James Hackenberg really relishes pickleball, and his love of the game will be evidenced by the Latitude 42 Pickleball Fever in the Zoo tournament July 14–16 at Ramona Park, in Portage.
Hackenberg, a 75-year-old Kalamazoo native, has been the tournament’s director since 2014.
He and his wife, Yvonne, are Pickleball Hall-of-Famers who have won various national tournaments. They started the Kalamazoo Pickleball Club and a nonprofit organization called Pickleball Outreach, which he says “has donated over $100,000 to local communities to build pickleball courts or enhance existing ones.”
“It’s a very easy game to learn,” Hackenberg says. “It’s also multigenerational. My 97-year-old mother-in-law still plays. We have pictures of her, my wife, our daughter and our granddaughter playing at the same time. That’s one of the beauties of it. The top players in the world right now are youngsters, and there are some former tennis players who played Davis Cup tennis moving to the game now. It’s just an exciting time to be a part of pickleball.”
Was your event the first pickleball tournament to be held locally?
There was a Kalamazoo tournament started by the first pickleball ambassadors in the Kalamazoo area, Melissa Muha and Bob Northrop. Bob unfortunately passed away due to complications from diabetes, and Melissa moved to Indianapolis, so we took over running the tournament. Initially, we called it the Bob Northrop Memorial Tournament, but over the years we started calling it Pickleball Fever in the Zoo.
What goes into organizing a pickleball tournament?
The first thing you need to run a successful pickleball tournament is a good team. I’ve been blessed to have that with the Kalamazoo Pickleball Club members. There’s a lot of little logistical things to be taken care of to make sure you provide a good-quality tournament experience for the players. I have an outstanding team that runs registration, the events desk, keeping track of matches, organizing referees, parking, food and first aid.
Along with making sure it’s a safe environment for everyone to play, we also make sure that the venue can handle a tournament. A two- or four-court complex won’t work. Last year, we were at the Texas Township Sixth Street Park, which has eight courts, but this year, we’re moving to Ramona Park because it has 12 courts. That’s a good-size facility to run a tournament of our size.
The Portage community is also behind us and helping out with things we might need. Of course, our sponsor, Latitude 42, is a big part of it because they put up a nice contribution that makes it possible for us to keep the costs down for the players.
How many people do you expect this year?
We are shooting for 250 participants. A few years ago our tournament was the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, which is a part of the USA Pickleball Association, the governing body of pickleball, and we drew upwards of 500 players, but now that we’re no longer a regional tournament our numbers have dropped a little bit.
In terms of spectators, it’s hard to say — 150 people over the course of three days would be pretty good. A lot of times, players come with family members, or you get pickleball players who come out to support friends. It is free to the public, so there’s no charge to enter or park.
If you don’t know anything about pickleball, here’s a great opportunity to see it played. People are always willing to explain it to somebody if they just want to know. The scoring can be a little confusing for a beginner, but that’s the most confusing part of the game. We have pretty good players in Kalamazoo, so if people want to see high-level players, this is a good chance to do that.
What are the costs of running the tournament?
Our No. 1 one cost is the fees we pay to Portage to use their courts and tie those up for three days. We also have player gifts, refreshments and medals. There are also little incidental things like renting portable lavatories to make sure there’s enough restroom facilities nearby and office materials that are needed to print out things such as scorecards.
What are some challenges you face?
The biggest challenge we always face is the weather. One year, we had West Hills Athletic Club as a backup, but now we simply put on the entry fee that it’s an outdoor tournament and if there’s bad weather and we have to cancel, too bad. (No refunds.) We can’t do anything about the weather.
It’s also important to keep in mind that matches need to move along so people don’t have a lot of wait time in between their matches. That’s what my team does very well. They give players a quality experience by making sure that all the little things that you want in a tournament are taken care of. We want a good experience for players and spectators.
Why do you like being the tournament’s director?
Without question, the most satisfying thing about promoting pickleball, whether it be running a clinic, running a tournament or contributing in some way to getting new courts built, is seeing the enjoyment people get from this very fun, social game. Long-lasting friendships have been created through the game of pickleball. We have met so many wonderful people throughout the United States by playing in tournaments and playing recreationally.
The reason we run the tournament is to raise funds for our nonprofit, Pickleball Outreach. We do not take out any administration fees. All funds go into the nonprofit, and it donates the funds to local communities that request support for growing the sport and helping people have another option for a healthy lifestyle. Pickleball has helped many people, both physically and emotionally. It’s just a labor of love to give back to the sport that has enriched our lives in so many ways, especially through the friendships we have developed.
— Interview by Kalloli Bhatt, edited for length and clarity