New indoor pickleball facility grand opening is Aug. 1

Beef Butter BBQ proprietor Patrick Riha's new north-side venture, Pickle Pro Courts, has five dedicated pickleball courts and is the first of its kind in Madison.
Patrick Riha stands holding a paddle on his new indoor Pickle Pro Courts.
Courtesy of Patrick Riha.
The Aug. 1 grand opening for Pickle Pro Courts will serve Beef Butter BBQ and feature a pro fundraising exhibition match benefiting FEED Kitchens and the River Food Pantry.

Patrick Riha probably figured nothing would ever again capture his imagination like barbecued ribs.

After all, this is someone who, prior to opening his award-winning Beef Butter BBQ restaurant on Madison’s north side in 2018, chased the sparerib holy grail all the way to Austin, Texas.

In 2017, Riha, who grew up in Madison, read an article on about the restaurants in America where it was toughest to get a table. Heading the list was Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Riha went on a Saturday, the only day they served beef ribs. “I wanted to try everything on the menu,” he says.

Riha stopped at an Austin Walmart for a lawn chair and got to the restaurant at 8:30 a.m. It didn’t open until 11 a.m., but there was already a long line outside. Riha got in at 12:30 p.m. and ate himself full. His bill was $72. His thought was: “We don’t have anything like this in Wisconsin.”

We do now.

Riha spoke with Aaron Franklin, the restaurant’s owner, who was surprisingly forthcoming about the secret to making delicious Texas-style barbecue. “The reason he shares everything,” Riha says, “is he knows not many people are going to take 12 hours to cook their dinner. To do it right takes that long.”

It was in Madison last summer that a Beef Butter BBQ colleague — John Lehman, former proprietor of Jim’s Meat Market — suggested they play pickleball.

“I’d never heard of it,” Riha says.

Pretty soon he couldn’t play enough.

“It’s contagious,” Riha says. “Easy to learn, easy to get better, and it’s very social.”

Pickleball is most often described as a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, played on a surface with smaller dimensions than tennis, using paddles and a hard plastic ball with holes. In most descriptions, the game’s addictive nature is also referenced. Last fall, when it started getting dark earlier at the outdoor court where they played in Waunakee, Riha and Lehman brought lights. But then it got cold.

Riha said, “We need someplace indoors to play. I know a big space.”

On Monday, Aug. 1, at 5:30 p.m., Riha will cut the ribbon on Pickle Pro Courts, his new, state-of-the-art indoor pickleball facility at 2907 N. Sherman Ave. It features five dedicated courts and it’s in the Northside TownCenter, across the parking lot from Beef Butter Barbecue.

The grand opening celebration (the facility had a “soft” opening in late spring) will have food from Beef Butter BBQ and include a fundraising exhibition match benefiting FEED Kitchens and the River Food Pantry.

The match will feature Madison native Sherri Steinhauer — a major champion on the LPGA golf tour who now plays high-level competitive pickleball — and Dave “The Badger” Weinbach, a Madison financial planner who in the past decade has become one of the most accomplished and best known pickleball players in the world.

When I profiled Weinbach in Madison Magazine in 2019 the game was already exploding in popularity, but Weinbach suggested it was only the beginning.

He was right. Just this week, The New Yorker magazine published a lengthy article on the game’s popularity titled “Can Pickleball Save America?”

That’s an ambitious suggestion — but to Weinbach, who is featured in the article, it’s not ambitious enough. “It’s not just in America,” he said, when we caught up by phone last week. “Internationally, it is the fastest-growing sport in the world, by far.”

Weinbach knows firsthand: South Africa, Costa Rica and Hong Kong are among the places where he either has or will be doing a series of clinics. (By 2019, he’d done 300 in the United States alone, in 22 states.)

When Weinbach gets asked, as he always does, to explain the game’s booming popularity, he cites the ease and relative lack of expense in getting started, and, especially, the game’s social aspects. Unlike tennis, you are close to your opponents across the net, and pickleball is primarily a doubles game (two of Weinbach’s sons, highly talented players, will join him and Steinhauer at the Aug. 1 exhibition).

“Four people on this small court,” Weinbach says. Of course they’re going to socialize.

Riha brought Weinbach in to consult on the Pickle Pro Courts facility at the Northside TownCenter.

“It really turned out well,” Weinbach says. “The courts are beautiful. He didn’t hold back on amenities.”

Riha says he probably got a little carried away and spent more than he intended on the courts, but he’s not worried. He’s confident the new facility will succeed. Pickleball will see to that.

“Once people play,” he says, “they’re hooked.”

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