The Home Court Advantage

These days the backyard is more than just a place to chase fireflies, raise an urban army of veggies, or look pretty like Brad Paisley on a chaise lounge. Swell things, yeah, but now homeowners looking to shed a few and scoot the kids outside are turning to rigors of the backyard kind by converting their grassy plots into hard surface athletic courts and ice rinks.

As Michigan keeps pace with the nation’s growing waistline – it ranks 10th in obesity rates and is the only northern state in the top 10, per a 2010 report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – this focus on fitness is a good turn of events.

Noah Teicher, co-owner and chief athletic officer of Game Courts of Michigan, a provider of indoor and outdoor sport surfaces and accessories, would concur. After working in the exercise equipment business in California for several years, he returned to Michigan. “I’ve seen how the other half lives, so to speak,” he says. “[Californians are] very fitness oriented, they’re very health conscious, so bringing some of that back here would be a really good thing for the state.”

Game Courts of Michigan was founded in 2005 by Teicher’s business partner, Ivan Katz, as a complementary offering from his landscaping firm, Great Lakes Landscape Design. The firm designs and installs basketball, tennis, shuffleboard, volleyball, and pickleball courts, inline and ice hockey rinks, putting greens, and gymnasiums at residences and organizations all over Michigan. Headcount runs anywhere from 3-10 people, depending on seasonal demand, to serve a clientele whose breakdown is 40% residential and 60% commercial, Teicher says.

The Oak Park-based company’s commercial projects have ranged from an indoor turf installation at Brother Rice High School to one of the largest jobs to date, a conversion of outdoor tennis courts into a 14,000-square-foot array of basketball courts at Hillsdale College. A basketball set-up costs anywhere from $12-15,000; tennis courts run up to $40-60,000; and a glossy 30X40 expanse of ice rink can be laid for $2,000 to $2,500. High project costs mean this is a niche market in the Detroit area, particularly on the residential end. Business doubled between 2009 and 2010 and is up 10% year-to-date, according to Teicher.

Ice Islands

Backyard ice rinks are a growth area for the company, Teicher says. Indeed, the number of people age seven and older who have played ice hockey more than once grew from 2.1 million in 2007 to 3.1 million in 2009, a near 50% increase, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. And winter 2011 is shaping up to be ideal for wintry sports; the National Weather Service station in White Lake’s forecast for southeast Michigan is expected to be up to two degrees colder than normal.  

Lest you be left out in the cold, the company also maintains rinks. The Zamboni, tractor defender of the ice, doesn’t surface in residential installations. Instead, a representative or DIY homeowners can hand-Zamboni the ice with a perforated wand hooked up to a source of hot water, which melts the high spots and fills the low spots, Teicher explains.

While the metro area doesn’t lack for rinks, courts or diamonds, he feels, “What people are really keying into is keeping the excitement around the house and drawing their children away from the TV and electronics to be outdoors. And also what we’ve found is these homes that put these ice rinks in, or the basketball courts, and certainly the tennis courts, they become kind of the hub for all the friends to come to. They become this focal point for the neighborhood.”

Plink! Plink!  

Another up and coming sport getting considerable new play? Pickleball. The game takes its name from Pickles, the ball-chasing cocker spaniel of one of its inventors. Around since 1965, it’s recently experienced lightning growth, expanding from 39 active venues in 2003 to 420 by 2008 (not including courts at private homes), according to the USA Pickleball Association. The first National Pickleball Tournament was held in Buckeye, Ariz. in 2009.

The game has become very popular with the senior and youth crowd of late (though the 2010 national champions are hardly athletic rinky-dinks). Players use paddles to bat a swiss-cheese perforated plastic ball over a net set at a height of 36 inches, as opposed to 60 inches for badminton. As in tennis, ball bouncing is allowed, but the game is played within smaller, badminton-sized boundaries, negating the need for cheetah racing around the court.

“It’s one of those sports that’s definitely being taken up,” Teicher notes. Oftentimes the company is asked to stripe pickleball game lines on the ends of tennis courts. “So you get out there, you can be active and play a net game and still be able to participate.”

According to the Great Lakes region of the USA Pickleball Association, a range of cities at 42 degrees of latitude, from Ann Arbor to West Bloomfield, offer both indoor and outdoor venues. The folksy Michigan pickleball blog posts updates from sweaty tourney play for “Picklers” to, inexplicably, cute toddlers nestling in a pumpkin patch.

The Michigan Senior Olympics 2011 Pickleball Games will be held in Rochester from Jan. 31-Feb. 3, 2011. Paddles up!

Scoring Goals

Aiming for a drop in the average resident’s body mass index, and, accordingly, healthcare costs, is what keeps the business active.  “If we were instrumental in assisting residents of the state of Michigan, whether it’s in their own homes or in their schools and places of worship – if we were a notable factor in people getting into better shape and living healthier lifestyles, that would be a phenomenal position for us to take because that is one of the reasons that we’re around,” Teicher says.

And perhaps more turns on the game court could turn some regional sports teams’ recent records around? Teicher, a University of Michigan grad, laughs. “That is absolutely correct, that would be the one thing that would change the tide of how things are going.”

Tanya Muzumdar will play her first game of pickleball next week. She’s a freelance writer and editor and the Assistant Editor for Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous article was “Welcome to Halloweentown”

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski