Tom Brady and LeBron James show they can handle the pickle. Not everyone is happy.
With the decorated NFL quarterback joining basketball icon LeBron James and other famous athletes as owners of Major League Pickleball teams on Wednesday, it’s clear that America’s fastest-growing sport is here to stay.
Great time for pickleball
This is a great time for pickleball, and longtime players like me are celebrating. (I even wrote a book about the game’s explosion in popularity). But there are fans of another court sport who are greeting the news with far less enthusiasm: tennis players.
While most athletic establishments encourage competition between teams on the field, the addition of pickleball to the pro-league pantheon has fueled a rivalry between two different sports that now takes place on the courts themselves. Many tennis players are upset that the cucumber takes over everything.
Famous for the annual Master’s tennis tournament, Indian Wells is now also home to the National Pickleball Championship. And the Tennis Channel devotes a significant amount of air time to coverage of tournaments and events in the pickle.
Due to the rapid rise of pickleball, many cities and towns, ill-equipped to handle the needs of players, are instead using resources previously allocated to tennis (namely courts). In some areas, tennis fans scrambled to find places to play and found their long-held courts suddenly or temporarily, or permanently turned into pickled havens. It hasn’t helped that some particularly ardent pickleball fans proudly proclaim that their sport will soon overtake tennis and are eager to flaunt anti-tennis sportswear.
The number of pickleball players nationwide has skyrocketed by more than 35% to a whopping 5 million today, according to a 2022 report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Despite being created in 1965, pickleball is having a momentous moment and many experts do not expect its rise to slow down anytime soon.
Pickleball’s popularity has undoubtedly been fueled by the fact that it is a highly accessible and inclusive sport that can be enjoyed by players of all ages and athletic backgrounds. This helped her reach out to quarantined families who jumped into the game and helped her grow.
The paddle sport,
Players hit the ball over the net until one side reaches 11 points, which shares common features not only with tennis but also with badminton, racquetball, and ping-pong. Its courts are similar to tennis courts, only smaller, so many players remodel tennis courts with chalk or paint to mark out the dimensions of the ball. It’s quick to pick up as it only has a few rules and is relatively easy on the body as it relies much more on accuracy than strength. Its smaller playing field also means players may not be able to sprint around the huge court (which isn’t to say it isn’t challenging; pickleball has led to a number of on-court injuries and can make for a serious, calorie-burning workout).
The game is also supported by a passionate community with a significant number of players forming friendships and romantic bonds across skill levels. Unlike many ultra-intense sports, enjoyment, and connection often take precedence over the competition; tournaments often consist of weekly parties and hangout opportunities. Even the most skeptical players may find themselves drawn to the enjoyable back-and-forth and jovial play between competitors.
For those in the tennis world, however, pickleball’s newfound popularity is a potential challenge to the success and longevity of their own sport. The feud between the two groups grew so intense that some tennis fans began circulating anti-pickleball manifestos, demanding that local officials intervene, and in rare cases even physically damaging the courts.
But here’s the thing:
While their frustration and stress are understandable, tennis players don’t really have to worry about the rise of pickleball. There is room in the world for both sports and both groups of players to co-exist in peace – if we all exercise a little patience.
Pickleball right now is suffering from the classic problem of too much demand and not enough supply. With the number of players multiplying rapidly, there simply aren’t enough devices to serve them all. As such, areas have no choice but to rebuild readily available tennis courts and focus much more on pickleball than on an established sport.
In 2021 alone, nearly 800 indoor and outdoor courts were added to Place2Play – an average of 66 new locations per month.
The more attention and money poured into pickleball, the more resources its governing bodies will have to create these pickleball-only spaces, further separating the sport from tennis. Having celebrities like Brady and James invest will only accelerate that pace.
Pickleball may be experiencing some growing pains, but once communities and organizations adjust to the increase in players, things will undoubtedly even out. Besides, it’s not like tennis isn’t going anywhere; a 2021 study by the Tennis Industry Association found that participation in the sport increased by 22% from 2019 to 2020, While the current pickleball numbers are impressive, they’re barely a drop in the bucket compared to the huge tennis fan base.
So for all, you tennis players out there worried that pickleball will ruin the success of your own game, rest easy. You might just have to share for now – or give the sauce a whirl and see for yourself what the hype is about.