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Pickleball: The Rules, Rise, and Reach of a Surging Sport

Pickleball courts are popping up all over, as everyone from former presidents to NBA referees seem to be getting into the game.

Your timeline, your parents, your friends, your idols. Chances are someone has tried to tell you about pickleball, the racquet sport that has taken the world by storm over the past few years. From the amateurs to the pros, there’s a seemingly never-ending amount of money pouring into pickleball, and the ease of the game has only helped it catch fire.

So where does the sport stand today and why has it grown so rapidly? Where’s this sport going? Let’s dive in.

What is Pickleball?

It’d help to establish what we’re actually talking about. To the untrained eye, pickleball looks like a blend of ping pong and tennis. It involves wooden paddles, a perforated polymer ball (similar to a wiffle ball), and a court which shares the same dimensions with badminton.

You’ve got a small area called the “kitchen” by the net, where you’re not allowed to volley the ball and must allow it to bounce first before hitting it. This creates some ping pong-inspired points where players are just a few feet from one another trying to poke the ball over the net. You then have a larger area behind that where players can take a bigger swing at the ball, which would highlight your skills with other traditional racquet sports. It makes for a fun back-and-forth.

If you need help visualizing the sport, here are some highlights from the 2021 US Open Men’s Singles gold match.

Because a tennis court can be easily converted into a pickleball court, many have been popping up across the country. In fact, there were 8,735 places to pickleball at the start of 2021, and according to the most recent numbers, 67 new locations are opened every month.

Power Players

The supply has met the demand. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimated that around 3.3 million American citizens played pickleball at least once back in 2019, and in 2020 that number grew to 4.2 million, according to data provided to Boardroom by USA Pickleball. While the reports have yet to come out on just how many people picked up pickleball in 2021, the expectations are that the number will have grown substantially.

“You’ll see Drew Brees playing pickleball. We have President George W. Bush playing pickleball, and his daughter Jenna,” USA Pickleball’s Laura Gainor told Boardroom. “You just keep seeing names of celebrities and athletes that are now picking up the sport.”

Among those notable pickleball players is NBA official Scott Foster, who brought the sport to the NBA bubble last year in Orlando and helped it catch on with fellow referees.

In all, there were 1.4 million “core” pickleball players in 2020 — those who played at least eight times throughout the year. These core players skew older, with 54% of them aged 55 and up, but from 2016 to 2020 the number of core players younger than 55 grew from 40% to 46%. Many tennis players who can’t move like they used to are switching racquets and embracing the smaller courts of pickleball.

While the sport is on fire with the older population, it seems younger Americans are fueling its growth.

“So many more younger players are picking up the sport,”Gainor said.

Why is it that so many people are picking up paddles? Well, it’s quite simple to play.

“It’s a fun, social, kind of easy-to-learn sport, so it doesn’t take long to pick up the rules,” Gainor said. “You can easily make a court in your driveway, in your backyard or in the street. At the beginning of the pandemic, all of our portable nets sold out because people wanted to get outside, they wanted a safe place to go play.”

Accessibility and Hospitality

The pandemic was certainly a big factor in the boom of the sport in 2021, and that’s how Jason Strauss — CEO of the Tao Group — became such a big fan of the game. He, like plenty of Americans, saw pickleball as a great way to see others, socially distanced, and get outside.

“It will change your life,” he told Boardroom. “The accessibility to enjoy this sport at different skill sets is amazing. You have to take probably 30 or 40 tennis lessons before you can hit a baseline forehand. It would take you so many lessons to have a rally at the baseline. At pickleball, you could have a rally at the baseline after two times picking up the racquet.”

Strauss, like many others, is ready to bet big on pickleball.

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“Me and my company are looking for ways to incorporate the sport into hospitality,” he said. “We have several ideas on how to do that. We think there’s a real marriage between pickleball and food and beverage”

Top Golf — especially in Las Vegas — has been one massive success story when it comes to marrying sports and food and beverage. Founded in 2000, the global sport entertainment company has launched several locations around the world where anyone — even those with no golf experience — can eat, drink and swing a golf club. Perhaps there’s something to be said for creating a similar experience with pickleball, a sport which just about anyone can play.

A potential venue that blends eating and “pickling” could catch on in Vegas, which Strauss says is “the capital of entertainment and the capital of pickleball.”

Strauss and the Tao Group aren’t the only ones making a bet on pickleball. Sporting goods retailer HEAD has been at this for the better part of five years.

“It was on our priority list in early 2015 when we identified it as an emerging racquet sport,” Allison Barnett, HEAD’s brand manager, told Boardroom. “We did a bunch of research and entered the development stages in early 2016 and launched our first paddle collection in 2017.”

The Big Time

HEAD was there right in the nick of time, joining other companies with tennis offerings in producing equipment for the game as well as sponsoring athletes.

Yes, athletes. There are actually dueling leagues — the APP Tour, the Professional Pickleball Association and Major League Pickleball. USA Pickleball also puts on the USA Pickleball National Championships each year at Indian Wells — the site of one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments on the ATP and WTA Tour each season.

While there were nearly 45 professionals in the field, there were several names you may recognize from different sports. NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry won gold in the men’s doubles senior event alongside PGA swing coach Hank Haney.

The prize pool totaled only $90,000, meaning you can’t make a living off of playing pickleball, but it seems like that could always change with an upward trajectory like this.

“The sky is the limit,” Barnett said. “We’ve continued to see a steady increase in sales for pickleball paddles, balls, court footwear and accessories each year. Distribution opportunities continue to arise and many more retail locations are now carrying pickleball as part of their assortments due to the popularity of the sport.”

We don’t really know what pickleball’s future looks like, we just know it’s got one. The sport is now available to stream, and there seems to be a massive audience on Instagram for clips of good rallies. Whether or not it makes it to the big-time and becomes a legitimate profession for more than just a handful of skilled players isn’t really the point. It’s made it, period.

Many racquet sports such as padel, paddleball, and squash have spread quickly and sustained a strong level, but something about pickleball feels different. The excitement of a rally and the ability to combine so many different skills from so many different sports makes for a great mix of players, and the ease of the game coupled with the ability to build your own court means the sport’s potential is massive.

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