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Insiders say the explosive growth of pickleball can be a positive for the tennis market — if tennis lets it.

By Mary Helen Sprecher

Sports that are skyrocketing in popularity can usually point to a youthful, testosterone-fueled athlete base and a bucket-list appeal (we’re looking at you, obstacle racing.) But when was the last time a sport absolutely exploded off the charts because of an aging demographic that couldn’t get enough of it?

Not before, and not until, pickleball. And with 68% of all its players over 60 years of age and more players coming in every day, it’s sneaking up on the tennis market.

Not that anyone in the industry really wants to admit that.

“It’s gaining,” says consultant Doug Cash succinctly. “There are more than 2 million people playing it today. In a few years, we expect there to be 8 million. It’s gaining popularity and it’s gaining players.”

The paddle sport with the funny name — the one that took hold in the Sun Belt and migrated north and east as snowbirds came home — is here to stay and poised for even more growth. According to the Sports & Fitness Association’s 2015 Participation Report, pickleball participation is at 2.46 million. Because it has so many skills compatible with those of tennis, its smaller courts, underhand strokes and slower balls are finding favor among baby boomers who spent their previous decades hitting overhead smashes and charging the net — and who now want to stay active and competitive, despite their limitations.

Pickleball combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Played indoors or outdoors with a paddle and a plastic ball, the court is the same size as a doubles badminton court, 20 by 44 feet. (In pickleball, the same court is used for both singles and doubles play.) The court is striped similar to a tennis court with left and right service courts, but there is a 7-foot zone in front of the net, called the “kitchen,” that players are not allowed to volley from.

A Threat to Tennis?

But is pickleball really a threat to tennis? Cash is willing to be blunt. “I think the USTA is afraid of pickleball. They’re worried about it possibly taking tennis players.” He pauses. “It probably is and will do that.”

But, says Terri Graham, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing equation. Graham, whose company, Spirit Promotions, is producing the 2016 US Open Pickleball Championships, understands the demographic appeal of the sport. But then again, having previously spent more than two decades at Wilson, she has had the opportunity to view the seismic shifts in both tennis and pickleball.

“I started hearing the pickleball buzz at Wilson about six or seven years ago, and it has only grown since then,” she says. “Thousands of people are entering that game every month.”

One unique key to pickleball’s appeal, she adds, is that its players are evangelists for the sport.

“You can walk up to any place in the country where pickleball is being played. You can show up without a paddle, without a ball, without any equipment, and I guarantee you someone is going to come over and hand you a paddle and say, ‘Here, come on and try this.’ And you’ll get hooked,” she says.

According to Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association, it’s a model of recruitment the USAPA is encouraging. The organization has what is called Ambassadors, “people who are really enthusiastic, whose job it is to hold demos and clinics and help get people introduced to and interested in the sport.”

And once those players are in, adds Graham, clubs can and should welcome them. “There is room for tennis players and pickleball players. I tell clubs, ‘You have tennis courts. You have people who play tennis in the mornings and people who play in the evenings. If you’d put pickleball lines on a couple courts, they could be used when the tennis players aren’t on them.’”

This, however, is a point of friction. Currently, the only lines that are supposed to be on tennis courts are tennis lines. Lines for 36- and 60-foot play can be added to tennis courts, but they must adhere to certain standards concerning color, spacing and width.

“It’s too bad pickleball courts aren’t the same size as the kids’ courts,” says Cash. “That would have solved some problems.”

As a side note, it’s not uncommon to see lines for a variety of sports on private and recreational tennis courts. However, whether a club will do the same depends upon the level of play it hosts and sometimes, the mindset of its pros and players.

But as the demand for court time grows, more parks are building designated pickleball courts and more clubs are considering doing the same.

“I was on the phone with a friend in Chicago,” Cash says. “He is trying to push pickleball there because he has seen the growth. His goal is to have a standalone pickleball club.”

It’s not a pipe dream. In a 2014 interview, Maloof stated that USAPA measured the growth of the sport according to the addition of what it called “places to play,” which included not only designated pickleball facilities (which are growing in number) but tennis, badminton or other courts that were being used for pickleball — in addition to lines painted on playgrounds or gymnasium floors, as well as rec centers nationwide. At the time, the USAPA was recording upwards of 44 new places to play per month. That number has only increased since then.

For now, Graham encourages clubs to schedule play for both groups, and to take advantage of the opportunity to bring in new members by publicizing those opportunities. “Tennis is an awesome sport,” she says. “No question. But you don’t want to say to someone who has played until they’re 60 and now has hip or knee or shoulder problems, ‘Well, you can’t play tennis any longer so you shouldn’t play anything. Go sit down.’ You want people to stay active. You want people to stay healthy.”

Pickleball, she notes, is the key to that longevity and part of the fitness continuum. And it only stands to grow. After all, the things tennis, racquetball and squash now have — the teaching certifications, the professional associations and the pro tours — have not even been implemented for pickleball. Not yet, anyway.

“We’re just in the first inning of an extra-innings baseball game,” Graham says. “The sport is so young and we’re so early in our growth. There is still so far to go.”

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By Logan Jenkins Contact Reporter

 

Much to the delight of players, the stadium court at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club has been dedicated to four pickleball courts (Courtesy Bobby Riggs Tennis Club)

 

 

Last week, I played my first game of pickleball.

Invented in 1965, the jury-rigged sport, which blends tennis, table tennis and badminton, has long had an image problem among serious tennis players.

 

The other day, I ran into a cranky tennis player sidelined from competition by a back injury.

“Time for pickleball?” I teased.

 

“Shoot me first,” he grumbled.

For years, pickleball “ambassadors” have challenged me to experience how a lifetime of tennis translates to composite paddles, a noisy (pop-pop-pop) whiffle ball, and a court about a third the size of a tennis court.

No, no, I sniffed.

Tennis is the king of racket sports. Why fool around with a dumbed-down, eased-up knock-off with a goofy name?

Recently, however, two revelations have unstuffed my tennis shirt.

First, private and public tennis clubs have started drawing pickleball lines on tennis courts, even dividing tennis courts into four dedicated pickleball courts.

Each month some 80 new pickleball venues open, the USA Pickleball Association reports.

American tennis is trying to hold on to its nearly 18 million players. Pickleball, on the other hand, is a much more accessible sport that most people, from 6 to 96, can start playing right away, currently uncorking champagne bottles of fun for some 2.5 million American players, a surging total that one day could rival, or outstrip, tennis.

 

Second, I learned that Jennifer Dawson, a San Diego tennis pro who regularly collects national age-division tennis championships, had won the first Triple Crown of Pickleball, 2017 national titles in singles as well as women’s and mixed doubles. (In the mixed, she teamed with husband Steve Dawson, also a teaching pro and standout tennis player.)

Mind you, Jennifer hasn’t retired from tournament tennis. She represents the U.S. in world competition. But she’s a rarity in that she’s equally committed to pickleball.

Jennifer views the two sports as complementary, tennis rewarding power and foot speed, pickleball quick reflexes and touch.

If there’s a family dynasty of pickleball, the charismatic Dawsons, owners of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club in Encinitas, are it. (Their two sons also excel in national pickleball tournaments.)

Several years ago, the Dawsons indulged a small group of pickleball players who wanted to lay down lines and erect portable nets when the courts were unused.

In short order, the Dawsons, drawn by the laughter, grabbed paddles and turned themselves into pickleball royalty with their club a sort of SoCal Camelot where pickleball memberships equal tennis. (Drop-in players flock there, paying just $5.)

After a short tutorial from Jennifer, we challenged a team of regulars.

I figured that my tennis background, and the fact that my partner was possibly the best woman player in the world, would make the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Well, not exactly.

I stepped forward for a volley and blundered into the “kitchen,” a 7-foot no-volley zone in front of the net, forfeiting the point.

I tried to hit passing shots when I should have been playing low “dinks.”

In no time, we were down 9-1.

We staged a lucky comeback to lose respectably, 11-9.

Walking to the clubhouse, I was more tired than I would have been after a set of doubles. Lots of bending, lunging, squatting and split-stepping.

“This is a chess game,” Steve told me. “Tennis is a game of fitness, brutality. This game requires 10 times more touch.”

Pickleball, with its lightning-quick pace, close proximity of players and infectious good humor, does make tennis seem a lonely, dogged pursuit designed for masochists.

On tournament days, Jennifer told me, hundreds of pickleball players gather at Bobby Riggs to compete and cheer each other on.

Look, I’m giving up tennis when I physically can’t play anymore. It’s my sun-damaged, sore-kneed lot in life.

But it’s consoling knowing that the hilarity of pickl

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Everyone in the sports facility construction industry knows pickleball is popular; however, with the inaugural US Open Pickleball Championships scheduled to begin on April 26 in Naples, Florida, it’s a good time to review the almost explosive growth of the pickleball industry:

  • 1,000-plus: The number of athletes expected to participate in singles, doubles and mixed doubles play at the US Open

  • 46: The number of pickleball courts in East Naples Community Park (ASBA member connection: the courts were built by Mor-Sports and surfaced in DecoTurf, with Har-Tru the supplier of other equipment; if other members were involved, ASBA would love to hear from you.)

  • 1: Stadium court for finals matches

  • 50 million: The estimated number of people who will see the finals when they are televised on CBS

  • 2 million: Estimated number of players today

  • 3 million: Estimated number of players by 2018

  • 385% percent: Increase in numbers of places to play pickleball since 2010 (A place to play is defined as just that – a place to play. It can be anything from a gymnasium with pickleball lines to a facility designed specifically for pickleball)

  • 912/76: Number of places to play added in 2015/the average per-month number of places to play that were added

  • 64 percent: Increase in membership in the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) since 2010

Clearly, the sport is on the rise, and the upcoming championships will only fuel its continued growth. (In fact, Paddletek, which designed and manufactured the official pickleball paddle for the US Open, has noted supplies are selling out as quickly as they come in. Wilson, which is supplying the official ball, can expect a similar bounce.)

In a recent interview for Tennis Industry Magazine, builders from ASBA noted that interest in pickleball has increased. In some cases, existing facilities (tennis courts, playgrounds, etc.) are being lined for pickleball while in others, courts are being purpose-built for pickleball. Additionally, ASBA’s supplier members are becoming part of the pickleball industry, manufacturing and selling nets, lighting and more for courts.

Pickleball has moved out of retiree-centric communities and across the U.S., and its demographic is starting to skew younger, thanks to programs in gym classes in elementary, middle and high schools. However, the sport is still primarily popular among baby boomers (particularly former tennis players who still love court sports.)

To promote its sport at the grassroots level, USAPA has created a Pickleball Ambassador program. Pickleball Ambassadors are volunteers who work to promote the sport of pickleball and the USAPA in the local area they have applied to represent. They may be individuals or couples, or even a group of ambassadors working together as a team. The main prerequisite is a love of the sport and the desire to share our game with others of all ages. (Fun fact: Some full-time RV enthusiasts ers are Ambassadors ‘at large’ who promote our sport during their travels.) An explanation of the Ambassador program, and local contact information, can be found here. It should be noted that Ambassadors can be a good resource to those who are considering putting in pickleball courts.

ASBA will continue covering the growth of pickleball, as well as other sports that are gaining in popularity and presenting opportunities for its membership.

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Article by PickleballMAX

I love pickleball.  I have heard it said on many occasions that one can easily become “addicted” to the sport – and I got to tell you – I understand why.  I have wanted to compile a list like this this for a while now – and now seems to be the perfect time.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that I recall playing Pickleball for the first time in Physical Education Class in 7th or 8th grade.  I didn’t pick up the sport again until about two years ago when my mother-in-law invited me to play at our local church, Woodside Bible Church, in Troy, Michigan.  I’ve been hooked ever since – and perhaps some (particularly my wife) would even say I’m addicted to it.

So what is it that engenders such a deep love for the game played with a paddle and Whiffle ball?  Without further ado, here are ten reasons why I love pickleball.

  1. Pickleball does not have a steep learning curve.  Although playing tennis, racquetball or squash previously certainly helps, the game can be picked up quite quickly by most – and with a little bit of practice you’ll be having some great rallies in no time.

  2. Pickleball can be enjoyed by people of all ages.  If fact, it’s likely that if you partner with your grandma or grandpa you will dominate the competition.  Your grandparents may be older, but they can play a mean game of pickleball!

  3. Scoring is much more intuitive than tennis.  Unlike tennis, there is no such thing as love, deuce or ad – and the game isn’t scored with the arbitrary numbers of 15, 30 and 40.  Rather, most games are simply played to 11 points, win by 2.  The only wrinkle is that you can only win points on your own serve or your partner’s serve – similar to volleyball.

  4. The Pickleball court is much smaller.  An official pickleball court has an area approximately 3-4 times smaller than a tennis court.  This means longer rallies and less real estate to cover – ideal for those of us who don’t move as well as we once did.

  5. It’s portable and mobile – In addition to playing pickleball at dedicated facilities, you can also bring your own net (or something to use as a make-shift net such as lawn chairs, bicycles, blocks of wood, etc.) to your venue of choice.  Then simply chalk in some lines and grab your paddle and ball and you’re ready to play.  If you don’t have pickleball courts nearby don’t fret.  You can play on your local tennis courts, your driveway or your dead-end street.  If you’re really gung-ho, build your own pickleball court in the backyard!  There’s really no shortage of options.

  6. Pickleball has a great fun/social aspect to it.  Whether you are socializing with your doubles partner, your opponents or those playing on other courts, pickleball is downright fun – and laughter is bound to ensue.  Laughter not only provides one with a sense of well-being but it also help to reduce stress.  Pickleball definitely provides ample opportunity for laughter and fun.

  7. Pickleball can be competitive.  In addition to the fun/social aspect, pickleball can also quench the competitive thirst for those who are a bit more “cutthroat.”  Whether it is participating in the Senior Olympics, playing in a USAPA sanctioned event or just competing against your Tuesday afternoon “nemesis,” pickleball provides an opportunity for spirited competition.

  8. Pickleball has numerous health benefits.   This may come in the form of lower blood pressure, a boosting of the immune system, stress reduction, improved mental acuity or just getting/keeping one in shape.  It sure beats getting on the treadmill for an hour!

  9. Pickleball is relatively inexpensive to play.  Courts are popping up all over the place where you can play – outdoor parks, churches, schools and tennis facilities where they have converted tennis courts into pickleball courts.  With paddle prices less than $100 and courts that are becoming more ever-present, cost is typically not a factor.  Most places to play are either free or have a relatively small charge for “court-time.”

  10. Pickleball can break up the monotony of golf in the morning and dinner on the patio in the evening – it’s a rough life for those retired folks, isn’t it?

So these are my ten reasons why I love pickleball.  Please let me know why you love the sport by commenting below.  I would love to hear from you!

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