If I asked you to think of a popular racquet sport, tennis is almost certainly the first thing that would come to mind. For some of us, maybe squash or racquetball rings a bell, but tennis is by far the most popular racquet sport of our generation. After all, nearly 18 million play tennis in the United States, and that number is just a fraction of total participation in the sport across the world.
But what if I told you that there is a new racquet sport rising the ranks of the industry. It’s called pickleball. This sport, perhaps most recognized for its funky game, has experienced a rapid acceleration and growth in popularity in the past 5–10 years. As an outdoor sport that is easy to play and pick up, pickleball is a game that has actually taken off due to the pandemic. New pickleball courts and players are popping up all over the place, and I’m here to tell you why this sport is something you must keep an eye on moving forward.
The history of pickleball is new and unique. What started as a silly little idea for a vacation sport in Seattle, Washington has now transformed into one of America’s favorite pandemic hobbies. The sport started from humble beginnings in 1965 and has gradually gotten to the high point of popularity that is today. 4.1 million people currently play pickleball in the United States. That number has grown steadily over the past decade, as the total number of players in the country was at just 2.81 million in 2014. Most notably, the sport saw a 21.3% growth in participation in 2020 alone, which is a sign of how the pandemic has helped catalyze the sport’s rise.
The demographics of pickleball players present an interesting paradox. While the sport is considered incredibly new and credited with recently bursting onto the scene, the majority of its players actually stem from an older demographic. The table below provides a comprehensive look at the ages of people that play pickleball in America.
As you can see, the highest percentage of core players in this country come from the 65+ age demographic. The next highest? The 55–64 age range coming in at 21.3%. If you combine those two highest age groups, we are looking at a reality where nearly 60% of core pickleball players are 55 or older.
With the onset of the sport being so new, it is hard to jump to any large conclusions yet about pickleball’s player base and what it means for the sport moving forward. That being said, we must note and become acutely aware of what the current market for the sport looks like. Beyond getting into the specific demographics of who plays, it is critical to recognize that the sport has risen in popularity as a whole. That is what matters most.
This rise in casual pickleball participation has also been complemented by professional growth in the sport. There are two current professional pickleball tours, the PPA and the APP, both of which just launched operations as recently as 2020. Casual participants in the sport now have a market to make a full-time career out of what was once a hobby, and it will be exciting to see how this trend develops as the sport continues to grow in popularity. The USA Pickleball National Championships have been held at the esteemed Indians Wells Tennis Garden in California since 2018 — a big milestone for pickleball’s legitimacy and reputation in the greater racket sports community.
Pickleball is also a sport with Olympic aspirations on the international stage. The International Pickleball Federation currently has 37 members, which is a total membership that has more than double since there were just 18 member countries in 2019. The current threshold for Olympic consideration requires 70 member countries. That may be a lofty goal, but it is certainly attainable in the next 5–10 years if the sport continues to surge at its current rate.
The most exciting thing about the pickleball market in 2021 is the immense potential for growth. As fun as it has been to see the sport grow over the last 5–10 years, the ceiling is nowhere close to being reached. With the pickleball, national championships, and tours now having broadcast deals with the likes of ESPN streaming services, the notoriety of the sport will only continue to grow. More notoriety will bring the opportunity for more sponsorship possibilities, and the marketplace for pickleball gear and accessory brands is poised to take off. There is no specific way to exactly calculate how casual participation in the sport will breed interest in the game professionally, but I think that we can safely predict the two will go hand-in-hand at least to some extent.