SAN DIEGO – It’s almost inevitable: the sport with a silly sounding name that your family member, colleague or friend keeps talking about these days.
A pickleball phenomenon is sweeping the United States, including in recreational sports-obsessed California. On courts across the state, you’ll find players happily hitting a wiffle-shaped ball back and forth across a net any day of the week.
You might also hear squabbles over playing space, a growing reality of the sport’s similar needs to tennis. Institutions cannot keep up with the growing demand for designated courts – at least not yet. City and park departments across California are working to expand their offerings and keep the peace.
Officials are convinced by pickleball evangelists that the game is here to stay. They point to its status as the fastest growing sport in the country over the past two years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
“Can Pickleball Save America?” asks a recent long-form essay in the New Yorker. The piece does not read sarcastically.
So, yeah, it’s fair to say that interest in the sport has peaked. For the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know:
Another product of the pandemic
Pickleball is older than you might think, says Chuck Menke, director of marketing for USA Pickleball. In a phone interview with FOX5SanDiego.com, he said the game’s origins date back to Washington State in the mid-1960s.
Since then, a small but dedicated group has been playing for recreational purposes. It’s also a staple in physical education classes across the country. But everything changed with the coronavirus pandemic.
Menke’s organization serves as the national governing body for sports in the United States. Its members have seen a surge in interest as people seek out new hobbies, especially those enjoyed outdoors with a lower risk of getting sick.
“The pandemic has been an opportunity for people to get out there, to try new things, and that’s really lent itself to the growth of the game,” Menke said. “A lot of people started picking it up.”
The number of people playing pickleball nationwide grew nearly 15% from 2020 to 2021, following growth of more than 21% the previous year, according to industry statistics. It totals at least 4.8 million players, ranging from “casual” (the vast majority) to competitive.
Menke thinks there’s a simple intimacy provided by the smaller playing field. It offers the perfect combination of pandemic distancing and social connection, he said. It’s something that people have been really craving for the past few years.
“It’s a bit more social than some other racquet sports in that you’re closer to each other,” Menke told FOX 5. Plus, “you get to hang out before and after you play. .”
How to play the game
For the layman, the basic elements of pickleball are quite easy to grasp. It looks like shrunken tennis and functions similar enough that beginners can pick up and play a rudimentary game almost immediately.
A pickleball court is 44 feet long and 20 feet wide. In contrast, a tennis court is 78 feet by 36 feet. The nets used in both sports are similar – about three feet high – with a pickleball net that sags two inches to 34 inches in the center.
USA Pickleball has a complete guide to setting up a temporary pickleball court here.
Pickleball racquets are smaller than a tennis racquet and larger than a table tennis racquet. They’re usually made of composite materials, including aluminum and graphite, but old-school wooden paddles are still spinning as well.
The ball is unique for its holes, similar to a wiffle ball. Different styles are used for indoor and outdoor play. They come in several bright colors.
Check out USA Pickleball’s Equipment Guide here.
After a sneaky serve on the court, the players go back and forth on the net. Points are scored only by the serving team and awarded when the other team fails to return the ball in bounds.
A non-volley zone, known as the “kitchen”, borders the area closest to the net. While standing in the kitchen, you cannot steal (hit the ball before it bounces).
In doubles and singles pickleball matches, players use the full width of the court. The double is a popular option, especially for those who use the sport for low impact exercises. Singles naturally involve more racing.
Basic strategy usually dictates that players head for the net as soon as possible. Much of doubles pickleball is played with all four participants huddled together near the kitchen.
There are some quirks in the serve sequence and other rules, but scoring is simpler than tennis at first glance. Matches are played at 11 and teams must win by two.
Watch this series of tutorials for a more in-depth look.
Pickleball courts and the struggle for space
The supply for pickleball courts has yet to meet demand, in many places.
Tennis courts are often the most natural surface for setting up temporary courts or for proposals to return part of the playing surface to pickleball permanently. This has sometimes led to tensions between the sports.
And one group has the majority: the nationwide tennis players and dwarf pickleball participants more than four to one.
In an official capacity, the governing bodies of the games generally adopt a conciliatory tone.
In its official statement on the matter, the United States Tennis Association calls for the development of sites more dedicated to the two sports, “providing an optimal opportunity for use, harmony and revenue generation”.
“We support all sports and activities,” Menke told FOX 5. And regarding the struggle for limited court space: “There will always be growing pains,” he said. “We are not trying to replace tennis in any form.”
But on the ground, things have sometimes become difficult between the die-hards. In San Diego, a group of pickleball players want to convert 12 Mission Bay tennis courts — which they say are underused — into a facility dedicated to their sport. It’s to the chagrin of tennis players who say they’re still active and shouldn’t be kicked out.
This led to packed houses and impassioned pleas at otherwise sparsely attended public meetings. Similar scenes unfolded from Palm Springs to the Bay Area.
In the end, Menke echoed the tennis association’s plea for dedicated pickleball courts (instead of converting existing tennis facilities), although he said there was also a place for multi-purpose land.
“That’s really the key to the continued growth of the sport is making sure there’s access to facilities,” he said.
A young man’s game
Menke says if there’s a lingering misconception around pickleball, it’s that only older people play.
It’s true that many pickleball enthusiasts are tennis players transitioning to a low-impact sport or seniors who stay active. But the game has grown significantly in popularity with younger groups, Menke says.
The number of 18-to-34-year-olds playing the game in 2021 was roughly equal to everyone 55 and older, according to statistics from his organization.
The youth movement is on full display in the game’s growing competitive circuits. You can watch professional-level matches in the Professional Pickleball Association and the Association of Pickleball Professionals.
Menke and company are already gearing up for the 2022 U.S. National Pickleball Championships in November, to be held near Palm Springs, Southern California.
The matches will be played in Indian Wells, a longtime host of tournaments for the world’s best tennis players.