West Michigan is quickly becoming a Midwest hub for pickleball, thanks in part to the annual Beer City Open.
The growing pickleball tournament attracts hundreds of players, both amateurs and professionals, to Belknap Park in Grand Rapids each July. This year, the tournament runs July 8-11.
Tournament Co-Founder Andrea Koop says the event started in 2018 with 350 participants and $12,000 in prize money. It increased to 475 participants and $18,000 in prize money in 2019, but was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s tournament, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday, has 650 participants and $31,000 in prize money. It sold out three hours after registration opened.
“I knew we could be successful in Grand Rapids because we are a great town and our facility at Belknap Park was great,” Koop says. “... Everybody works really hard, and the emphasis is always on player experiences.”
The first-class experience has helped the Beer City Open gain a stellar reputation in the pickleball circuit.
“Tournament founders Andrea Koop and Paul Richards are both very committed to growing pickleball in the Midwest, and have established one of the best player experience events of the year,” Ken Herrmann, creative founder and CEO of the Association of Pickleball Players (APP) Tour, says in a statement. “The vision that both Andrea and Paul have with Beer City will continue to have it be one of the premier stops for all players.”
Pickleball was founded in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, by three dads, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
The sport has surged recently, growing to about 4.2 million players in the United States last year, a growth rate of 21.3% over the previous year. The Grand Rapids Pickleball Club has about 750 members now, Koop says.
The Beer City Open is putting West Michigan on the map for pickleball.
Pickleball is a mixture of racquetball, ping pong, and tennis, she says. The court size is about 35% of a tennis court and players use a graphite paddle with no strings to hit a plastic ball over the net. There is an emphasis on doubles and the compact court size requires quick reflexes.
Koop says pickleball is easy to start and most courts have open play during the day. Players can quickly rotate in and out on those courts.
“Access to getting into the sport is much easier at the lower levels,” she says. “It is really inclusive in that respect.”
Koop, a full-time lawyer, says she discovered the sport about four years ago. She had played tennis at UCLA in California and her team won the NCAA tournament in 2008. When she moved to Grand Haven after law school, an old friend introduced her to pickleball.
She was skeptical at first, but had a lot of fun and connected with many new friends. With her tennis background, she began to excel. She turned professional about two years ago.
“I think I picked it up faster than others would,” Koop says.
Since then, Koop and Richards have advocated for the sport in West Michigan.
Richards has asked city governments from Grand Rapids to Hudsonville and Lowell to create pickleball courts in their parks. There are now more than 50 pickleball courts in the Grand Rapids area.
“He is someone who gets something done,” Koop says.
All the proceeds of the Beer City Open are reinvested into Belknap Park pickleball courts and park. More than $150,000 has been raised for the park so far, Koop says.
This is possible, she says, because the pickleball tournament is fully supported by sponsors. A new sponsor this year is Detroit-based McClure’s Pickles, which is supporting a pickleball tournament for the first time.
“We were always interested in this sport and keeping it on our radar, given the logical connection of the sport to our products,” Co-Owner Bob McClure says. “It is our hope to grow our involvement in not only this event, but other pickleball events throughout the country in the months to come. Grand Rapids, while slightly farther away from our Detroit area HQ, is still home for us and a great test to see how fans respond to having a pickle sponsor support the sport and get behind all their effort.”
Koop encourages curious West Michigan residents to come by and watch the tournament. There will be a Perrin Brewing beer garden every day, vendors, and other entertainment. Check out @beercityopen on Instagram for updates during the week.
Hopefully, the return of the Beer City Open will accelerate the momentum of the pickleball tournament for years to come.
“Every year, we want to get bigger and better,” Koop said.