Mar 29, 2022 - News

The rise of pickleball

Photo courtesy of Life Time

Pickleball is the sport of the season.

What’s happening: It went from an activity for retirees to the fastest growing sport in nation, with 4.8 million people nationwide who play, Axios’ Jennifer Kingson recently reported.

  • There are two types of people, those who already play and those who will play, Life Time Charlotte general Manager LaRay Hampton told me.
  • Life Time will host The Professional Tour of Pickleball North Carolina Open May 5-8.

Yes, but: Pickleball carried the stigma of being a sport for people of an older age, which is exactly why Leesa Walker didn’t want to play.

  • Her husband John suggested they attend a clinic at their new neighborhood courts in 2015. Now, they’re both avid players.
  • But as she told me, she learned the sport isn’t “just your grandpa’s game anymore.”
  • She sees people leaving her clinics at Pickleball Charlotte, where she’s director, thinking, “Wow, I’m an athlete.”

Of note: The average age for a player is 38.1, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Topline Participation Report. 

Why it matters: Pickleball is more accessible than golf or tennis because you don’t need to commit hours like you do for a round of golf or tennis match. Plus, pickleball takes significantly less time to learn to play.

  • “No matter how good you get at golf, it’s always kind of a struggle around the course, but in pickleball, you play a game and it lasts 15 minutes, and the next game, you can have the best game of your life,” USAP ambassador Dick Osman told me. 

Osman and his wife Desiré have been USA Pickleball ambassadors for more than seven years. They were golfers and tennis players who picked up pickleball in 2013 at the suggestion of a friend.  

  • Fifteen minutes into a free lesson, they were hooked — a common theme among everyone I spoke with about the sport.
  • Now Desiré is a certified L2 referee and a certified line judge; Dick is a certified referee.
  • They also publish the Charlotte Dilly News, a monthly newsletter that began with 15 subscribers and has since acquired more than 1,500.

The big picture: The pandemic pushed the sport’s rise — seeing 39.3% growth over the last two years, per SFIA.

  • Court accessibility continues to increase, with every state in the U.S. offering a place to play.
  • There were 9,524 known locations with 38,140 courts at the end of 2021, per USA Pickleball, the sports governing body, which totaled roughly 66 new locations per month.
  • Find a court here.

Locally, Myers Park Country Club is looking to install two concrete pickleball courts near its existing tennis courts. A pickleball court takes up less space. For instance, the overall dimensions at Myers Park Country Club are 120′ x 30′.

  • “The private country clubs have started to get on board,” Dick told me.
  • A pickleball social for members at Myers Park Country Club took place last week.

But the sport exists beyond country clubs. It’s now part of school gym classes and you can play at fitness centers and Mecklenburg County parks, such as Pearl Street Park.

Flashback: Pickleball isn’t new. It was founded on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Washington in 1965. Like all athletic activities, it has its lore, including around the name, which is said to be for co-founder Joel Pritchard’s dog Pickles, who would steal the ball and run off with it. 

  • Dick told me while that’s the fun story, Pickles arrived after the sport got its name.
  • The other narrative stems from Joan Pritchard combining the words badminton and tennis, which reminded her of the pickle boat in rowing, which consists of leftover oarsmen.

How to play 

1. You can play by yourself or with a teammate.

  • Just like tennis, pickleball has singles and doubles.

2. Serves must be underhand.

3. You must let the ball bounce before returning the serve.

4. You can’t hit the ball in the “kitchen.” 

  • The no-volley zone is called the kitchen, and it’s 7 feet on both sides of the net.

5. Games typically go to 11 points, and you must win by two points.  

Pro tip: Everyone I spoke with agreed the best way to start is with an intro lesson. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and you don’t need to invest a ton of money into equipment. Just show up and have fun.

Photo courtesy of Pickleball Charlotte/Leesa Walker
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