The paddle sport has more than two million players nationwide and continues to grow, appealing largely to older people and former tennis players, with 68% of its players over 60 years old. However, some tennis industry professionals see its growth as a threat, potentially taking players away from tennis.
In a feature published in Tennis Industry Magazine, author Mary Helen Sprecher considers the meteoric rise of pickleball—one of the few wildly popular sports that appeals primarily to an aging demographic.
With 68% of all its players over 60 years of age and more players coming in every day, it’s sneaking up on the tennis market, Industry reported.
“It’s gaining,” said consultant Doug Cash succinctly. “There are more than two million people playing it today. In a few years, we expect there to be 8 million. It’s gaining popularity and it’s gaining players.”
The paddle sport, which took hold in the Sun Belt and migrated north and east as snowbirds came home, is here to stay and poised for even more growth. According to the Sports & Fitness Association’s 2015 Participation Report, pickleball participation is at 2.46 million. Because it has so many skills compatible with those of tennis, its smaller courts, underhand strokes and slower balls are finding favor among baby boomers who spent their previous decades hitting overhead smashes and charging the net—and who now want to stay active and competitive, despite their limitations, Industry reported.
Pickleball combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Played indoors or outdoors with a paddle and a plastic ball, the court is the same size as a doubles badminton court, 20 by 44 feet. (In pickleball, the same court is used for both singles and doubles play.) The court is striped similar to a tennis court with left and right service courts, but there is a 7-foot zone in front of the net, called the “kitchen,” that players are not allowed to volley from, Industry reported.
“I think the USTA is afraid of pickleball. They’re worried about it possibly taking tennis players,” Cash said. “It probably is and will do that.”
But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing equation, said Terri Graham, whose company, Spirit Promotions, is producing the 2016 US Open Pickleball Championships, and understands the demographic appeal of the sport. Having previously spent more than two decades at Wilson, she has had the opportunity to view the seismic shifts in both tennis and pickleball, Industry reported.
“I started hearing the pickleball buzz at Wilson about six or seven years ago, and it has only grown since then,” Graham said. “Thousands of people are entering that game every month.”
One unique key to pickleball’s appeal, she adds, is that its players are evangelists for the sport. “You can walk up to any place in the country where pickleball is being played. You can show up without a paddle, without a ball, without any equipment, and I guarantee you someone is going to come over and hand you a paddle and say, ‘Here, come on and try this.’ And you’ll get hooked,” she said.
According to Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association, it’s a model of recruitment the USAPA is encouraging. The organization has what is called Ambassadors, “people who are really enthusiastic, whose job it is to hold demos and clinics and help get people introduced to and interested in the sport.”
And once those players are in, adds Graham, clubs can and should welcome them. “There is room for tennis players and pickleball players. I tell clubs, ‘You have tennis courts. You have people who play tennis in the mornings and people who play in the evenings. If you’d put pickleball lines on a couple courts, they could be used when the tennis players aren’t on them.’”
This, however, is a point of friction. Currently, the only lines that are supposed to be on tennis courts are tennis lines. Lines for 36- and 60-foot play can be added to tennis courts, but they must adhere to certain standards concerning color, spacing and width, Industry reported.
“It’s too bad pickleball courts aren’t the same size as the kids’ courts,” said Cash. “That would have solved some problems.”
As a side note, it’s not uncommon to see lines for a variety of sports on private and recreational tennis courts. However, whether a club will do the same depends upon the level of play it hosts and sometimes, the mindset of its pros and players, Industry reported.
But as the demand for court time grows, more parks are building designated pickleball courts and more clubs are considering doing the same. “I was on the phone with a friend in Chicago,” Cash said. “He is trying to push pickleball there because he has seen the growth. His goal is to have a standalone pickleball club.”
In a 2014 interview, Maloof stated that USAPA measured the growth of the sport according to the addition of what it called “places to play,” which included not only designated pickleball facilities (which are growing in number) but tennis, badminton or other courts that were being used for pickleball—in addition to lines painted on playgrounds or gymnasium floors, as well as rec centers nationwide. At the time, the USAPA was recording upwards of 44 new places to play per month. That number has only increased since then, Industry reported.
For now, Graham encourages clubs to schedule play for both groups, and to take advantage of the opportunity to bring in new members by publicizing those opportunities. “Tennis is an awesome sport,” she said. “No question. But you don’t want to say to someone who has played until they’re 60 and now has hip or knee or shoulder problems, ‘Well, you can’t play tennis any longer so you shouldn’t play anything. Go sit down.’ You want people to stay active. You want people to stay healthy.”
Pickleball is the key to that longevity and part of the fitness continuum, Graham said. And it only stands to grow. After all, the things tennis, racquetball and squash now have—the teaching certifications, the professional associations and the pro tours—have not yet been implemented for pickleball, Industry reported.
“We’re just in the first inning of an extra-innings baseball game,” Graham said. “The sport is so young and we’re so early in our growth. There is still so far to go.”