Lisa Jackson waded into pickleball at the beginning of 2020 as a way to recover from shoulder surgery. The Charlottesville, Virginia, attorney figured the sport would be a gentle first step in returning to her original racket sport, tennis. And while pickleball did fit that bill, it also became another activity in her repertoire. Today Jackson’s a regular on both types of courts. “I instantly enjoyed it,” she says. “I’m still competitive, but pickleball allows you to do that without the assault on your body that tennis delivers.”
At 55, Jackson may not fit the profile of a pickleball-playing grandma living in a retirement community, but the sport is rapidly shedding its image as one for the older set—and to be sure, its meteoric rise wouldn’t have been possible if it didn’t have widespread appeal.
According to the 2021 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report, pickleball’s five-year average annual growth rate is 11 percent. If you take just the single year from 2019 to 2020, the growth is even more impressive at 21.3 percent, putting the total number of players in America at an estimated 4.2 million. That makes it one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, according to Ali Schulman, the former manager of communications and marketing at SFIA, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Schulman says she is not surprised when she considers the many factors that make pickleball appealing. “It’s easy to learn, it’s social but less intense than tennis, and it requires minimal equipment,” she explains.
Pickleball is also accessible. These days most community parks have marked lines for the game on some tennis courts, at the very least, and many have taken it a step further, setting aside courts just for pickleball. There are nearly 8,500 locations on USA Pickleball’s roster, and the organization boasted 40,000-plus members as of April 2021, an increase of more than 880 percent from 2013.
This is playing out in Howard County, Maryland, where Duane
St. Clair became one of the first pickleball players to raise the game’s profile locally and push for more courts. “I was motivated to create an association of pickleball players after a visit to Florida in 2016,” he says. “There were courts everywhere I went.”
When he returned to his home state of Maryland, he could find only two spots in the county to play. St. Clair began chatting with other participants, and collectively, they formed the Howard County Pickleball Association. “We began to meet with the county parks and recreation department, as well as the Columbia Association [a town-wide HOA of sorts], to develop more courts,” he says.
On the community level, players were able to identify underutilized tennis courts and request that the courts’ owners line them for pickleball. The group also secured portable nets, which can be easily pulled out onto the courts for pickleball play. Since their first efforts, five years ago, St. Clair and the Howard County Pickleball Association have grown from 50 or 60 players to 400 today. “We’ve been in constant growth mode,” he says. “Word of mouth has helped, and we seem to be attracting a lot of people who have played a racket sport in the past.”
With an eye to the future, St. Clair and his group have also worked with local public schools to bring the sport to phys ed classes. “We donated some equipment to the school system, and we had plans for pickleball camps for middle schoolers last summer when the pandemic hit,” St. Clair says. “More and more, we’re seeing younger people and families trying it out.”
Pickleball is definitely “trickling down” to younger generations, Ali Schulman says—and SFIA’s 2021 pickleball-participation report bears this out, as 47.9 percent of players are 34 and under. “If you look at the lines for courts at the local community center, you’ll see longer ones for pickleball than basketball,” Schulman says. “Courts are everywhere now, and as people look for a fun, cheap way to get physical activity, it will be an attractive option.”
While the pandemic may have shut down the Howard County Pickleball Association’s plans to host summer camps in 2020, the sport as a whole benefited from it. Nirav Bhagat, co-owner of Amazin’ Aces, an e-commerce site dedicated to pickleball equipment, says his business has doubled over the past year and a half. “During the pandemic we’ve seen our customers wanting to buy nets and equipment and set up a game in their driveway or their street,” he says. “It’s a great family game that has worked well in the midst of restrictions.”
This matches with what SFIA has documented, according to Schulman. “Prior to the pandemic, pickleball already had traction with older communities and tennis players,” she says, “but Covid really accelerated its growth. People wanted a socially distanced activity they could do outside with other people.”
St. Clair, too, has seen an uptick in interest in the sport throughout the pandemic. “We thought we’d see fewer people playing, and that was the case during lockdown,” he says. “But once things opened up, people returned, and our membership has grown substantially in the past year. It provided people with an outlet.”
Now that people have been introduced to the sport, its growth will probably only continue, says Nirav Bhagat, especially among younger generations. “Look, there’s something to be said when Leonardo DiCaprio has a pickleball court in his backyard,” he jokes.
In his efforts to increase sales and thus develop the sport, Bhagat has used brand influencers. “We’re positioned as a brand that introduces people to the sport, as opposed to providing high-performance gear for experienced players,” he explains. “Our ambassadors are geared to audiences looking to try something new.”
While his first crop of influencers skewed toward that older, more traditional pickleball crowd, now about 50 percent of his 45 ambassadors are from younger generations. “If you think about people who might be considering retiring somewhere like The Villages in Florida, for instance,” Bhagat says, “they’re in their mid- to late 50s, and they’re active. They’re also just as tech-savvy as anyone else, so we quickly cast aside any bias about who can be an influencer.”
Bhagat, who is 40 and played pickleball at summer camp as a youth, also banks on the nostalgia factor with his peers. More than anything, though, he says, the sport is poised to grow because of its fun factor. “It’s a fun sport, with a fun community, and that’s what makes selling the paddles and gear enjoyable as well,” he says. “It’s so positive and welcoming. This is more than just a trend.”