Move over, tennis! There is a new recreational sport in town — pickleball. In 2023, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) deemed it the fastest-growing sport in America for the third consecutive year. They estimate that about 36.5 million people have played the game at least once in the year.
Pickleball is a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It was invented in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, by three friends. The first game was played on a badminton court with a pair of ping-pong paddles. It followed the same rules as those of court tennis.
However, after playing the game over a few weekends, the inventors made a few changes. They lowered the net, moved to a tennis court, and simplified the scoring. The origin of the game's name is unclear. But some believe it may have been named after one of the inventors' dogs, who went by the name Pickles.
Pickleball remained a local secret for almost 20 years. In 1984, Washington residents Sid Williams and Bryon Olson formed the United States Amateur Pickleball Association and released an official rulebook. The sport saw some success in the following years. However, it really gained momentum in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With many team sports off-limits, people turned to pickleball as a socially distant way to stay active. The game's low barrier to entry escalated its popularity. Unlike tennis, pickleball can be played anywhere. Makeshift courts can instantly be created on a driveway or cul-de-sac using sidewalk chalk or painter's tape and a portable net. The paddles and balls are also very affordable. Additionally, pickleball is easier to learn and much slower-paced than tennis.
"In tennis, the balls are all over the place," pickleball coach Ernie Medina Jr. told The New York Times. "In pickleball, you're hitting a plastic wiffle-like ball, so it's less bouncy and doesn't fly as fast through the air. And the paddle is much easier to handle because it's shorter and lighter than a tennis racket."
Most importantly, pickleball is a fun, social, and effective way to exercise. A study by the University of Colorado found that players can burn up to 354 calories during a half-hour doubles pickleball game. The calorie output increases substantially in a singles game.
"With a singles match, you're definitely going to be covering more of the court, moving more, and burning more calories," study leader Lance Dalleck told The New York Times. "Pickleball is not just a good workout, it's a great workout."
Given the game's attributes, it should come as no surprise that pickleball, once the realm of people over 50, is quickly gaining traction with younger people. The SFIA report found that in 2023, 28.8 percent of pickleball players in the US were between 18 and 34!
The sport's growth is not just reserved for the United States. Australia, Spain, Canada, and the UK all report an increasing number of pickleball players. The game's popularity has led some to speculate that it may someday become an Olympic sport.
Resources: NYtimes.com, pickleballopinion.com, nbc.com