The sport of pickleball has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the past several years, sweeping across the United States and sending host cities and destinations into a frenzy.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid the sport these days, whether it be in the news, on social media or television. Pickleball is inevitable.
According to USA Pickleball, the national governing body of the sport, the game was created in a backyard in Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965. But it hasn’t been until recently that the hybrid of tennis and badminton exploded.
“Pickleball evolved at light speed,” said Daniel Gallagher, director of sports sales at the Atlantic City Sports Commission. “It was, and still is, a true phenomenon. I have never seen a sport grow at such a rapid pace — and grow successfully — as pickleball. There are courts popping up everywhere and it’s the fastest-growing sport in the country. Esports is the fastest growing sport in the world, but pickleball is hands down fastest in the U.S.”
Gallagher and his team hosted the largest indoor pickleball tournament in the country, the Atlantic City Pickleball Open, last September. It required 41 courts in the Atlantic City Convention Center, which included a showcase court televised live on CBS Sports the last day of competition.
Pickleball has morphed from a leisurely activity among the senior citizen crowd to a legitimate nationwide sport, with three professional leagues forming in just the last four years. The Professional Pickleball Association was founded at the end of 2018 but did not host its first tournament until 2019. The Association of Pickleball Professionals was founded and began play in 2019. Major League Pickleball, which is strictly for professional players, began in 2021.
Tom Webb, APP chief marketing officer, notes the APP is the only pickleball association that’s fully sanctioned by USA Pickleball. Webb helped launch MLP in 2021 before joining APP.
“People have a direct connection with the sport,” Webb said. “We just unveiled the latest round of research, which says 48.3 million adult Americans have played pickleball at least once in the last year. I have at least one in five people who I have a conversation with now who say they’ve played, which is very different from the maybe one-in-50 that I was finding back in 2021.”
Webb has worked in sports marketing for nearly 30 years, including time at Formula 1, Major League Soccer and Red Bull. He says the rapid ascension of pickleball is unprecedented.
“In 2021, I was having to pitch extremely hard to reporters to be able to even open a door,” Webb said. “A conversation would often start with me saying, ‘Hey, I’m working on the launch of a pickleball organization.’ And people would say, ‘What is pickleball?’ That question never happens now. Now people say, ‘Oh, I love that.’”
In January, USA Pickleball published its annual growth report, which reported a membership increase of nearly 30 percent over 2021. The national governing body has a membership base of nearly 69,000, compared to 53,110 in 2021.
The organization’s Places2Play database grew by 1,557 USA Pickleball-registered venues, going from 9,167 to a total of 10,724. There are now 44,094 courts comprising all facilities, compared to 38,140 in 2021 — a 15.6 percent increase.
Tom Cove, president and chief executive officer of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, said that the sport is now firmly established. The SFIA recently reported that the sport grew in participation by 85 percent in 2022 compared to the year prior. Over three years, participation is up 158 percent.
“There is massive sustainable growth in pickleball. And people say, ‘Well, is it just a fad?’ It is so far past being a fad. Is it just old people? No, it’s not just old people at all,” Cove said. “And you start to look at how a sport can really become ingrained and once it is being played, you start getting into physical education classes. You can put up a court, you can put a bunch of kids in and out. At some point it’s going to steady and it can’t maintain those rates of growth. But do we think it goes down? No, we do not. We think it has got a long runway of steady, strong growth.”
Webb agrees with Cove’s assessment and says the ease with which a novice can master pickleball sets it apart.
“Pickleball is unique in a number of senses. One is you can be quite good quite quickly,” Webb said. “So compared particularly to other racket sports, the barrier of entry is much lower. To be competent in tennis, you have to master the serve and return, and you have to cover a bigger geography on a court. Pickleball puts people on a court with a paddle in their hand and they’re surprised how quickly they’re able to take part in a rally and how enjoyable it is.”
Everybody Wants a Piece
As professional and amateur pickleball associations explode around the country, the sport has become a pop culture phenomenon.
On April 2, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Michael Chang thrilled a capacity crowd at the inaugural 2023 Pickleball Slam, a first-of-its-kind pickleball exhibition. The two-and-a-half-hour event was broadcast live from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on ESPN. Agassi and Roddick won the three-set doubles match, capturing a
$1 million purse. The broadcast averaged 670,000 viewers — outpacing several other professional sports events that were airing at the same time.
“Pickleball Slam is a terrific example of how the sport is going to grow,” Webb said. “It was household names and it was a very well-produced and really entertaining. I think you’ll start to see more and more famous people engaging with the sport across multiple different channels, which is going to further fuel the growth of the sport.”
The names that are currently involved in the purchasing of MLP teams include Tom Brady, LeBron James, Kim Clijsters, Draymond Green and Kevin Love.
New York City’s Central Park is even getting in on the pickleball action. NYC-based CityPickle has transformed Central Park’s Wollman Rink into a 14-court pickleball venue that will be open to the public from April 7 to October 9. MLP also plans to hold exhibition matches at the Central Park location this summer.
People will soon be playing pickleball on the high seas. Celebrity Cruises announced the company will begin offering pickleball courts on nine of its luxury cruise liners.
Selkirk Sport, a leading pickleball equipment and paddle manufacturer, recently announced a partnership with Invited, the Dallas-based firm and largest owner and operator of private golf and country clubs in the United States. Invited boasts more than 400,000 members at its U.S. country clubs.
And Overland Park, Kansas, has proclaimed itself the nation’s “Most Pickleball Obsessed City” based on a study of online search volume. The city is home to more than 75 pickleball courts at 12 venues. Searches for the sport in Overland Park increased by 284 percent since 2020.
Continued Growth and Growing Pains
But with explosive growth, there will be issues. The demand for more pickleball courts than supply can currently accommodate is causing some friction with the tennis community and communities at large.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got a bunch of tennis players who want to play on the tennis court and you’ve got pickleball set up and there’s a conflict,” Cove said. “How communities manage that is going to be a huge element of how pickleball can maintain growth.”
Another nuance of pickleball is that it can be a nuisance. The sound of the ball hitting the pickleball paddle is much louder than the sound of a tennis racket. There have been several instances around the country of complaints to city officials about the noise as well as lawsuits surrounding pickleball expansion.
Webb says he and the APP are encountering a pickleball infrastructure struggling to keep up with demand.
“Our focus is on how we accommodate 1,500 players at our events,” Webb said. “You have numerous courts and are having to play over five to seven days to accommodate all of the brackets. We are starting to see people coming up with plans for huge facilities. The infrastructure that we are working with at the moment is at the very far end of its ability to be able to host these large events.”
As growth continues, Gallagher says the reason pickleball is so attractive for destinations is the demographics of the sport are what a host city wants.
“They’re typically older and have a little more dispensable income and they don’t want to share a hotel room like a basketball or soccer team might,” Gallagher said. “It’s like hosting a tennis tournament, but the qualifications are much lower than tennis, so there are more players able to enter these tournaments.”
The APP already has TV deals with CBS Sports and ESPN2. Webb said there are destinations cold calling him, wanting to host pickleball events in their city. The APP just announced a partnership with Pickleball England, which will host the English Open in August of this year.
“There has to be a natural end to audience growth and it will start to level out at some point,” Webb said. “Is it going to level out at a 100 million people, or even more? There’s no way to really know.”