Pickleball's on a roll: TV time, young players, Olympic aspirations

Anna Leigh Waters, the No. 1 women's singles player in the world, is 16 and hopes to inspire a new wave of young pickleball participants. Photo courtesy of the Professional Pickleball Association
Anna Leigh Waters, the No. 1 women's singles player in the world, is 16 and hopes to inspire a new wave of young pickleball participants. Photo courtesy of the Professional Pickleball Association

MIAMI, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Pickleball, a once lesser-known game, now is America's fastest-growing sport. Those closest to it say the pandemic, celebrity investors and increased exposure are behind the game's popularity.

Elite players and historians predict that unprecedented interest in pickleball could lead to bigger stages than those in parks and back yards -- and vault the sport to inclusion in NCAA events and even the Olympics.


Nearly 5 million Americans played pickleball in 2021, compared to 2.8 million in 2016, according to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association report cited by USA Pickleball. Participation from 2019 to 2021 was up nearly 40%.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic easing in many places last year, experts expert participation numbers to show a hefty gain for 2022.

RELATED ESPN, CBS agree to Pickleball broadcast deals

Data also show that player increases were the highest for those under age 24.


"We've been on a roll for a while," Pickleball Hall of Famer Jennifer Lucore told UPI. "People have invested more money, and interest spiked in the last couple of years, but I definitely don't think we've peaked."

While most everyone knows the Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, N.Y., pickleball enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to find their sport's counterpart. That's because forming one still is in the works -- a joint effort by the Pickleball Hall of Fame, USA Pickleball and the USA Pickleball Hall of Fame.

RELATED Tennis legends Agassi, McEnroe, Roddick, Chang to vie for $1M pickleball prize

For now, the nascent hall is virtual. Plans for a museum are in the talking stage.

But fans just want the basics, and players are gobbling up wooden paddles to hit holed plastic balls over a low nets on shrunken tennis courts.

The game, which can be fast-paced and competitive or laid-back for a more social atmosphere, provides benefits beyond its funny sounds and quirky terms like "the dink shot" and "the kitchen."

"There's no slowing down," Lucore said. "People might not sign up for a tournament and hop on a plane, but they're like, 'This is so fun and I'm getting a workout.' ... Even if you're a senior, you can still hang and compete in the whole pickleball world.


"I think only 6% of these people play tournaments and the rest of them are in their little towns. They go to their local YMCA, they play their pickleball, get out of the house and have all the new friendships."

More eyes will be drawn to the ping-pong-like game this year, thanks to recent broadcast agreements. CBS, ESPN, ABC, The Tennis Channel and Fox Sports are among major networks to broker deals with the Association of Pickleball Professionals, Pro Pickleball Association and Major League Pickleball.

As the story goes, Pickleball born in 1965 for bored children on vacation. And it experienced its resurgence when Americans felt similarly unentertained during the pandemic.

Pickleball founders -- and dads -- William Bell, Barney McCallum and Joel Pritchard started to play pickleball at their summer homes in Bainbridge Island, Wash. The game was first played on a badminton court in the yard at Pritchard's home.

Family activity

"The pandemic helped pickleball because it was the same old thing, when with kids were home, people were looking for family activities," said Dave McCallum, who helped his dad, Barney, make pickleball paddles at their residence in the early years.


"They were looking for recreation because gyms were closed and golf courses were closed. Pickleball was something people could do in their street, back yard or driveway. The general demand during the pandemic itself has exploded pickleball," McCallum said.

Scott Stover, who now owns the former Pritchard property with his wife, Carol, said the original court remains relatively unchanged. The craze that started on that tree-shaded court, just off the Lytle Beach shore, spread to additional courts built by neighbors, and the game also moved into local parks.

"Play was pretty limited to parties or maybe just having fun," Stover said. "Then it kind of went around the country. We didn't know what was going on in Florida or Arizona or California, and then we found out this big explosion had happened."

The sport's odd name -- while hotly debated -- sprung from the term pickle boat, nautical slang used for a team of rowers consisting of leftover crew members not selected for the primary teams. Similarly, pickleball is a sport played with pieces of equipment left over from other sports.

The sport now is played on more than 10,300 courts in the United States, according to USA Pickleball. The Naples Pickleball Center in Florida features 66 courts, more than any other site pickleball site on Earth, leading to city's unofficial designation as Pickleball Capital of the World.


Many other U.S. parks have converted existing tennis courts into pickleball platforms to accommodate the craze.

The Naples Pickleball Center features 66 courts, the most for any single facility in the world. Photo courtesy of the Naples Pickleball Center

A recent surge in investor cash flow -- paired with interest from LeBron James, Tom Brady and other star athletes -- helped expand the sport's broadcast footprint, but those around the game hope to see it played on even bigger stages.

"We've just seen like rapid growth for pickleball in so many different ways," said Anna Leigh Waters, the No. 1 women's pickleball player in the world. "I mean, we're on national television a lot now. I see a lot of pickleball players getting a lot of followers on social media.

"It's just cool to see the sport grow in such a short amount of time. ... I've personally experienced so much change.

"I was at the Phoenix Zoo, and the guy next to me was like, 'My pickleball group chat is going nuts right now.' It's just really cool to see how much the sport is changing, not just with fans, on social media and TV, but from actually hearing people talk about the sport."


Those close to the sport expect much more pickleball talk in the coming years. The players and ambassadors for the game plan to tell anyone who will listen about the sport's benefits.

Interest in Olympics

"The growth internationally is something that we will start to experience way more in the in the next five years," said Jay Devilliers, the No. 10 men's pickleball player in the world. "Even in the States, I think more and more players are going to be involved with competing.

"I still believe like there are a lot of players that don't know about pickleball."

Lucore, 56, started to play in her mid-40s, and became the sport's first sponsored player in 2012. Waters, 16, became a professional player at 12. Devilliers, 28, turned professional in 2020. They all say they hope to see the sport seep into NCAA and Olympic venues.

Pickleball would need to pass through dozens of requirements to enter the Olympics. It also needs to become globally recognized, a mission being taken on by players and pickleball ambassadors. More than 60 countries have pickleball federations.

"The goal is to make the sport as big as possible," said Devilliers, an ambassador for the French Pickleball Federation. "If we can make it at the Olympics in 2028, that would be really amazing. ... All these things are exciting and motivate me to remain at the top.


"My role as of now is to represent the sport as well as I can and do the best as I can on the court, to show that this is pickleball. This is a cool sport."

Many colleges feature competitive club teams, but USA Pickleball Chief Operating Officer Justin Maloof recently told that the sport must "establish a greater foothold" across the NCAA's three divisions to become a permanent fixture.

Waters and Devilliers said the increased visibility of pickleball stars around the United States has led to a larger following and increased participation.

"I want to see the sport grow in college and get younger kids involved to make to make the sport grow even more than it has," said Waters, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 Major League Pickleball Premier Level Draft.

"We've reached a lot of young adults, but if we could reach the younger generation, pickleball will just explode even more."

Latest Headlines


Follow Us