The fastest growing sport in the United States is a cross between tennis, ping pong and badminton
Freida Yueh taps paddles at the end of a match with fellow pickleball players at the Meredith, Parks & Rec facility in Meredith, NH. Image: Shannon Mullen/Shannon Mullen
For the rapidly dwindling number of Americans who have never heard of pickleball, the obscure game of paddleball is America’s fastest growing sport for the second year in a row.
Invented in 1965 by three middle-aged fathers in Washington State, pickleball is an original cross between tennis, table tennis and badminton, played with a racket and a perforated plastic ball. The founders would have named the game after a family dog called pickles.
With 4.8 million people currently playing, almost double the number from just five years ago, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association – some of the sports enthusiasts are taking advantage of the growing popularity of pickleball.
The game now has two national professional tournaments, both formed over the past four years, and pickleball organizers are courting commercial sponsors to help grow the sport in the United States and abroad as part of a bid. to Olympic inclusion.
“We’re still small and scrappy, but we’re not so innocent anymore,” said Stu Upson, who was hired in late 2020 as the company’s first-ever CEO. United States Pickleball, the sport’s official governing body. The organization was established in 2005 to set rules and promote the sport.
Upson believes pickleball can continue to grow without losing the accessibility that has fueled its rise over the past decade. “People are looking for ways to have fun, to exercise, but to do it in an environment that doesn’t divide,” he said. “It’s a pretty big thing in our society today, I think.”
An “addictive” game that will never stop growing
Most core pickleball players – those who play more than eight times a year – are over 65, but the game is getting younger, with the strongest growth among players under 55, according to United States Pickleball.
But with so many new players, the United States is struggling to meet the demands of the courts.
The country has only about ten thousand places to play, according to USA Pickleball’s tally, but it continues to grow by several dozen each month. Sports clubs and hotel groups, including Marriott and Omni Resorts, are converting tennis courts or building new pickleball courts, while a restaurant chain called Chicken N’ Pickle that has locations in four states said that it would double its footprint in the next year.
Municipalities across the country are also trying to meet the demand for pickleball venues — so many that USA Pickleball is putting together a “toolkit” for community planners with guidelines and cost estimates for building new courts, which can range from $300 for a temporary net, equipment and tape to mark the lines, to $30,000 for a permanent court.
The program is limited to around 50 people with dozens on the waiting list, and some pickleball players have gotten so serious that their sessions are now supervised and players are separated by skill level.
“It’s addicting, so we just started playing and now with our other friends and relatives – in fact everyone we know now plays pickleball,” said Freida Yueh, who joined the Meredith program with her husband two years ago after retiring to the area.
This spring, the couple is traveling with two others to a pickleball training camp in North Carolina.
“It’s going to be six days of video instruction and intense games,” Yueh added. “I hope I learn just one skill that improves my game.”
Pickleball goes from amateur to pro
Pickleball is proving attractive to a wide range of corporate sponsors as the sport seeks new revenue streams. American pickleball has two dozen partner brandsranging from equipment manufacturers to an e-health marketplace and a CBD company.
“We have people who understand the sports industry, not just the pickleball industry,” Upson said. “Is the income that comes in important? It’s essential for us to reinvest in the sport and grow, but that won’t motivate us.”
Pickleball is also becoming a spectator sport. His first professional tournament, the Professional Pickleball Association (APP) tour, formed in 2018 and recently acquired by National Hockey League team owner the Carolina Hurricanes. USA Pickleball sanctioned a second professional tour which began a year later, launched by the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP).
Both events offer hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes that hit the first generation of pickleball players who can make a living in the game.
“Pro players can really become celebrities and spotlights, recognizable people in the world,” said Connor Pardoe, commissioner of the PPA Tour, whose players sign exclusive three-year contracts. “The reason we do this, one, is to make sure the best people are at our events, and two, to really protect our investment.”
The interest of traditional broadcasters in sports is growing. So far, pickleball fans can watch amateur and professional matches mostly online on sports or social channels.
“Think of all the new digital experiences that are available for sports leagues to connect with fans – streaming games interactively, fantasy pickleball, which takes fans to a different level, all the conversations and experiences about social networks that you can create around sport.”
Shields added that pickleball still needs its Michael Jordan; transcendent star players introduced some of America’s biggest sports leagues – which also started out with popular and unusual names – to a wider audience.
“I think if pickleball, in its humble way, can continue to grow its participation and find ways to make the sport a compelling product for fans, who knows, ten, twenty years from now it could be a very strong contender. viable in the global sports industry.”
A successful Olympic bid could accelerate that time frame. To mount one, pickleball needs competitive players in at least 75 countries. So far the International Pickleball Federation at seventy member nations and most of them joined within the last three years.
The organizers are aiming for inclusion in the 2028 Olympics as a demonstration sport. For now, pickleball fans are just happy that more players are finding their way to a sport that brings people together.
“A lot of people participate because they love the game,” USA Pickleball’s Upson said. “It’s everywhere in a good way.”
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