Once patient expectations for the game of pickleball in Naples turned into an accelerated path to becoming the hotspot destination for the biggest event in the sport.
The inaugural US Open Pickleball Championships were a huge hit in 2016.
So much so that a three- to five-year plan was surpassed in the event’s first year.
And as the first-ever title sponsor of the booming event, Minto Communities recently signed a multi-year contract to keep the US Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, maintaining pickleball’s place in paradise for years to come.
“We were hoping to hit the home run, but we hit the grand slam,” noted Terri Graham, the founder and President of the US Open Championships, blown away by the outpouring of community support and worldwide participation last April.
Graham and her colleagues envisioned great things for Naples when it came to hosting the US Open at renovated East Naples Community Park.
“The 2016 event exceeded all of our expectations, from a participation to a spectator standpoint to a sponsor standpoint. I can’t think of another sport that has such a wide range of ages and everybody can be competitive, so I only see this getting larger and larger,” she said of arguably the fastest growing sport in the nation.
The numbers were off the charts for a first-year spectacle. Over 800 people from around the world competed in the five-day tournament, making it the largest pickleball tournament ever, and 10-12,000 spectators filled the stands despite the scorching temperatures that shone down on the brand new pickleball headquarters.
The local community, according to an estimate surveyed by the Collier County Visitors Bureau, brought in approximately $2.5 million in revenue.
“After this first year people are talking about Naples and pickleball. It’s not just a five-day event anymore; people are planning their trip for this event,” Graham insisted. “It’s a destination. That’s what will happen now going forward.”
What Graham says are the best courts in the country, a park facility that houses more courts in one place than anywhere else, East Naples Community Park will follow up the 2016 US Open with its 2017 version, which will take place from April 23-30.
Graham said keeping the event here in Naples was a priority, all made possible by Collier County’s willingness and continued efforts to provide the best in all aspects.
“For us to be associated with Naples and with Collier County, that gives us a great sense of pride. They brought us in when it [US Open] didn’t exist, and we had a three-year plan, and luckily we hit past that in the first year. The success had a lot to do with the community and volunteers, and then obviously Minto helped us to bring the other stuff to the event we didn’t think we’d be able to in year one.”
While Graham indicated that other locations have tried to lure the US Open to their respective locale, she credited Naples as paradise, claiming that there’s no better place for pickleball. Participants agreed, 87 percent of which gave the East Naples Community Park facility an extremely satisfied score.
With Naples’ Minto Group Inc. remaining in the mix for the growing future, everything is taking shape for an even better event to take place in 2017 and beyond, considering the company’s allegiance to the US Open Championships.
“The relationship is a perfect marriage. Their target audience is over 55 and in pickleball 68 percent of players are over 55 years old,” Graham valued. “So what we’re doing with them is promoting pickleball to those people that want to stay active. That’s what they’re building; they’re building active communities.”
Preparing for next year’s tournament has been an engaging, all hands on deck process in its own right, and Graham’s expectations are no longer limited.
“One of the things we’re doing is increasing the prize money for pros. We are working with the county to improve the park, and they’re planning on investing even more into East Naples Park. We anticipate having 20 percent more participants and spectators, so the key will be to have plenty of food and beverages.”
All roads point to pickleball being an even bigger hit in Naples in 2017.
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