By Ken Reed
Pickleball, kind of a combination of tennis and ping pong, is the fastest growing sport in the United States. The Washington state has declared it the state sport.
Based on different reports, there are somewhere between 5 million and 8 million pickleball players (or “picklers” as some of those in the sport call themselves) in the country and some in the sport project 40 million pickleball players by 2030. (See HBO’s Real Sports Pickleball Piece) The sport has grown nearly 40 percent since 2020. There are over 35,000 courts, more than double the figure from five years ago.
LeBron James, Tom Brady and former world No.1 tennis player Kim Clijsters have become owners in Major League Pickleball. Yes, there is a professional pickleball league. And there’s also a professional pickleball players tour.
Pickleball matches have been shown on CBS, Fox Sports and the Tennis Channel. Some speculate that pickleball is destined to become an Olympic sport one day.
The game is played on a small court with a net using a paddle about twice the size of a ping pong paddle and a perforated yellow hard plastic ball. If you played Wiffle ball as a kid the ball will look very familiar. PIckleball is popular with all demographic groups but especially the 55+ set. It provides a physical activity with a lot of social elements. Players tend to make fast friends in a local pickleball community. The sport is also taking off in prisons and juvenile detention centers.
One senior pickleball player says Pickleball changed her life: “It was black and white before pickleball and it was living color after pickleball.”
Pickleball is increasingly popular with elementary-age children as well. It is being introduced to kids in physical education classes. It’s a sport that’s easier to pick-up for kids than tennis. PIckleball is a skill sport that doesn’t require super speed or strength. The sport was born in 1965 in Washington state. It was created by a few children and their parents. According to legend, the sport was named after a dog named Pickle who would chase the ball around the court. Another theory suggests the game was named by one of the original adult players after the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
The sport’s popularity took off in 1984, when the United States Amateur Pickleball Association was created to grow the sport on a national level.
Some non-players aren’t fans of this relatively new sport. They hate the loud “thwack” sound that results from the plastic ball meeting the paddle. Some people have sold their homes due to the noise resulting from close proximity to picklebal courts. Also, some tennis players are upset that their favorite courts are being transformed into permanent pickleball courts.
The sport’s popularity is undeniable. Marianne Johnson says the sport changed her and her husband’s social life.
“It’s completely transformed our life. It’s transformed our marriage, our social circle…” says Johnson, a recreation specialist for the Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services Department in Edmonds, Washington. “We actually built a pickleball court in our backyard. We have pickleball parties.”
Washington state senator John Lovick says pickleball helped him lose weight and get his high blood pressure under control. “Win, lose or draw, I just absolutely love playing,” says Lovick.
Other pickleball evangelists think the sport can help bring the divided country together.
“I think pickleball will save America, and I think America, sadly, feels like it needs saving right now,” says Steve Kuhn, founder of Major League Pickleball. “It’s bringing people together that otherwise would not be meeting each other.”
I don’t know about saving America but pickleball is good clean fun for people of all ages. And while it’s not the most physically-demanding sport in the world, if it gets people off the couch and moving I’m all for it.
Give it a try.
Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world, with over 150 camps in 30+ U.S. states and Canada. We discuss problems in youth sports today, including single sport specialization, the growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the high drop-out rate in competitive sports, and the growing mental health challenges young athletes are dealing with today.
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Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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