Pickleball’s the new jam: Why it’s now the fastest-growing sport
A hybrid of badminton, pingpong and tennis, it was the fastest-growing sport in the country from 2019 to 2021, according to an industry group that tracks sport participation.
By: Elliott Ramos
Wendy Siegel had never played a sport in her life.
The 53-year-old mom of three was bored. It was the first summer of the pandemic, and everything was closed in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. A friend recommended they try pickleball — a racquet sport played on a smaller tennis-like court.
“I honestly had never played any kind of sport,” Siegel said. “It was totally new.”
It took several lessons to learn to hit the ball, which is slightly larger than a tennis ball and made of plastic. But Siegel was hooked after her first class and kept at it. Having now played regularly since August 2020, she says she’s improved.
“I feel pretty good about myself going out there,” Siegel said. “Now, I like to call myself Sporty Spice.”
Siegel is one of more than a half-million people who have picked up a pickleball paddle since 2020, according to the latest data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And while some started playing as a safe pandemic activity, the sport has been growing in popularity for years, with participation doubling since 2014. It was even named the official sport of the state of Washington in March.
“The pandemic certainly helped accelerate the growth of the sport, but it was growing very steadily before that,” said Stu Upson, the CEO of USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., responsible for the rules, rulebook, some tournaments and promoting the sport’s growth.
About 17 percent of players are 65 and older, while a third are under 25, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Pickleball Report, which surveyed 18,000 Americans on their participation in 100 sports and activities.
Upson suspects the sport has grown because it’s easy to learn. “When people try it and then they start playing, they don’t say they just play — they say they were addicted to it.”
According to Upson, pickleball was created in the 1960s by two families who lived just west of Seattle, on Bainbridge Island. The families, Upson said, invented the game out of boredom, using the badminton court and net, a perforated ball and table tennis paddles they had on hand. The game was supposedly named after one of their dogs, Pickles.
Today, pickleball is a mix of tennis, pingpong and badminton. The ball itself has circular holes in it, while the paddle — about the size of a table tennis paddle — is rectangular.
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