Pickleball Growing Overseas: An Interview With Pickleball Spain Founder Mike Hess

by pickleballfun on May 20, 2014

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We're always so excited to hear about pickleball clubs overseas, so when we came across Pickleball Spain we had to reach out and hear the story of how they came to start a pickleball organization in Spain. So we sent them a list of questions and Mike Hess, President and founder, was kind enough to indulge our curiosity. Without further ado, Mike Hess from Pickleball Spain:
Pickleball Spain

Pickleball Central (PC): How did you first encounter pickleball?
Mike Hess (MH):
I was introduced to pickleball at the 2009 National Senior Games in Palo Alto, California where I was working as the National Director of Basketball. Pickleball wasn’t in the Summer Games that year, but several athletes there were telling me about the incredible growth of this great “new” sport. When I got home to Southern California after the Games I went and met Pat Carroll in Carlsbad, California. Pat is a great coach and can get anyone motivated about pickleball, and she’s been a mentor of mine ever since.

PC: When was “Pickleball Spain” founded and who was the brain child behind it?
MH: I’ve been living in Spain for the past 16 years and I founded the Spanish Pickleball Association in 2012. I was so amazed with the growth of the sport in the US and one of my missions in life is to get people actively participating in sport (I’m on the Board of Directors for the National Senior Games Association). There’s not a better sport for all ages and abilities than pickleball, so I decided to help spread the sport to Europe by setting up the association. My founding partners are Spanish friends who I’ve introduced to the sport. We call the association “Pickleball Spain” to emphasize the American roots of the sport. And of course a key benefit is that now I get to play year-round.

Playing pickleball in Spain
What were people's reactions to you when you told them what you wanted to do (start a pickleball association)?
No one here had ever heard of pickleball back in 2012 so most people didn’t know what to say. Fortunately the Spanish are passionate about sports so they’re very open to trying a new paddle sport.

PC: What is it about the sport that you thought would translate well into the European culture/consciousness?
MH: Europeans love tennis. Ping pong and badminton are also quite popular in certain regions. And in Spain, platform tennis (known here as Padel) is extremely popular. Therefore, the tennis clubs are already called racquet clubs and almost all of them have padel in addition to tennis. As a result, they’re pretty open to the idea of adding a new paddle sport. In a way padel has done the hard work of convincing tennis clubs and players that there’s more than one way for athletes to enjoy hitting a ball over a net with a paddle.

Playing pickleball in SpainPC: 
You're from the U.S.? Can you comment on any differences between play in Spain and play in the U.S.?
MH: Spain is one of the dominant tennis countries in the world, at least for men’s. And padel (platform tennis) is played throughout the country, both indoors and outdoors. Padel uses a paddle similar to the pickleball paddle. As a result the Spanish tend adapt to pickleball immediately – and they’re quite good. Once they learn the strategic aspects of the sport they’re extremely competitive because they’ve already mastered the technique playing the other racquet sports.

PC: Any rough estimate of how many players there are in Spain?
MH: Hard to say exactly. Several hundred are playing regularly between the schools, universities, sport centers and private clubs where we’ve introduced the sport, and participants cover all age groups. Spain has a huge public sports infrastructure, but it’s been a slow process to penetrate these clubs and to get the politicians onboard. Fortunately our persistence is paying off and now local governments are really supporting us. And the private clubs are also recognizing the great qualities and potential of pickleball, so we’re really encouraged about the evolution we’re having in 2014.

PC: Is Spain a pickleball destination?
MH: Spain is definitely becoming a pickleball destination. Spain is considered the “Florida of Europe”, so the European snowbirds all come down here for the winter to enjoy the nice weather. Lots of sun, coastline, and islands where people can enjoy being outdoors and playing pickleball.

Spanish pickleball rec league
PC: Are North Americans going over to Spain to play?
MH: Actually, I get a few calls or emails every month from North Americans visiting Spain who ask me where they can play. It’s a lot of fun inviting them out to join us and they really enjoy playing with the Spaniards. In fact, so many North American pickleball players have asked me to organize some type of tour for them to come over and play that I finally put one together (www.vivapickleballtours.com). The first tours are scheduled for September of 2014 and people area already signing up. I’ve got a great coach joining us on each tour (Chris Thomas our and Timothy Nelson) and am looking forward to hosting pickleball players in this welcoming country.

PC: What is your goal for Pickleball Spain and Europe? Where do you see the org in 10 years?
MH: My goal is to replicate the growth in the US and Canada. The demographics in Europe are almost identical to those of North America so I’m optimistic the sport will continue to grow here. I’ve been helping other European countries get started as well and enjoy seeing the sport spread throughout the continent. I hope we can set up a World Tournament soon and produce some players that are able to compete with the top North Americans.

Playing pickleball in Spain
PC: Will pickleball ever be an Olympic sport?
MH: Yes, without a doubt. I predict pickleball will be one of the highest participation sports in the world within the next decade. We all know the unique ingredients of the sport – fun, fast, easy to learn (but difficult to master), competitive, social, healthy exercise, economical and addictive. For the International Olympic Committee to consider adopting pickleball, participating in the sport needs to expand geographically, and with the number of quality Ambassadors increasing around the world it’s only a matter of time.

PC: What's your go-to shot?
MH: I love playing at the non-volley line. There’s nothing like a fast volley exchange at the net. We’ve all experienced this and it’s part of what keeps us coming back for more. I don’t think I have a single go-to shot but do have pretty quick hands so enjoy the challenge of trying to return whatever comes at me when at the non-volley line.

Do you enjoy teaching people to play pickleball in Spain?
MH: I really love coaching. I’ve coached all my life, usually basketball and baseball which are the sports I grew up with. But it’s an amazing experience to teach Europeans a sport they’ve never heard of before, and after five minutes of rallying with them for the first time, to have them look over at me and say “Wow, this is a great sport! I’ve never heard of it before but I really like it and hope we can keep playing.” It’s something I experience every week and it only motivates me to spend more time out on the court introducing more people to pickleball. I consider myself a Global Pickleball Ambassador and look forward to continuing to help grow the sport throughout Spain and Europe and any other countries I’m fortunate enough to visit. I don’t go anywhere these days without four paddles and a few balls in my suitcase.