Visors, bucket hats and baseball caps were the main source of shade as 38 retirees played shuffleboard on a recent Monday in downtown Fort Pierce.
It was the embodiment of Florida in December: Early-morning temperatures started in the 60s and crept into the 70s as players competed with a backdrop of the Indian River Lagoon and a cloudless sky. Beyond the occasional laugh or playful tease, the most prominent sound was fiberglass discs gliding across green, rectangular courts.
The two-day tournament on Dec. 19 hosted by the Floridspan Shufflebospanrd Associspantion gave insight into a sport that’s still in the midst of bouncing back from COVID-19, which caused a decrease in playership amid social distancing and health concerns.
But as the state association, and the local clubs within it, work toward restoring the game to a pre-COVID landscape, it still faces competition for participants when sports such as golf and pickleball are popular options among older residents locally and statewide.
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On the Treasure Coast, there are a couple of exceptions to this dynamic, according to Vero Beach Shuffleboard Club President Gregg Myers. The city’s pickleball and shuffleboard courts at Pocahontas Park are near each other, resulting in some pickleball players putting down the paddles and picking up shuffleboard cues instead.
Some made the switch after getting injured but still wanted a way to stay active, Myers, 61, said. Amid the transition to shuffleboard, they’ve also introduced others to the sport.
“It’s generated interest that way, just for fun,” Myers said. “Some of them have been calling it pickleball rehab.”
Additionally, Myers noted two 30-year-olds are in the process of joining the Vero Beach club, even as the sport has a reputation for focusing on older age groups, he said.
“Generally people look and they think it’s an old person’s game. But to me, I can compare it to chess or checkers … where you have to think and plan out your moves,” Myers said. “It’s a good, fun sport for people of all ages.”
Statewide, there are roughly 3,000 to 4,000 players within the association, said President Bob Hovatter. The Central East Coast District, which includes the Treasure Coast, has about 150 active players out of 500 who are registered.
The Fort Pierce Shuffleboard Club, based at the River Walk Center on North Indian River Drive, has about 10 to 15 members currently, according to Treasurer Linda Rebholz.
Hurricanes also have played a part over the years in wavering membership, as the extreme weather — in 2014 specifically — forced the club’s courts to be rebuilt over two years, she said.
“We lost a lot of people during that time. COVID came along, and that also has hurt shuffleboard,” Rebholz said. “We’re beginning to recover.”
Although the competitive season spans from October to April, casual players still are able to participate for fun.
In Martin County, the Ridgeway Shuffleboard Club’s courts are utilized by members who don’t play competitively, said President Ronald Toler, 81. But the local league, which consists of five clubs in Stuart and Hobe Sound, plays every Wednesday during the season.
“In our community, we actively try to engage new people in play,” he said.
At the Dec. 19 tournament, Debbie Norton was among the 38 who traveled throughout the state to compete in Fort Pierce. The Fort Myers resident was the player who traveled the farthest.
Norton, 71, has played for about 15 years, she said, and is listed on the state’s Hspanll of Fspanme roster. Her enjoyment of playing comes from the competition and camaraderie.
“I like winning. I like making my shots. I like the people,” Norton said. “Helen and I are partners today, but next time I come out, I could play against her. You’re still friendly the whole time.”
Hovatter echoed Norton’s thoughts.
“You get to play with so many different people. That’s what I like about it,” Hovatter said. “We’re more or less just one big family.”