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The Year of the Dink

2022 was a big year for pickleball. Parents ignored calls from their kids because they were pickling—then introduced those kids to the sport. Even LeBron James and Brené Brown got in on the action by buying professional teams. But is this just the beginning for the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.?

Ringer illustration

In the middle of June, a 60-something Pittsburgh-area attorney ventured out to a local park, hoping she’d run into some old friends. When she wound up making new ones instead, she also made the evening news. “My mom whooped some Steelers in pickleball today lol” tweeted one of Meg Burkardt’s five children, attaching a wholesome photo of her mother next to three strapping, smiling NFL players.

Burkardt hadn’t known, when she waltzed right on up to the trio to ask if they needed another player for doubles, that they were T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Minkah Fitzpatrick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was only when lookie-loos began snapping photos of their match that the situation became clear. “Certainly I noticed that they were all so fit,” Burkardt told Action News afterward. “But it didn’t occur to me that they were professional athletes.” Classic mom!

And classic pickleball, too! The chatty and staccato racket sport that threads tenets of tennis, ping pong, wiffleball, badminton, speed dating, and Pro Kadima has proven adept at getting noteworthy folks together to say cheese—especially in 2022. This year, the sport has generated steady headlines and captions (and texts from one’s mom) that sound as though they could be a sports and entertainment Mad Libs. Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Romo, and Jordan Spieth played in a charity match this fall. (It yielded amateur magic.) LeBron James and Tom Brady have ownership stakes in professional pickleball teams, as does thirsty boy Gary Vaynerchuk. Matthew Perry name-dropped Amanda Peet in a New York Times piece about the rise of the sport in and around Hollywood. (That story also mentions John Mellencamp’s daughter Teddi, who is a real housewife of Beverly Hills and a pickleball cover girl.)

In March, Town and Country ran a feature with the headline “Move Over, Tennis: How Pickleball Became the Preferred Sport of The One Percent,” and the subheading “Brené Brown, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Larry David are all playing—are you?” In November, people ranging from Will Ferrell to Kelly Rowland played in a televised pickleball showcase hosted by Stephen Colbert.

But pickleball has piqued the interest of curious normies too, young and old, whether in places like Florida’s the Villages or Manhattan’s West Village. In 2020 and 2021, pickleball’s participation numbers increased by 39 percent, according to February data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And influencers and investors alike have taken notice, releasing opportunistic merch and scouting real estate. Sprawling food/drink/dink concepts with names like Chicken N Pickle, Pickle & Chill, and Pints & Paddle (and nicknames like “the Taj Mahal of pickleball”) have proliferated across the U.S. Shooting ranges and bike shops alike have made space to welcome pickleball-seeking brethren.

And all that popularity has also presented some growing pains. New local courts have brought people together, but they’ve also torn town hall meetings apart. Public space can be scarce, changes to it are expensive, and parks and rec departments have lately been tasked with finding ways to multiply accommodations for a surging pickleball interest—only to wind up sowing community division instead. (Not so much Mad Libs as mad … libs? Sorry, sorry.) Last week, for example, in the aforementioned West Village, city officials condemned some unofficial pickleball courts in Seravalli Playground after the hyperlocal press reported on ongoing territorial clashes between the racket enthusiasts and local kiddos trying to ride trikes or shoot hoops on the blacktop. In Kansas, a mayor and his wife who live near a new set of country club courts tried suing the club over the sport’s distinctive noise, saying it has caused them emotional distress.

Once a chill game invented more than half a century ago, pickleball is now a sport with ambitious plans f0r the future. It has had a big year serving as a celebrity magnet, and a real estate play, and a social lifeline, and a total nuisance. And depending on whom you ask, it is either only the beginning, or the beginning of the end.

“I’m a pickler!” read the title of a video that Bill Gates randomly posted this summer, one in which he showed off his forehand and proudly recalled playing pickleball for 50-plus years. His parents, Gates said, were friends with some families that had first concocted and christened pickleball, using it to fight the peaks of summertime boredom on Bainbridge Island in the 1960s. (Gates didn’t address the outstanding historical question of whether the game was named after one of the family’s dogs, Pickles, or whether the dog was named after the game.) It was a family-friendly Frankenstein’s monster of a diversion that was iterated using wooden paddles, wiffleballs, and a badminton net rigged to hang low enough for people of all ages to manage.

Pickleball would ultimately catch on beyond the homesteads of its Washingtonian forefathers, but it took some time: a 1997 Sports Illustrated piece describes it as “a game played mostly in the Pacific Northwest” and said the USA Pickleball organizing body had just about 1,500 registered players. For decades, pickleball remained an unassuming member of the racket sport family, found mainly in elementary school gymnasiums or adjacent to shuffleboard courts and GameTime Parcourse FitCircuit stations.

That shifted over time: first when a critical mass of retiring baby boomers took up the sport as a way to socialize with friends in a less time consuming manner than golf and a less taxing manner (theoretically) than tennis; and again exacerbated by the pandemic, when many of that generation’s pickleball-curious offspring decided to get some fresh air and see what all the fuss was about. What many of them learned: It’s really fun! Sometimes mom and dad have a point.

More than 4.8 million Americans played pickleball in 2021, per the SFIA, a number that made it the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. Nearly 18 percent of those players were aged 65 and up, but the average age of players continued to fall to 38.1. Women’s participation grew ever so slightly faster than men’s. The research did not break out what portion of players are retired professional athletes, but anecdotally, they have been easy to find. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Phelps competed against each other in a pro-am match in February. Tua Tagovailoa is a fan. And last week, when an NFL enthusiast posted a random highlight reel of former player Golden Tate on the gridiron, the receiver tweeted that the footage was getting him amped up—though not for football.

“Bro btw I’m on my way to play in my first Pickleball tournament,” Tate wrote. “This video just got me geeked and now I feel like I’m locked in.” Later, a fan asked how it went. “It was a blast!!!” Tate replied. “Earned silver in 3.5 tournament.”

Playing in a 3.5 tournament puts Tate in the realm of impressively intermediate in the sport; ratings go up to only 6.0. Further along on the experience spectrum is Entourage creator and pickleball veteran Doug Ellin, who recently tweeted that when he got into the sport eight years ago, his buddies constantly bullied him for playing. Now, that early adoption has yielded results in the form of a rating that hovers near “mastery.” (Ellin also helped launch the career of Matt Manasse, a guy known as the “pickleball coach to the stars.”)

And then there are the real pros. Until recently, elite-level organized professional pickleball was a patchwork of disparate organizations. The New Yorker published a July piece that served as a vibrant and definitive orbit through the pro galaxy that featured characters like “one of the most beloved figures on tour, J ‘Gizmo’ Hall, a thirty-six-year-old with dreadlocks and huge, insectile sunglasses.” Top players on the circuit also include several members of the Johns and Johnson families; a mother–teen daughter doubles pair named Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters (lob them at your own risk!); and a limber mustachioed man named Tyson McGuffin. (Not to be confused with the limber mustachioed man, Survivor winner, and Ringer podcaster Tyson Apostol, though he also does proudly play and podcast about pickleball, too, obv.)

In November, though, Major League Pickleball and the Professional Pickleball Association’s week-old “VIBE Pickleball League” settled on a strategic merger to streamline and strengthen the pro situation. And this week, Major League Pickleball announced how that will look: a 24-team lineup that will eventually be subject to promotion and relegation, a Sun Belt–heavy six-stop tour around the U.S., and a pot of $5 million in prize money. In addition to Brady and James, league owners include Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, and Kim Clijsters. More are expected to be announced at the league’s draft on Thursday night.

In much the same way that skiers once turned up their noses at snowboarders or turned them away (some still do!), or like how mountain bikers love to scoff at the e-bikers merrily throttling along, many tennis players regard pickleball enthusiasts with what feels like something between justified wariness and unproductive distrust. (There are, of course, plenty who happily dabble in both sports without incident. Be the change!) In Maui, a tug-of-war for court space between tennis players and “pukaball” lovers preceded the pandemic; so did a Santa Rosa scandal involving spilled motor oil and the use of “chickens” as an insult toward tennis players. In San Francisco, a more recent meeting of the parks department was standing room only and punctuated by boos as it tried to navigate the tennis-pickleball divide. And in Point Loma, California, disputes between tennis and pickleball players have included police visits, wildcat court setups, and drone recon.

In their aversion to ceding hard-won court space to the insurgents, staunch tenniphiles tend to point out that pickleball coverage harps too much on the “fastest-growing” rates of pickleball adoption and not enough on absolute numbers. According to SFIA, there were more than 22 million Americans who played tennis last year, a figure that is several multiples more than pickleball. And if you’re more of a rates guy, tennis play is also up 28 percent from before the global pandemic—maybe not fastest-growing figures, but certainly no slouch. One of pickleball’s most steadfast antagonists is the Twitter account @ClubLeftistTennis, which is run by two rather based guys whose interests are right there in the Twitter handle: They once posted a 10-point “Tennis New Deal” policy platform on their Substack that called for nationalizing the Tennis Channel, universal health care, and an “immediate pickleball moratorium on public land.”

This summer was also a reminder that professional tennis is in thrilling shape: Grand Slam tournaments featured spectacular performances from players both at the beginnings (Carlos Alcaraz) and the ends (Serena Williams) of legendary careers, and they drew many, many millions of viewers deep into the night. So why does tennis-vs.-pickleball always seem like such a zero-sum (love-sum?) game?

It’s because, while tennis is territory that was developed and settled long ago, pickleball’s stage of expansion feels more like a gold rush, a land grab, the Wild West; its rise triggers the human instinct to get in on the latest craze. It’s no surprise that some of the first people to sense the sport’s branding and marketing potential—to understand pickleball as a platform–were seasoned Bravolebrities who know how to spot and monetize the next thang. (Which Lisa would be more likely to open a Dill Housewives Pickle n’ Bitch franchise: Barlow or Vanderpump?)

And sometimes, pickleball’s spread does feel a bit like the mint leaves taking over an herb garden: “The lantern flies of the sports world,” one man complained to the NYT about the vibrant omnipresence of picklers. But it’s easy to understand why that happens, for reasons of physics and dollars and cents. One standard tennis court can often be converted into as many as four pickleball setup$$$. And even if that’s not an option, pickleball space can be annexed from basketball or multipurpose areas too, because unlike tennis with its bouncy wayward balls, pickleball doesn’t need to be surrounded by cages.

Earlier this spring, in Exeter, New Hampshire, a town hall meeting in which public officials tried to brainstorm ways to reallocate existing amenities toward pickleball devolved when a tennis player complained that “recently a pickleballer said to people playing tennis: ‘One day these will all be pickleball courts.’” (This idle threat—as well as a defiant bumper sticker I saw online that instructed tennis players to “get your fuzzballs out of our kitchens”—is best read in an Izzy Mandelbaum tone.) (Kitchen is a pickleball term for an area of the court in which you’re not allowed to volley.) (Unless you’re coordinated enough to leap through the Erne loophole, that is.)

Like the Kardashian family, perhaps the sport of pickleball is simply in its paperclip-maximizing era. Which might make for some good synergies, actually: Those Kardashian ladies were already putting on shrieking rallies years ago.

Most people don’t go out and pick up pickleball just because some athlete owns a mid pro team, or because Michael Phelps played in an amateur tournament, or because they read that Kylie Jenner’s mansion has a court. They play because all their friends do, or because they’re hoping to make some friends along the way.

Still, the big-scale effort toward reorganizing and publicizing pickleball is a step toward the sport’s sustainability in the U.S., which is a step toward being able to grow the game internationally, which is a step toward the pickle-hawk pipe dream of Olympics acceptance. (Squash would be piiiiiissed.) With Paris 2024 effectively just around the corner, inclusion in those Games is certainly out. But the Olympics after that, in 2028, are in Los Angeles—a place that is no stranger to the movers and shakers of the Big Pickle lobby, or to the power of stars aligning.

One representative luminary, Rob Gronkowski, talked to the Today Show earlier this month about his experience dabbling in the sport. The hosts (who, hilariously, were like, “don’t say pickleball” when Gronk mentioned that he’d taken up a new hobby) couldn’t quite remember which other recent guest had also talked about pickleball, and it quickly became clear that was because so many of the people they’d had on had discussed it. “Who was it?” the hosts mused. “Kelsey Grammer … Eli Manning … Drew Brees, too!” Gronkowski perked up at the mention of Manning (a guy who cheerfully enunciated the words “celebrate pickles, and pickleball” in a recent interview sponsored by Subway) and exclaimed: “Eli? I would whip Eli.”

That conversation served as both a reminder of pickleball’s newfound popularity, and of how far the game still has to go. If any of those people had reported being into golf, or bowling, or skiing, or poker, or even tennis, it’s likely that no one would particularly remember or care. Pickleball may be an old soul of a sport, but in 2022, it’s still perceived as a novelty. Which means it contains all sorts of opportunity yet.