Passion For Pickleball

Pickleball is the world’s fastest-growing sport, and Pop City Pickleball is Ocala’s premier pickleball experience. Are you playing yet?

Written By Karin Fabry Cushenbery

Longtime friends and sports enthusiasts Daniel Gray, EJ Nieves and Kyle Artman were looking for a new challenge when they settled on pickleball. There’s no denying the sport’s growing popularity, so the guys thought, “Why not?” 

“In true EJ and Daniel fashion, we went to Dick’s and picked up the cheapest paddles we found,” Daniel recalls. “We met up with Kyle at the park, and he introduced us to our first matchups.” 

Photo by Kyle Artman, courtesy of Pop City Pickleball

The duo was paired up to play with others, including a 70-plus year-old woman with two knee braces. While Kyle was dominating his match and already picking up a ton of skill, the others weren’t having the same luck. 

“We thought, ‘Oh we’ve got this,’” laughs Daniel. “Everyone was very helpful in showing us the rules of play, but, in the end, we got our butts whooped.” 

It was clear, though, that the trio of friends had found their newest passion.

Daniel and EJ took an instant liking to the sport and showed up to play week after week, honing their skills and meeting new people along the way. 

“Talk about diversity,” Daniel says. “Pickleball draws in every age group, from kids all the way up to people in their 90s. 

Just a few months into their new pickleball adventures, EJ, Daniel and Kyle decided to form their own company to introduce even more people to the sport. 

“Pop City Pickleball falls under the umbrella of Pop City Sports,” says EJ. “We are trying to build bridges and bring people together from all over to experience this sport. There are several pickleball hubs throughout town, including Coehadjoe Park and The Villages. Our trajectory is to create events and ‘pop up’ all over Marion County and beyond.” 

“Throughout the nation, games have appeared on barges in the ocean and even the floor of the New York Stock Exchange,” Kyle says. “If the space is flat and large enough to lay out a pickleball court, it’s fair game.”

Pop City currently holds games at Ocala’s Downtown Market on the fourth Thursday of the month from 6-9pm. The facility offers five courts, all of which are covered and lighted, so games go on rain or shine. You’ll sign a waiver and receive an armband to play. Pop City is fully insured as well. 

“Each month we open 100 slots for players,” says EJ. “Our last events have sold out, which is exciting.”

One of the best things about Pop City is that participation is free. Tickets would typically cost $20 per player, but instead Pop City secures a monthly sponsorship from a local business to cover the costs of the games.”

Photo by Joe Tardif, courtesy of Pop City Pickleball

“We take great pride being a pillar in the community,” says Kyle. “There is a lot of connection between the people who come out to participate in the sports and the community businesspeople who sponsor the events. They appreciate each other, and those who are playing are interested in supporting local businesses.”

“Pop City Pickleball is open to everyone and anyone,” says Daniel, “from people who have never picked up a paddle to those who travel to play in tournaments. We have a designated court for beginners, and we have paddles and balls available for those who want to try it out. If you’re a single player or a team, we will pair you up and get you on your way.”

A typical pickleball game lasts between 10 and 20 minutes, and the goal is to be the first team to reach 11. 

“Think of a pickleball court as an oversized table tennis court and an undersized tennis court,” says Daniel. “The game is a bit slower paced than tennis until the action picks up in the kitchen. You can’t volley in the kitchen.”

The first serve is made diagonally to the opposing team; the ball must bounce one time before it’s returned. As players move toward the net into the area called the kitchen, the speed of play picks up.

“When the action meets in the kitchen, it’s called a dink,” says EJ. “Think a bunt in baseball; it’s all about strategic ball placement. When you’re playing close to the net, it’s a lot of upper body and arm movements. This sport is easier on the lower body; you’re not sprinting back and forth to the ball. It’s more about the science of ball placement.”

“In tennis, the typical woman’s serve is 60 miles per hour,” says Daniel. “In pickleball, the average serve is about 25 miles per hour. The sport is definitely less taxing on the body. Players are able to control the ball, and that makes it a fun experience. You don’t have to be an experienced pickleball player to have a great game.”

Sound like a lot? No worries, Pop City pros are more than willing to explain the rules and get you comfortable with the sport. So, the guys basically say just show up. They fell in love with the sport quickly, and they bet you will, too. 

“Before really getting into pickleball, I was new, too,” says Kyle. “You just have to rip off the Band-Aid and give it a try. There are a lot of great, great people who come out and participate in our events. The sport is easy to catch on to, and it’s an energizing, rewarding game. It really makes sense why pickleball is catching on so quickly. Sure, some people are competitive, but others just want to have fun. There’s a certain magnetism to the game. We will show our newcomers some tips and tricks to get going, and by the time they are done with the first game and get to 11 points, they’ll be able to go and show someone else how to play.” 

To learn about and sign up for monthly open play at the Downtown Market, visit There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities with the group, plus sponsorship opportunities for local businesses and organizations. In October, Pop City Pickleball will team up with the City of Ocala to bring a pickleball tournament to the Mary Sue Rich Community Center.

“This isn’t our day job—it’s our passion,” says Daniel, “and we want to share it. People can connect with us and learn more about pickleball on all platforms of social media. This is a very community-based sport. We have a live DJ playing music at our games, plus beer and wine available, and food trucks. Families are even welcome to bring in their own coolers. We don’t want there to be a single obstacle in the way for you to come out and try pickleball. It’s easy, the tickets have been sponsored and it’s fun. We are building a culture here—pickleball just happens to be the vessel.”

Pop City Pickleball

(352) 250-8208 

To register for games or learn about volunteer or sponsorship opportunities, visit