Depending on who you ask, pickleball is either an addictive recreational activity, the next big professional sport, a unique business opportunity, a major nuisance, or all of the above. Undeniably, it is the fastest growing sport in America.
If any sport won the pandemic, it’s this one, emerging from relative obscurity to become an object of fascination both for casual players and the sports business industry looking to cash in. In 2022, the number of players nearly doubled to 8.9 million in the US. That pushed it past older sports like softball and volleyball, though it still sits well behind tennis (23.6 million). Hundreds of manufacturers are filling demand for balls and paddles, while others look to build new courts or even entire destinations catering to the pickleball set.
As spring emerges, the pop-pop-popping of pickleballs around the country shows little sign of letting up. Here’s more on where the craze came from and where it could be headed.
What is pickleball?
Ugh, we’re starting with the hard question first, huh?
Pickleball is a paddle sport that sits somewhere between table tennis and the full-sized variety (with a bit of badminton thrown in), generally played on a hardcourt that is less than half as large as a standard tennis layout. Either two or four players hit a perforated hollow plastic ball (basically a whiffleball). Different balls are used depending on the conditions (such as inside vs. outside), and each can have anywhere from 26 to 40 holes in it.
Points are only scored on the serve, with games generally played to 11 (win by 2).
Where was pickleball invented?
Three dads—Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell—get credit for inventing the game on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in the summer of 1965. The game started with ping pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. The first permanent court was constructed in 1967, with the first corporation formed to commercialize the game in 1972.
The game’s name likely comes from so-called “pickle boat” crew races, when leftover rowers from other events are thrown together, much like the equipment was for the first pickleball match. (If you’re told otherwise, be skeptical.)
The first known tournament followed in 1976. By 1990 the sport had spread to all 50 states, according to USA Pickleball. The USA Pickleball Association was established in 2005; its membership reached 10,000 in 2015 with as many as 2 million playing nationwide at that point.
Participation had begun growing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 10,000 courts available. Then it exploded.
“It’s almost going into like hockey-stick mode from a growth perspective,” Selkirk co-founder Rob Barnes said. “So we’re seeing what we would consider hyper growth over the past two years versus the previous years.”
Why is pickleball so popular?
Three reasons, says Tom Cove, the CEO and president of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
- The game is easy to pick up and play well enough your first time to enjoy it. You only need a couple of people and limited equipment.
- It’s social. It can be played competitively, but often it’s a casual activity that allows for conversation between—or even during—action. At certain recently built venues, it can even be played inside a bar.
- “You can play it without being in great shape,” Cove said. “But it is a good workout.” That’s a big reason why it gained popularity among older players. But it’s moved well beyond that group recently.
What are the pickleball professional leagues?
There are three major pickleball competitions, two of which are owned by Texas billionaires.
Former hedge fund manager Steve Kuhn launched Major League Pickleball in the fall of 2021. In 2023, the league will have 24 teams (with each team including two men and two women) competing across six events.
Tom Dundon, a private equity investor who owns the Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile bought the Professional Pickleball Association (which manages the PPA Tour) in early 2022. Sponsored by Carvana, the 2023 tour includes 25 events with a single-season purse of $5.5 million.
A merger between the groups in November 2022 de-escelated tensions, allowing players to compete in events held by each. There is also the APP (Association of Pickleball Professionals) Tour, which will host 16 tournaments this year. It was founded in 2019 by tennis coach and club owner Ken Herrmann.
One of the biggest pickleball tournaments is the US Open, which welcomes thousands of entrants to Naples, Fla., in April.
Who owns the pickleball professional teams?
Major League Pickleball boasts a large number of big-name owners including Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Mark Cuban, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Marc Lasry, Eva Longoria, Patrick Mahomes, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Tom Ricketts and Anheuser-Busch.
How much does it cost to own a pickleball pro team?
The expansion fee for new MLP teams has reportedly surpassed $3 million, according to previous Sportico reporting. Video creators Dude Perfect recently invested in an MLP team at a valuation of roughly $5 million.
Who are the top pickleball players?
Ben Johns is often considered the greatest pickleball player of all time. He put together a 108-match winning streak and has won more than 65 PPA events, including several so-called triple crowns earned by winning singles, doubles, and mixed doubles competitions in the same tournament. He’s also one of the youngest players on tour, born in March 1999.
Anna Leigh Waters has established herself at an even younger age. Born in 2007, she reached No.1 in the PPA’s doubles, mixed doubles, and singles rankings in 2022. Waters has often played doubles with her mother, Leigh, a former college tennis player.
After 16 years on tennis’ ATP tour, former world #11 Sam Querrey turned his racket in for a paddle this year. In his first pro pickleball event, he lost in the first round.
What is USA Pickleball?
USA Pickleball was formed in 2005 to promote the sport. It is in charge of the game’s official rules, player ratings and the annual national championship event. It boasts a membership of more than 70,000 people (up 30% since 2022) and has counted more than 44,000 pickleball courts nationwide as of March 2023.
“We're in a position where we want to have mutually beneficial relationships with every entity in the sport,” USA Pickleball chief marketing officer Chuck Menke said. “Anybody who's trying to grow the game and doing it the right way—we want to help support them in what they're doing.”
Will pickleball take over tennis?
Tennis greats like Andre Agassi and John McEnroe are now trying their hand at pickleball, which is also airing on the Tennis Channel. According to the SFIA, roughly one in three pickleball players also played tennis once in the last year.
“I still think tennis will be far ahead in 10 years from a people watching on TV and sponsorship side,” Querrey said. “As far as a participation sport, I think pickleball will pass tennis in 10 years.”
The sports’ grassroots communities haven’t always been so friendly to each other. Tennis players have complained about new competition for court space, and some young competitors are now choosing to focus on pickleball exclusively.
“I think it mirrors snowboarding,” says Octagon VP Kelly Wolf, who has represented both tennis and pickleball players, including Anna Leigh Waters. There was a time when skiers looked down upon their new slope-sharers. Some still might. But for the most part, the sports have learned to coexist, with equipment sellers appealing to both.
What are some pickleball businesses?
As pickleball has taken off, countless companies have vied for a space in the emerging industry. Tennis brands obviously, but also table tennis companies, shoe brands, even luggage makers and fashion designers. CEOs see pickleball as the solution for getting employees back into the office, while others envision it as a way to help rehabilitate inmates. What can’t pickleball do?
The Barnes family (father Jim and sons Mike and Rob) transitioned from another sporting goods category to launch Selkirk Sport in 2014, before pickleball truly took off but after the group saw a major opportunity. “One huge advantage we have is we are only pickleball, and we’ll always only be pickleball, period,” Rob Barnes said. “That’s why we’re Selkirk Sport. We’re not Sports.”
Early on, many of Selkirks products were sold by so-called “bag dealers,” hardcore players and advocates who would sell paddles at courts out of their own bags—more door-to-door salesperson than storefront. Barnes said the shift to big box stores began in 2017. Now, Selkirk has established itself at the high end, offering $250 paddles and even more expensive wares under its Selkirk Labs label.
Seventy-seven-year-old sporting goods brand Franklin Sports has gotten in the game, too. While it still provides batting gloves to nearly half of Major League Baseball players, company president Adam Franklin said 40% of his time is now spent on growing its pickleball business, “which is wild.” Marketing dollars are increasingly being split too, he added. The company’s X-40 ball model is USA Pickleball’s official ball.
Other entrepreneurs have focused on purpose-built pickleball venues, like a 17-court ‘Pickle Lodge’ in Ohio.
Will pickleball continue to grow?
While pickleball has seemingly already swept through the sporting world, several potential milestones still lay ahead. Kuhn has predicted NCAA adoption of pickleball within two or three years. High school level competitions could come as well. Meanwhile, Olympic recognition remains on the radar.
“The Olympics is absolutely a cornerstone in solidifying that this sport is here to stay,” Franklin said. “And I do think that will happen.”
Right now, pickleball has some pushback to contend with, starting with the pop-pop-popping noise that court-adjacent homes are becoming familiar with nationwide. “Pickleball noise is fueling neighborhood drama from coast to coast,” the LA Times wrote—and that was last year, before another year’s worth of hockey stick growth spread pickleball’s percussion even deeper.
USA Pickleball’s current priority, however, is creating even more courts. There’s concern that the current crowdedness could be enough of a pain to dampen new players’ interest in the game. “There's some markets where people are lining up and waiting to get on the court,” Menke said. “So, you know, we need as many courts out there as possible.”
(This article has been updated to clarify that there are three professional leagues, and to include information on Dude Perfect's investment.)