I want to share with you what I think is going on with pickleball right now across the U.S. I’ve heard over and over again that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America, yet to many of my friends the word “pickleball” still conjures up some hilarious combination of pickles with who knows what. Where is the disconnect? If it’s the fastest growing sport in America why do so many people not know what it is?
When did Pickleball Become the Fastest Growing Sport in America?
I researched the origin of this expression and this is what I discovered. To the best of my knowledge the first recorded mention of this phrase, that pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America, dates back to July 2011 on a Fox affiliate broadcast entitled “Caught in a Pickleball Seniors’ New Favorite Sport.” In the first sentence of the video clip the announcer states that picklelball is becoming one of the fastest growing sports in America. The sport is a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton and mainly played by people over the age of 50. In fact, It’s become a favorite of seniors because it is considered a low impact sport and easier to play…not quite as strenuous as other sports. Here you can view the telecast:
The next instance I could find of pickleball being described as the fasting growing sport in American comes during a broadcast on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in 2014 in a video clip narrated by Mark Potter called “Pickleball: the Fastest-Growing Sport in America.” Potter, by the way, like the narrator of the Fox video, associates pickleball with seniors. No surprise! Here is the video clip.
Williams begins by saying “the older you get the better you were as an athlete in the day. But most folks feel they have a lot of fight back in them.” Wow! What does he mean? I guess he means that although some might look at seniors as being over the hill – without the strength, speed or stamina they had as youths – they can still play the game of pickleball. Like the Fox narrator in 2011, this piece paints a picture of pickleball as a sport for seniors who have lost a step or two but can still get around a pickleball court because the game is played on a smaller court than tennis with less room to cover.
Here is another video clip from KSL News Channel 5 dated August 2017 entitled “Your Life, Your Health: Pickleball is a game that can provide benefits for players of any age:
Once again pickleball is described as the”fastest growing sport in America.” Says the announcer: “But don’t let the crazy name fool you – pickleball is addicting. For Your Life, Your Health.” She says that it’s a game that can provide benefits for players of any age. “Any age?” Then why is the focus of the piece exclusively on seniors? We will get to that later.
Is Pickleball still the Fastest Growing Sport in America?
I could go on and on citing articles and videos claiming pickleball to be the fastest growing sport in America. Statistics from the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) back this up.
- In 2002 there were 39 known places to play pickleball in North America.
- In 2008 there were 420 places to play.
- In 2018 there are nearly 4,000 locations.
According to the USAPA the sport of pickleball is exploding in popularity. “The number of places to play has more than doubled since 2010. There are now nearly 4,000 locations on the USAPA’s Places to Play map. The spread of the sport is attributed to its popularity within community centers, PE classes, YMCA facilities and retirement communities.” Last but not least “retirement communities. Hurrah for the acknowledgment!
I subscribe to Google Alerts for the keyword Pickleball. Here are some recent headlines appearing in local newspapers across the country:
- Retirees get back in the game with pickleball
- Austin Herald…The funds would be used to add six pickleball courts in Rotary Park. Pickleball players currently use tennis courts at Neveln Elementary to play
- Jewett Park upgrade enters approval process; amphitheater, pickleball courts and natural area
- Donation will make pickleball courts part of sports complex
- Pickleball players enjoy new courts at grand opening
- Gurnee Park District opens 8 pickleball courts
- Pickleball happening at Cambridge City Park
- Sports complex to add pickleball courts
And these are just a sampling from one week in August 2018. There are dozens of similar articles being written in local newspapers throughout the U.S. every week. Surely, the popularity of the sport of pickleball is on the rise. More and more courts are being built, and more and more people are playing.
Who are the New Converts to Pickleball?
The video clips I cited earlier in this article clearly make a connection between the growth of pickleball and seniors. Pickleball is a game that can be played by older people, and of course we have an aging population with the vast number of baby boomers and the fact that they are living longer and healthier than previous generations. 70 is the new 60 so to speak.
Although we could have a healthy debate about how strenuous is the game of pickleball, we can all agree it is less strenuous than tennis. Generally speaking, you can last at playing pickleball longer than you can at playing tennis.
It is no coincidence that pickleball was in fact associated with seniors right from its origin in 1965, when it was invented by two seniors, Joel Pritchard, congressman from Washington State, and Bill Bell, a successful businessman, and assisted by a gentleman by the name of Barney McCallum. It was played on a badminton court with the same convivial spirit as badminton so that it was actually meant to be for the whole family to play together including of course seniors.
In a newscast on WPTV Channel 5 in April 2018 called “It’s the fastest growing sport in America yet one you probably haven’t heard of,” the narrator focuses on how easy it is to learn how to play pickleball and how it can be enjoyed by both young and old. Says the narrator, “it’s one of the few sports where you can have an 11-year old competing with a 50-year old. To be fair, they actually paired up an 11-year old with a 74-year old not a 50-year old. The point is that this kind of match up is exactly what the founders of the sport envisioned.
In reality, though, you would rarely see this type of match up on the pickleball courts. Instead, you see mostly seniors playing against other seniors.This brings me back my original question: If pickleball is such a fast growing sport why do so many people not know about it?
I think the answer is that if you live in a 55 and older community, frequent a YMCA or rec center or local playground with tennis courts (especially if the courts have been re-lined for pickleball) you probably have seen pickleball being played. But if you are younger or don’t hang around these places you might never have seen a game of pickleball. That explains the apparent disconnect or dilemma that pickleball could be the fastest growing sport in America, yet not a lot of people know about it or have seen it played.
By the way, if you are new to the game or have not played it is very easy to get started. You first need to find the space. It could be a gym, backyard, playground or even a tennis court that is not being used anymore. You can draw lines with chalk according to the following dimensions and create your own court:
As always, I would like to know what you think about this article or about anything that has to do with pickleball.