball participation has increased by more than 158% nationwide since 2021, according to the Sports and Industry Fitness Association.

The sport’s accessibility is one of the main factors in the sudden surge of interest, said Allison Ford-Wade, interim chair of the Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management.

“It’s fairly easy for people of all skill levels to pick it up,” she said. “It’s really fun to play.”

More than a dose of fun, the game also provides a moderate workout that is comparable to a brisk walk, Ford-Wade said. Playing can increase bone density, reduce stress, and improve mental and physical health, she said.

“Even if you’re replacing going to the movies, this is much better for you,” Ford-Wade said. “It’s physical activity. It’s enjoyment.”

Worth DuPerier, a professional pickleball player from Oxford, pitched the idea of bringing the sport to campus to Shirkey and Chancellor Glenn Boyce last fall. Boyce immediately supported the idea, Shirkey said.

“I think he sees that it’s an up-and-coming sport, so he wanted to get moving on this,” Shirkey said.

The project cost about $61,000, with $40,000 coming from the Chancellor’s Office and $21,000 from the Department of Campus Recreation, he said.

Brandon Sukenik, a senior finance major from Dallas, founded the campus club and is serving as its president. Sukenik has played for about a year and thought it would be a perfect addition to campus life.

“It’s a good way to bring students together, not only to play but also to meet people and have a chance to connect,” he said. “It’s competitive, everybody can play and it’s just an even sport where everyone’s having fun. It’s not so daunting like other sports, where it’s a lot of physical labor.”

Eme Bryson, a criminal justice major from Madison, also pointed to the social aspect of the game.

“I got into pickleball over the summer and have started to really love it,” Bryson said. “It’s just really fun to play with friends and is great exercise. It’s a win-win.”

Students can play and learn more through a class offered by the Department of Health, Exercise Science, and Recreation Management. The sport is incorporated into EL 120: Intro to Lifetime Leisure Activities, but an official pickleball course is in the works for next fall.

The courts and coursework are timely additions to campus, Ford-Wade said. They offer “a way to increase physical activity but give students a menu of options to not only be physically active but to learn, in this case, a new sport,” she said.

Campus Rec plans to host a grand opening once the fence around the courts is painted and new windscreens are installed.

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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