Communities around the country have begun embracing pickleball, the sport comparable to tennis but played on a smaller court with paddles and a hard plastic ball. Following its advent, nearly 60 years ago in the western United States, few could have predicted how far the sport would come over the decades. The sport has seen a significant rise in popularity since its beginnings, with play extending into countries outside the Unites States.
Utah resident and pickleball instructor Shannon Wright has watched the sport’s impressive rise firsthand, having played the sport for over 10 years now. When Wright began playing, Utah hardly even had the slightest inkling of becoming the pickleball-crazed state it is today.
“I started playing probably a year before there were any outdoor courts in Salt Lake County,” Wright said. “Right now, we have between 130 and 140 public outdoor courts in Salt Lake County. So in that seven-, eight-year range of the first outdoor courts to now, that growth is just tremendous. It’s hard to get on a court right now.”
Today, parks throughout Utah and the rest of the country often include pickleball courts and the game has also found its way into schools, with some physical education classes choosing to include pickleball in their curriculum.
“There’s pockets around the country (where pickleball is) extremely popular,” Tyler Loong, a native Utahn and one of the world’s top professional pickleballers said. “Here in Utah, it’s gone crazy; California, Arizona, Florida. There’s a lot of these kinds of pockets where it’s just super popular. (It’s) spreading out across the world, actually.”
The game has been embraced by young and old alike, with Fox News reporting that a retirement community in Florida, sometimes called the “Mecca of Pickleball,” boasts more than 100 courts dedicated to the sport.
In 2021, there were 4.8 million pickleball players across the United States according to estimates found in a recent Business Insider article. The news outlet also discovered that, “over the past five years, pickleball has had a double-digit growth rate annually.” The sport is expanding quickly, gaining interest in greater numbers. Those who have not joined the pickleball wave may be missing out on a hobby they never realized they needed.
Anyone can play pickleball
Pickleball has become popular among people of all ages, with Yahoo reporting the average age for American players to be 43.5. The sport is easy to play, naturally equalizes the playing field for a broad range of competitors, and won’t break the bank for those looking for an affordable, new hobby.
Many people play pickleball for the first time in adulthood. Loong did not begin playing until he was a student at BYU, initially competing on the Cougars tennis team before picking up the sport. No matter when a person begins playing pickleball, it can be learned quickly.
“It’s very inviting and open to players of all backgrounds,” Loong said.
“Pickleball is very easy for a beginner to go out there and kind of learn the basics and engage in points really quickly,” he said. “Rather than tennis, or these other sports where it takes a lot of skill and practice to reach a certain level, in pickleball you can go out there from day one and have fun.”
While athleticism is important in pickleball, unlike most other sports it is not crucial to success on the court, thus affording the game a diversity of competitors. It is easy to swiftly move to any position on the court because of its small dimensions, making the game fun for players of all ages.
“You find all types of people (playing pickleball),” Wright said. “When I started playing, I was 40 years old and 50 pounds overweight, and I could play and I could compete. I’m a good athlete but I’m not a great athlete by any means.”
Pickleball’s acceptance by all kinds of players has contributed to its popularity as well as its low costs for those new to the sport. According to USA Today, pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports in America, and affordability is a big reason why. For those looking to join the trend, a paddle can be purchased for under $25 and a pack of balls for less than $15.
Pickleball is rapidly becoming a well-recognized sport
Pickleball’s popularity and recognition have grown hand in hand, bolstering its growth, and allowing the game to find its way into 70 countries across the world, as reported by CNN. The sport has advanced in multiple ways in just a short time span.
College students across the country have embraced the sport, with multiple schools seeing pickleball clubs form on their campuses. Students at different schools don’t typically have formal competitions against each other, however, some have attempted it. The first recorded intercollegiate pickleball tournament in the U.S. took place in 2017 when Southern Utah University hosted Utah Tech, then known as Dixie State.
Pickleball enthusiasts are optimistic that the sport’s recognition will continue to grow.
“I’m very confident that (pickleball) will be in the Olympics one day,” Loong said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Pickleball has also gained greater recognition through professional tournaments streamed live on platforms such as ESPN, YouTube Live and Facebook Live. Some of the sport’s major tournaments draw thousands of in-person spectators as well, according to Loong.
If you’re good enough, pickleball pays
With greater recognition and individual sponsors, pickleball has turned into a profession for Loong and others. Making money playing pickleball, however, takes success at the sport’s top level, something Loong has experienced as the Professional Pickleball Association’s 10th highest rated player in men’s singles.
“They have singles, doubles and mixed doubles,” Loong said. “I’m actually in the top 10 in the world in all three of those divisions. I float normally between five to nine or so in those different events. My highest ranking has been No. 3.”
Loong estimates that the association typically divvies up $80,000 to $100,000 each tournament among both the male and female competitors, with the top performers earning the best payouts.
“If you’re a top-five, top-three player, you’re making really good money for pickleball,” Loong said. “Sponsors are a really big key. You’re seeing a lot of sponsors sponsoring the players.”
“If you’re a top-10 player, you’re making well over $100,000 a year.”
Anyone can sign up to compete in pro tournaments, but there is no guarantee of being admitted to play, as the governing body prioritizes professionals and other premier players. An entrance fee is also required in order to be considered for the tournaments.
Pickleball a great way to socialize, have fun and get exercise
Over the last couple years, countless individuals have sought out new ways to stay healthy, have fun and associate with others. Many have achieved that goal through pickleball “with half a million new participants entering the sport since the pandemic alone” according to Men’s Health.
As pickleball courts began dotting parks and backyards, the game became a greater part of community events, as well as family and friend get-togethers. The courts, usually filled with people, are replete with the boisterous sound of clacking pickleballs slapped back and forth by competitors on warm sunny days.
Installing pickleball courts has become a practical way for cities and individuals to utilize space while at the same time providing opportunities for exercise and fun. The court’s small size makes it practical and easy to communicate while playing.
“It makes it a lot more social,” Loong said. “You don’t have to scream when you’re talking to somebody. You’re normally within 10 to 20 feet (of your opponent) so you can have a pretty good conversation.”
The courts are not just used for social events, however, with countless tournaments being held locally and throughout the country. Wright has helped put together multiple tournaments in Salt Lake County and across the state. “Every city, every municipality has their own tournament,” she said. “It’s Festival Days. It’s Strawberry Days. It’s the Mayor’s Cup. It’s the Fourth of July tournament. And then there’s a ton of fundraiser tournaments.”
Pickleball has become a great way for people and communities to achieve a variety of desirable outcomes.
“There’s so many different good benefits that come from it,” Loong said. “Whether it be fun. Whether it be exercise. Whether it be social. Whether it be networking. There’s so many good things that can come from it.”
Pickleball satisfies the itch for those who like to compete
Competitors love pickleball. As athletes grow older, the sports that they loved can become harder to play for various reasons. This often leads them to pickleball with two-thirds of those who play the sport over the age of 25 as reported by NBC.
“As you get older you can’t play these super aggressive sports like football or basketball,” Loong said. “In pickleball you can still get hurt, but the risk is a lot lower than contact sports.”
Pickleball is different. Once people start playing the sport, they often can’t stop. “When we talk about a pickleball addiction, it’s kind of true,” Wright said. “You play and then you want to keep playing and then you want to play some more.
“We have that kind of addiction pattern when you start pickleball, because it’s like, ‘I can’t play enough’ because it’s so fun.”
Though you don’t necessarily need to be an athlete to have fun playing pickleball, many athletes’ skillsets and competitive drives translate well to the sport. Their appetite for competition can often be satisfied while playing.
“There’s a lot of people who maybe played a collegiate sport … and a lot of times they don’t do anything for a couple of years,” Loong said. “Then they find pickleball and then they find that fire, that competitive edge in them, and they just have a lot of fun.”
No matter who you are, that competitive fire could be in you, waiting to show itself as you have fun on a pickleball court near you. Who knows, you might just find the hobby you never knew you needed.