SAN DIEGO — It’s almost unavoidable: The sport with a silly-sounding name that your family member, co-worker or friend keeps talking about these days.
A pickleball phenomenon is sweeping the U.S., including in rec sports-obsessed California. On courts across the state, you’ll find players happily whacking a wiffle-like ball back and forth across a net every day of the week.
You might also hear some squabbling over play space, a growing reality of the sport’s similar needs to tennis. Facilities can’t meet surging demand for designated courts — at least not yet. Cities and parks departments across California are working on expanding their offerings and keeping the peace.
Officials are convinced by pickleball evangelists that the game is here to stay. They point to its status as the nation’s fastest growing sport for the past two years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
“Can pickleball save America?” a recent longform essay in the New Yorker asks. The piece doesn’t read sarcastically.
So, yeah, it’s fair to say interest in the sport has reached a fever pitch. For the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know:
Another product of the pandemic
Pickleball is older than you might think, says Chuck Menke, the chief marketing officer for USA Pickleball. In a phone interview with FOX5SanDiego.com, he said the game’s origins trace back to Washington state in the mid-1960s.
A small but dedicated group has played recreationally ever since. It’s also been a fixture in physical education classes across the country. But everything changed with the coronavirus pandemic.
Menke’s organization serves as the sport’s national governing body in the U.S. Its members saw a surge in interest as people sought new hobbies, especially those enjoyed outdoors with a lower risk of getting sick.
“The pandemic was an opportunity for folks to get outside, to try new things, and it really lent itself to the growth of the game,” Menke said. “A lot of people started picking it up.”
The number of people playing pickleball nationwide grew nearly 15% from 2020 to 2021, following growth by more than 21% the year prior, according to industry statistics. It adds up to at least 4.8 million players, ranging from “casual” (the vast majority) to competitive.
Menke believes there’s a simple intimacy provided by the game’s smaller court. It provides the perfect combination of pandemic distancing and social connection, he said. That’s something people really craved in recent years.
“It’s a little bit more social than some other racket sports in that, you’re in closer proximity to each other,” Menke told FOX 5. Plus, “you have the ability to hang out before and after you play.”
How to play the game
To the layman, the basic elements of pickleball are fairly easy to grasp. It looks like shrunk-down tennis, and works similarly enough that beginners can pick up and play a rudimentary game almost immediately.
A pickleball court is 44 feet long and 20 feet wide. By contrast, a tennis court is 78 feet by 36 feet. The nets used in the two sports are similar — about three feet high — with a pickleball net sagging two inches, to 34 inches, at the center.
USA Pickleball has a complete guide to setting up a temporary pickleball court here.
Pickleball paddles are smaller than a tennis racquet and larger than a ping-pong paddle. They’re typically made of composite materials, including aluminum and graphite, but old-school wooden paddles are still in rotation, too.
The ball is unique for its holes, similar to a wiffle ball. Different styles are used for indoor and outdoor play. They come in several bright colors.
Check out USA Pickleball’s gear guide here.
After an underhand serve across the court, players rally back and forth over the net. Points are scored by the serving side only, and awarded when the other team fails to return the ball in-bounds.
A non-volley zone, known as the “kitchen,” lines the area nearest the net. When you’re standing in the kitchen, you can’t volley (hit the ball before it bounces).
In both doubles and singles pickleball games, players use the full width of the court. Doubles is a popular option, especially for those using the sport for lower-impact exercise. Singles naturally involves more running.
Basic strategy generally dictates that players move up toward the net as soon as possible. Much of doubles pickleball is played with all four participants crowded near the kitchen.
There are some quirks to the serving sequence and other rules, but scoring is more straightforward than tennis at first glance. Games are played to 11 and teams must win by two.
Watch this series of tutorials for a more in-depth look.
Pickleball courts and the struggle for space
Supply for pickleball courts hasn’t yet met demand, in many places.
Tennis courts are often the most natural surface for setting up temporary courts, or for proposals to re-dedicate some portion of the play surface to pickleball permanently. That’s led to tensions between the sports at times.
And one group has the majority: Tennis players nationwide dwarf pickleball participants more than four-to-one.
In an official capacity, the games’ governing bodies generally strike a conciliatory tone.
In its official Statement of Guidance on the issue, the United States Tennis Association calls for the development of more dedicated sites for both sports, “providing optimum opportunity for use, harmony, and revenue generation.”
“We support all sports and activities,” Menke told FOX 5. And as for the struggle for limited court space: “There’s always going to be growing pains,” he said. “We’re not trying to replace tennis in any form.”
But on the ground, things have gotten testy at times between die-hards. In San Diego, a group of pickleball players wants to convert 12 Mission Bay tennis courts — which they say are hardly used — into a facility dedicated to their sport. That’s much to the chagrin of tennis players who say they’re still active and shouldn’t be forced out.
Ultimately, Menke echoed the tennis association’s advocacy for dedicated pickleball courts (over converting existing tennis facilities), though he said there’s also a place for multi-use courts.
“That’s really the key to the continued growth of the sport, is ensuring that there’s facility access,” he said.
A young person’s game
Menke says if there’s an enduring misconception surrounding pickleball, it’s that exclusively older folks play.
It’s true, many pickleball adherents are tennis players transitioning to a lower-impact sport, or seniors staying active. But the game has increased significantly in popularity with younger groups, Menke says.
The number of 18- to 34-year-olds playing the game in 2021 was about equal to all those 55 and older, according to his organization’s statistics.
The youth movement is on full display in the game’s growing competitive circuits. You can catch pro-level play in the Professional Pickleball Association and the Association of Pickleball Professionals.
Menke and company are already gearing up for the 2022 USA Pickleball National Championships in November, held near Palm Springs in Southern California.
The games will be played at Indian Wells, longtime host of tournaments for the best tennis players in the world.