How Pickleball Won Over Everyone From Leonardo DiCaprio to Your Grandparents
BY CRAIG COYNE
The addictive tennis-Ping-Pong hybrid might be the last thing red and blue Americans can agree on. “I literally want every person in the world to play this game,” says one convert.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays every day—by his own rules, naturally. “It’s like a free-for-all,” one L.A.-based showrunner confides. Anyone hoping for face time with DiCaprio might end up waiting until he finishes on the court. It’s how things work in L.A. Mortals bide their time while movie star chases plastic ball with friends.
But DiCaprio is hardly alone in his obsession. Out of nowhere, pickleball is everywhere. This sneaky-fast amalgam of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong has been embraced by Larry David, Melinda Gates, Jamie Foxx, the Kardashians, Owen Wilson, Jillian Michaels, Zach Braff, and Giuliana Rancic. Pro athletes from Russell Wilson to Annika Sörenstam have mastered the dink and drive. Games break out in the Chicago Cubs bullpen. Reese Witherspoon mentioned pickleball in a birthday post to husband Jim Toth. George Clooney says his wife, Amal, routinely torches him on their home court in L.A. Joel Silver prefers to just watch. Survivor winner Tyson Apostol has parlayed his reality-TV fame into a career as a pickleball influencer.
At L.A.’s sprawling Riviera Country Club, pro Matt Manasse (a.k.a. “Pickleball McNasty”) has earned a reputation as the “pickleball coach to the stars.” Private courts are popping up around L.A. at such a clip that Ria Berkus jokes it’s the new Hollywood status symbol. On the other side of the country, pickleball is creeping into the Hamptons, with private lessons offered at the exclusive East Hampton Tennis Club. But there’s just as much enthusiasm for the sport at the YMCA down the road from my parents’ house in Georgia. There, sandwiched between Walmart and Zaxby’s, seniors gather every Thursday morning with a portable net and paddles intended for padel—a different sport entirely.
Between 2019 and 2020, pickleball participation grew by a staggering 21.3 percent. The Economist declared it “the fastest growing sport in America.” It’s hard to make sense of that kind of growth. We could theorize as to what’s behind its surging popularity or just accept that pickleball is really fun and move on. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates that 4.2 million Americans play at least once a year. That’s roughly the number of people in this country who play lacrosse and ice hockey combined. It’s also comparable to the population of Oregon—and greater than that of 23 other states. Schools across the nation are adding pickleball to their phys-ed curriculums. The stage is set for a vibrant youth movement in years to come.
The boom appears surprisingly democratic, as pickleball gains popularity across the socioeconomic spectrum. You can find courts at Carmel Valley Ranch outside Big Sur, California, and at La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Florida. How, at a time when America’s rich and poor experience increasingly distinct realities, can anything hover above the political fray? Perhaps a low profile is to thank. Fair or not, we’ve labeled the NFL conservative and the NBA liberal. I’ve been to two major pickleball tournaments and can’t remember if they even played the national anthem, let alone if anyone kneeled.
Simone Jardim, a 41-year-old mother of two and savage destroyer of anyone challenging her position as the top-ranked women’s player, ascribes pickleball’s ability to bring different classes together to its humble roots in public venues. “On the same court, you can have a millionaire with someone living paycheck to paycheck,” she explains. “No one’s interested in what you do for a living, only in how long you’ve been playing.” There’s an egalitarianism to pickleball you don’t often find in other sports. I’ve had my ass kicked by men (and women) in their 60s, I’ve beaten friends with private jets and current college athletes, and I regularly swap pickleball-related texts with a former U.S. president, the Australian rocker Alex Cameron, and a buddy who jumps the NYC subway turnstiles to save cash. It’s not a group text, but still.
Given pickleball’s explosive growth, it’s no surprise that the professionalization—and commercialization—of the sport is under way. Equipment and apparel brands, media companies, and pro tours are banking on the sport producing transcendent stars. A storybook contrast atop the men’s field promises hope of a breakout. Tyson McGuffin, the intense, charismatic, tatted-up pride of Idaho, was dethroned in 2019 by Ben Johns, who won the national men’s singles title as a junior at the University of Maryland after playing for only three and a half years. Johns’s play inspires and frustrates in equal measure, offering a reminder of both what is possible and how far you are from achieving it. His greatness feels effortless in the way a savant’s excellence often does. If McGuffin is Nadal, Palmer, and Ronaldo, Johns is Federer, Nicklaus, and Messi.
But greatness alone doesn’t cut it. The prize money in pickleball still can’t sustain a living. The 2021 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships in Indian Wells, California—arguably the sport’s biggest event—will feature a total purse of only $90,000. At the last games, the men’s and women’s singles champions each took home a modest $2,500 for their efforts. While Johns, almost certainly the world’s best compensated player, has estimated his current annual pay at a robust $250,000, most pros can’t sniff that sort of haul.
Teaching and sponsorships often provide the most reliable sources of income. Coach, promote, compete. It’s a grind even the top players must endure. Compare Johns’s earnings to his fellow niche-sport GOAT, disc-golf legend Paul McBeth—who recently nabbed a single endorsement deal worth a guaranteed $10 million—and you’ll see how far pickleball lags behind.
Even if other alternative sports, from darts to cornhole, enjoy higher paydays or more TV airtime, pickleball might beat them to the ultimate prize. In May, the Montreal Gazette noted that pickleball has been called the fastest growing sport in Canada. The International Federation of Pickleball currently boasts 60 member countries, and a swelling global presence has inspired enthusiasts to lobby the International Olympic Committee for inclusion. A dream that might have appeared farcical only a few years ago suddenly feels plausible. If break dancing can head slide into Paris 2024, there’s a banger’s chance pickleball can bring the dink to the 2028 Los Angeles games.
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