largest indoor pickleball facility opens in Macon

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By Jacob Jackson

In December 2023, participants engage in the Candy Cane Classic, a pickleball competition hosted by the Southern Pickleball Association at Rhythm & Rally in Macon, Georgia.

On December 16, the Macon Mall’s parking lot is experiencing its highest level of occupancy in years. However, this isn’t due to holiday shoppers; individuals have traveled from as far as Wisconsin to participate in Southern Pickleball’s Candy Cane Classic.

They have also arrived to participate in the largest indoor pickleball facility in the world.

Indoor pickleball

John Roberts was recently appointed to oversee the management of the newly established facility, named Rhythm and Rally.

Roberts mentioned, “There are 650 players present, representing a diverse range, especially from the Southeast. However, within that total, approximately 30 to 40 can be identified as typical snowbirds heading southward.”

Competitors within the mall engage in fierce competition across 32 courts situated on two floors of a former Belk department store. The pickleball facility is a key component of a broader initiative to rejuvenate the aging mall and position the city as a hub for the burgeoning sport.

In 1975, the Macon Mall debuted as Georgia’s largest, boasting a million square feet. However, with the decline in popularity of indoor malls over the years, Macon’s focus on development transitioned to the northern suburbs. Consequently, the majority of retailers vacated, exacerbating the challenges faced by an already distressed neighborhood.

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Alex Morrison holds the position of Executive Director at the Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority, in addition to serving as the Director of Planning and Public Spaces.

He mentioned that the mall served as the town center for a whole generation of Americans; it was essentially their downtown.

Downtown Macon suffered as storefronts remained vacant and numerous buildings deteriorated. However, in recent years, there has been a significant revival in Macon’s downtown, marked by the emergence of hundreds of new lofts, restaurants, and retail stores.

Indoor pickleball facility opens in Macon
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“Now it has swung in the opposite direction,” Morrison remarked. “However, this [mall] infrastructure remains intact.”

Pickleball is one component of a comprehensive strategy aimed at revitalizing the mall premises and, in the long run, revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood. Additionally, the city is repurposing empty storefronts for government offices and unveiling a new 12,000-seat amphitheater this spring, which has already secured bookings from bands such as ZZ Top and country singer Jason Aldean.

Macon’s enthusiasm for pickleball is further supported by the pickleball facility, a sport that has gained popularity following the transformation of a significant outdoor tennis facility in 2017.

Jill Vanderhoek, who has been playing pickleball for just two years, clinched gold medals on a balmy November evening as all 26 courts at Tattnall Park buzzed with players. She attributed her success to the city’s commitment to pickleball infrastructure.

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“It’s really built something special between the access of being able just to pick up the sport,” she said.  

“Being able to come out and learn and get better, and then the courts — like, we have real courts. You don’t necessarily see that sort of investment in other places.”  

The city boasts over 70 public courts where the affordability of playing pickleball ensures accessibility.

Cheerleaders in the sport, such as Paul Midkiff, the president of the Macon Pickleball Association, play a significant role. Recognized as one of the pioneers of Macon’s pickleball community, he initiated his involvement in the game in 2017. Formerly a high school teacher in the Catholic education system, Midkiff currently shares his passion for pickleball at Tattnall Park, offering Pickleball 101 lessons to beginners.

Midkiff stated, “Initially, I was the tennis player who had no interest in playing pickleball, considering it beneath me. However, after spending about 2.5 hours on the court, I had a change of heart. I went home, took a shower, visited Dick’s Sporting Goods, and purchased two paddles and some balls. I was motivated to play the next day and share the game with my friends.”

When Midkiff initially embraced the sport, the individuals he encountered were predominantly retirees. However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, pickleball experienced a surge in popularity, attracting a broader demographic, including many younger players seeking outdoor activities.

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“I think if we went back and look at the demographics 20 years ago, the average age of a pickleball player is in the low 30s,” Midkiff said, “and it’s dropping dramatically.” 

As per USA Pickleball, the sport is experiencing the most rapid growth nationwide. Numerous courts and pickleball franchises are spread across every state, and its popularity continues to surge without any indications of slowing down.

largest indoor pickleball facility
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John Roberts, the organizer of Rhythm and Rally at the mall, believes that Macon’s comprehensive approach to the sport has the potential to elevate the city’s status, much like The Masters tournament did for another Georgia town.

“It’s been our ambition — and it’s one that I think is now legitimately in our grasp — to make pickleball to Macon what golf is to Augusta and have this be the premier pickleball location,” Roberts said, “at least in the Southeast of the United States … if not the country.”

John Roberts, the organizer of Rhythm and Rally at the mall, believes that Macon’s comprehensive approach to the sport has the potential to elevate the city’s status, much like The Masters tournament did for another Georgia town.

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