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A sleeping giant? Why pickleball is growing in popularity

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Professional pickleball player Callie Smith returns a shot as she and her husband, Kyle Smith, play against Chuck Taylor and Spencer Smith in Lehi on Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With origins that go as far back as 1965, pickleball has exploded in popularity over recent years.

Pickleball has become one of the fastest-growing sports in America, from people playing at local parks all around Utah to professional leagues and tournaments and even a television deal with ESPN. According to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, there are more than 3 million people per year who play pickleball.

The sport’s concept is similar to that of tennis. It can be played singles or doubles, and is played with paddles and a ball resembling a whiffle ball and a smaller court and shorter net than in tennis, with a few specific rules of its own.

Part of the reason pickleball is booming is because it is easy to pick up and is easier on the body than tennis, lending itself to all age groups and demographics.

The sport also offers a competitive aspect, with professional leagues around the world. 

One of those pro leagues, the Professional Pickleball Association, is run by Utahn Connor Pardoe.

“A few tournament directors that hold professional tournaments throughout the United States decided to put together a professional pickleball tour and everybody to come together and to be able to hold their respective tournaments and be a part of an entire series. So when they decided to do that, they reached out to me and offered me the job to oversee it and be the commissioner of these events,” Pardoe said.

Pardoe says the sport has great appeal because everyone can have fun playing it.

“I think the reason the sport has been growing so quick is because it’s such a friendly game for everybody. Whether you’ve had a great tennis background or a racket background, and you’re a competitive athlete and you’ve been playing for years and you want your competitive fix,” Pardoe said. “I mean, it’s great for those people, but it’s also great for people that, maybe, they’re not that athletic or they haven’t played much sports in the past. It’s such a forgiving game where an 18-year-old can play with a 65-year-old and everybody can have fun.”

The PPA hosts pickleball tournaments on the pro tour circuit, including grand slam events with payouts as high as $150,000.

“The sport is growing tremendously. A few years ago it was seen more as an older person’s sport, more of a 50-plus sport, but the sport has really started to boom. I would say in the last 18 months or so, we’re seeing a lot of younger people come into the sport. We’re seeing a lot of ex-tennis players come into the sport. It’s got a big crossover with golf as well,” Pardoe said.

The impact of COVID-19 has limited the amount of tournaments that are able to be held, but tournaments are still playing. PPA recently held the Margaritaville Underground Invitational, which was broadcast on ESPN3 and will hold the PPA championship on Oct. 22-25 in Las Vegas.

“We signed a long-term contract with ESPN and those guys there. I mean word for word, they look at pickleball and they view it as a sleeping giant,”  Pardoe said. “It’s really bringing in a lot of sponsors, different people that weren’t necessarily in pickleball are now going to be interested. It’s really just helping the overall exposure of the sport.

“Being able to get it to your average sports viewer or your sports fanatic. It’ll be great to get pickleball in front of their eyeballs.”

Callie Smith, who played tennis her freshman year at BYU before transferring to Utah for the last three years of her career, is one of the athletes that has transitioned from tennis to pickleball.

Smith was introduced to the sport by her grandfather-in-law.

“My grandfather-in-law actually asked me to play a tournament with him, a pickleball tournament with him and I didn’t want to play, but I can’t turn that down, so I played with him, and that increased to some people playing that were better players,” Smith said.

Smith then started playing with some “5.0” players — players high in the pickleball rankings, before starting to play in professional tournaments.

“Then I got introduced to some 5.0 players and, oh, wow. There’s actually some competition in this. It can be really fun and something new. So I started playing and practicing more and loved it,” Smith said.

Before COVID-19 hit, Smith was set to play in 28 pickleball tournaments. She is ranked 11th in the PPA mixed doubles rankings.

“I loved it, honestly. Everyone I’ve met has been really positive. Helping each other out, working with each other, even in the competition. Obviously, it’s competitive, but the people are nice. It’s fun. At the top level, it’s having to take some work, but I’ve loved it. It kind of feels like I’m back in competition. I missed that after I graduated from college and it’s filled the void for me,” Smith said.

Smith started playing pickleball two years ago, but this was her first year as a pro.

“It was sad when the coronavirus hit. I had some really good partners lined up. I felt like I finally broke into the top tier,” Smith said. “I’m excited, hopefully I can play some tournaments.”

Where to play

Fifth Avenue Park / 230 C St. E., Salt Lake City

11th Ave Park / 581 Terrace Hills Drive, Salt Lake City

Fairmont Park / 2305 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City

Millcreek Community Center / 2266 E. Evergreen Ave., Salt Lake City

Murray Park / 170 E. 5065 South, Murray

Holladay Lions Recreation Center / 1661 E. Murray Holladay Rd, Millcreek

City Hall Park / 4567 Holladay Blvd. E., Holladay

Millrace Park / 1200 W. 5400 South, Taylorsville

Hogan Park / 1798 S. 720 West, Woods Cross

Centennial Park / 5405 W. 3100 South, West Valley City

South Davis Recreation Center / 550 N. 200 West, Bountiful

Twin Hollow Park / Twin Hollow Park, Bountiful

Midvale Boys & Girls Club / 7631 Chapel St., Midvale

Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center / 7500 S. 2700 East, Cottonwood Heights

Lodestone Park / 6170 Lodestone Ave., Kearns

Dewey Bluth Park / Dewey Bluth Park, Sandy

Draper Senior Center / 1148 Pioneer Road, Draper

Riverton City Park / 12642 S. 1400 West, Riverton

Wheadon Farm Park / 158 Southfork Drive, Draper

Wardle Fields Regional Park / 14148 S. 2700 West, Bluffdale

Willow Creek Park / 4460 Split Rail Lane, Park City

Barnes Park / 950 W. 200 North, Kaysville