For the rapidly declining number of Americans who have never heard of pickleball, the obscure game of paddleball is one of America’s fastest growing sports.
Invented in 1965 by three middle-aged fathers in Washington state, Pickleball is a whimsical hybrid of tennis, ping-pong, and badminton played with a racquet and a perforated plastic ball. The founders are said to have named the game after a family dog named Pickles.
With 4.8 million players playing today – almost double the number five years ago, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association – some of the sport’s supporters are benefiting from pickleball’s popularity.
The game now has two national professional tournaments, both established in the past four years, and Pickleball organizers are soliciting corporate sponsorship as part of an Olympic bid to help the sport grow in the United States and abroad .
“We’re still small and rowdy, but we’re not as innocent anymore,” said Stu Upson, who was hired in late 2020 as the first CEO of USA Pickleball, the sport’s official governing body. The organization was formed in 2005 to set rules and promote the sport.
Upson believes Pickleball can continue to grow without sacrificing the accessibility that has fueled its rise over the past decade.
“People are looking for ways to have fun, exercise, but do it in an environment that isn’t divisive,” he said. “It’s a pretty important thing in our society today, I think.”
An “addicting” game that doesn’t stop growing
Most of Pickleball’s core players — those who play more than eight times a year — are over 65, but the game is getting younger, with the fastest growth being among players under 55, according to USA Pickleball.
But with so many new players, the US is struggling to keep up with the demand for places.
The country only has about 10,000 courts according to USA Pickleball’s count, but that’s growing by several dozen every month. Sports clubs and hotel groups, including Marriott and Omni Resorts, are converting tennis courts to pickleball courts or building new courts, while a restaurant chain called Chicken N’ Pickle, with locations in four states, has said it will double its presence within the next year.
Communities across the country are trying to meet demand for Pickleball venues — so many that USA Pickleball is putting together a community planner toolkit with guidelines and cost estimates for building venues, ranging from $300 for temporary netting, equipment and tape for marking lines can range up to $30,000 for a permanent dish.
In Meredith, NH, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department offers indoor pickleball at a multipurpose gym that’s also used for basketball, tennis, and other sports.
The program is limited to about 50 people, dozens are on the waiting list, and some pickleball players got so serious that their sessions are now monitored and players are segregated by skill level.
“It’s addictive, so we just started playing and now we’re playing with our other friends and family – actually everyone we know is playing pickleball now,” said Freida Yueh, who joined the Meredith program with her husband two years ago, after they retired in the area.
This spring, the couple will travel to a pickleball training camp in North Carolina with two others.
“It will be six days of intensive video classes and games,” Yueh added. “I hope to learn just one skill that will improve my game.”
Pickleball evolves from amateur to pro
Pickleball is proving attractive to a wide range of corporate sponsors as the sport seeks new revenue streams. USA Pickleball has two dozen brand partners, including equipment manufacturers, an online health marketplace, and a CBD (cannabidiol) company.
“We have people who understand the sports business, not just the pickleball business,” Upson said. “Is the revenue important? It’s important for us to get back into the sport and grow, but it won’t drive us.”
Pickleball is also fast becoming a spectator sport. His first professional tournament, the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour, was founded in 2018 and recently acquired by the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes National Hockey League team. USA Pickleball sanctioned a second Pro Tour, beginning a year later, created by the Association of Pickleball Professionals.
Both events boast hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes, creating the first generation of pickleball players to make a living from the game.
“Pro players can really become celebrities and spotlights, people who are recognizable in the world,” said Connor Pardoe, commissioner of the PPA Tour, whose players sign three-year exclusive contracts. “The reason we’re doing this is, firstly, to ensure the best people are at our events, and secondly, to really protect our investment.”
The interest of traditional broadcasters in this sport is growing. So far, pickleball fans can follow amateur and professional games on sports or social channels, mostly online.
“The ability of a sport to quickly find an audience through social media is unparalleled,” said Ben Shields, who teaches at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and majors in sports industry.
“Think of all the new digital experiences that sports leagues have available to engage with fans — interactive streaming of games, fantasy pickleball that engages fans on another level, all the conversations and experiences on social media, you can create the sport.”
Shields added that Pickleball still needs a transcendent star to appeal to a wider audience, as has been key to success for other sports leagues — which also started with grassroots sports and unusual names.
“I think if Pickleball, in its own humble way, can continue to grow its involvement and find ways to make the sport a compelling fan product for who knows 10, 20 years, it could be a very viable competitor in the global esports industry.” “
A successful Olympic bid could accelerate that timeframe. To climb one, Pickleball needs competitive players in at least 75 countries. To date, the International Federation of Pickleball has at least 70 member nations and most of them have joined in the last three years.
Organizers are aiming for inclusion in the 2028 Olympics as a demonstration sport. Right now, pickleball fans are just rejoicing as more and more players are finding their way into a sport that brings people together.
“A lot of people get in because they love the game,” said USA Pickleball’s Upson. “It’s everywhere in a good way.”