Membership in USA Pickleball—the national governing body for the sport—increased by 43% from 2020 to 2021. That’s the largest one-year increase in the organization’s history, per usapickleball.org. Associate Editor Phil Keren is interested in hearing from club GMs about pickleball at their facilities.
Major League Baseball in the 1980s had a promotional campaign with the tagline, “Baseball Fever. Catch It.” In the 2020s, there could be a new ad blitz showing people of all ages chasing and hitting a plastic ball with a paddle on a smaller version of a tennis court. This time, the catch phrase could be “Pickleball Fever. Catch It.”
Pickleball, a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, is now the fastest-growing sport in America. The popularity of the game rose during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when many people were looking for a new activity that they could enjoy at a safe distance. Membership in USA Pickleball—The National Governing Body for the sport—increased by 43% from 2020 to 2021. That’s the largest one-year increase in the organization’s history, per usapickleball.org. The number of pickleball players grew by 14.8% from 2020 to 2021 and there are now 4.8 million pickleball players in the U.S., according to the 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) Single Sport Report on Pickleball. The number of players grew by 21.3% from 2019 to 2020.
The sport has also clearly caught on with people of all ages. The average age of all pickleball players declined by 2.9 years to 38.1 in 2021, according to usapickleball.org. However, the average age of more serious players trends higher: The average age of Core players (defined as people who play eight or more times annually) is 47.9, while the average age of Casual players (people who play less than eight times per year) is 34.3.
While I have yet to grab a paddle myself, it seems that one reason for pickleball’s appeal is that it is not as physically demanding as tennis. For a couple years at an earlier point in my adult life, I played a decent amount of tennis. The game is fun, but it’s exhausting and causes a lot of aches and pains. It looks like you still get plenty of exercise playing pickleball, but you don’t have to cover as much ground as you do in tennis. As a result, it certainly seems that people can continue playing the game for a much longer period of time than tennis. This actually makes pickleball more similar to another sport that thrived during the pandemic, golf.
Many country clubs are responding to these trends by building pickleball courts and/or converting some of their tennis courts into pickleball courts. There is an efficiency element at play, too. Pickleball does not require as much space as tennis does. While researching this column, I learned that four pickleball courts can fit in the area occupied by one tennis court.
A quick survey of stories that have appeared in Club + Resort Business during the past couple years found many examples of clubs building pickleball courts. Commercial real estate entrepreneurs Brian and Valerie McCarthy, along with business partner Matthew Gordon, are investing $180 million-plus to construct at least 15 private indoor private pickleball clubs. The McCarthys are the founders of The Pickleball Club, which is constructing a site in Sarasota, Fla. that will have 12 indoor courts, two outdoor courts, a retail shop and cafe in a 33,000-sq.-ft. facility.
Meanwhile, Hunters Run Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla. recently added eight more pickleball courts, bringing its total number to 12. Vineyards Country Club in Naples, Fla. added three more courts, bringing its total number to six. Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head Island, S.C. built six courts.
Clearly, pickleball has a bright future, and country clubs can offer appealing pickleball facilities to attract more members. I am interested in hearing from country club general managers about pickleball. If you don’t have pickleball courts now, are you thinking about building some at your facility? If you have tennis courts, are you thinking about repurposing some of those courts into pickleball courts? If you already have pickleball courts at your site, are you planning to build more?
I’m also interested in how the increase in pickleball offerings at clubs will impact the tennis offerings at clubs over the long-term. I wonder whether the two racquet sports can co-exist at clubs, or will there be a tipping point when pickleball overwhelms tennis? Perhaps that’s already happened.
If you’re a club general manager who would like to share some thoughts on these questions, drop me a line at [email protected]. If I receive enough responses, I will share those in an upcoming column. I look forward to hearing from you.