Jim Berger, the region’s leading pickleball booster, has a new assignment – organizing an annual Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Midwest regional tournament for youngsters.

Berger, who lives in Crystal City, has plans to hold the tournament on courts in Festus and Crystal City, which could bring hundreds and possibly thousands to the area.

“It could be a massive amount of people,” he said at the Oct. 9 Festus City Council meeting. “There could be 600 to 700 kids (the first year). Most will probably be ages 12 to 18. I can see it grow to 1,500, maybe 3,000 players (at future tournaments). With parents and guardians, it could draw up to 5,000 to the county and become a five-day tournament.

“They’ll be staying in Jefferson County and St. Louis County hotels, eating at the restaurants. I see it growing from year to year.”

If all goes as planned, the first of the tourneys will be held during next year’s Twin City Days (scheduled for Sept. 10-12, 2020), although the tournament could last longer than the festival depending on number of entrants, said Berger, who’s a member of the Crystal City Park Board.

“I’m going to try like heck to get it going in time for next year’s (festival),” he said. “We’re going to have to work out the logistics. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Other than organizing the tournament itself, Berger said other issues that need addressed include transporting players to and from area courts and dealing with traffic that may be generated from the large crowd of athletes and spectators.

Berger said the Twin City area has 22 potential outdoor courts for pickleball for the proposed tournament, including six courts specifically designated for pickleball at Jokerst Memorial Park in Festus; tennis courts that can be used for eight pickleball courts at Crystal City Park; and tennis courts that can be used for eight pickleball courts at Sunset Park in Festus.

He said while the Jefferson County Family YMCA in Festus offers pickleball inside, a tournament like the one he has in mind would not hold some games inside and some outside.

“That wouldn’t be fair to all players,” Berger said.

Berger said he met with AAU officials in early October in Los Angeles to talk about encouraging young people in the Midwest to play pickleball – a racquet sport described as a mixture of tennis, badminton and table tennis.

The sport has long drawn the attention of adults, especially senior citizens, across the country, said Berger, 73.

“We met in L.A. to discuss the growth of pickleball, incorporating it into public high schools,” he said. “They have tournaments like this on the coasts, just not in the Midwest. They awarded it (the task of establishing a regional tournament) to me. They want a tournament in the middle of the U.S.A.”

Roger J. Goudy, president and chief executive officer of the AAU, said the pickleball tournament Berger is organizing will be a welcome addition.

“The AAU is constantly looking to grow its event programming across the country, to provide participation opportunities for amateur athletes,” Goudy said. “Since the AAU’s inception in 1888, we have strived to provide ‘Sports For All, Forever’ to all ages of athletes across the country. We are excited about the new AAU pickleball event to be hosted in the Twin City area and look forward to many more AAU pickleball events to be added in the coming years.”

Berger said his work as an official USA Pickleball Association ambassador for the region that stretches from St. Louis south to Sikeston and as “Sports Representative-Missouri, AAU Pickleball” is unpaid.

“I’m a volunteer,” he said.

Berger said he enjoys promoting the sport.

He said pickleball is easier on the body than many other sports and continues to draw new players locally and around the nation.

“It’s just a nice sport a lot of people like to play,” Berger said.