With pickleball taking Bakersfield by storm, it's no surprise that the town's best players would relish a new challenge.
On Saturday, 24 local players will face off against competitors from Santa Clarita for the Pickleball City Challenge, to be held at the new Greenacres Pickleplex. There, players will compete as pairs in two divisions according to their skill.
"Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America right now, and I'd venture to say it's the fastest-growing sport in Bakersfield," said Wayne Moore, city challenge event coordinator. "We all love pickleball. It's a fascinating sport. There's a social aspect to pickleball that's unique from other sports."
While it's too late to join the team in challenging Santa Clarita players, the public is encouraged to come out and cheer on the home team. There are bleachers outside the courts' fencing and plenty of room for chairs and blankets. After the challenge, players and spectators will stick around for a picnic.
"If people would like to come out and watch, that would be awesome," Moore said. "If you're interested in playing, there will be courts open the day of the event, so you can try it out if you've been thinking about it."
Pickleball is a cross between tennis, pingpong and badminton, typically played in singles or pairs on a court that's smaller than that used for tennis. Instead of a racquet to hit the tennis ball, pickleball players use a paddle to hit a wiffle ball. The sport was created back in the 1960s but in the last few years its popularity in Bakersfield has exploded.
The idea for a city league came about when a group of pickleball players from Bakersfield played against a group from Santa Clarita, Moore said. Those players decided to gather the best of the best from each of their cities and compete against each other.
The challenge is about a month in the making, with the local team finalized as of last week. There are already several pickleball groups in town, Moore said, with team members from each of those.
"What we're doing is combining and creating a group that represents the whole city," he said.
Players from each team will compete in two divisions: 4.0/4.5 and 3.0/3.5, on a rating system where 2.0 is beginner and 5.0 is advanced. In each division, each city has three women's pairs and three men's pairs. The upper division was decided by invitation, with the lower division decided by a recent qualifying tournament.
"If you're a sports fan ... it will be fun to watch," Moore said. "You have the chance to watch high-caliber players."
One of the reasons pickleball has caught on recently is because of its accessibility. Though it can be plenty competitive — as city challenge guests will no doubt see — it's lower impact than tennis, making it a sport just about anyone can get into. That's reflected in the local team, whose members range in age from mid-20s to mid-60s, Moore estimated.
"It's an eclectic group," Moore said of the Bakersfield team. "People from all walks of life ... teachers, doctors, professors, oil field workers."
The Greenacres Pickleplex has only been open for a little over a month, but the Bakersfield team has already made the courts its home.
"Yeah, absolutely," Moore said when asked if this gave the local team a home-court advantage. North of the River "has been very supportive and an advocate for Bakersfield pickleball. We play on those courts. We definitely have an advantage on that aspect."
Though Moore is an avid pickleball player himself, he will be sitting out this challenge to focus on overseeing it as event coordinator.
While they compete against each other, both teams will also have another battle to deal with that day.
"The heat is our biggest obstacle," Moore said, "but it's not going to be triple digits."
This might be the first city challenge but it likely won't be the last: Moore is already talking to players in Antelope Valley, Visalia, Fresno and Simi Valley about planning challenges against those cities. Those are still in early stages, though.
"As you play, you get to meet people from other cities," Moore said. "Pickleball has been around for a while but because it's now really taking off, we're inventing (the city challenges) as we go. ... The goal is to have another by the end of the year."
Moore doesn't yet know how or when new players will be able to join the city team for any future challenges, but he encourages anyone interested in the sport to just get out and play.
"Everybody can do it," Moore said. "You don't have to be a super athlete, you don't have to be a fast runner to play. It's fun socially. It's inexpensive as well. Just go to the park and give it a go."