Never heard of it? Well, it's a mix of tennis, badminton and ping-pong and looks a lot of fun. No wonder it's catching on.
In 1965, so the story goes, three fathers in Washington state faced a dilemma familiar to beleaguered parents today: how to keep their restless children entertained. They threw together wooden paddles, a badminton net, and a perforated plastic ball. The sport “pickleball” was born, deriving its name - according to folklore - from a dog named Pickle, which kept running away with the ball.
Today pickleball, which is a hybrid of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, is the fastest-growing sport in America. In the five years to the end of 2019, pickleball participation grew by more than 7 percent to 3.5 million people, while Americans’ overall activity level stayed flat, according to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association.
Although more up to date data is not yet available, the sport has picked up more swing thanks to covid-19, reports The Economist. Last March, when lockdown struck and gyms closed, portable pickleball nets temporarily sold out. Players set up courts, which are half the size of tennis courts, in driveways and sometimes on roads. “It’s the new thing,” said an employee at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Dallas, who have experienced a sales spike for pickleball kit over the last year, including for higher-end paddles which sell for around $100.
The 3.5m Americans who play pickleball are about one-tenth the number who play golf and one-fifth the number who play tennis. Yet there are reasons to bet on the sport’s spread. Like many outdoor activities, pickleball is social, but it's easier to learn than tennis and faster and considerably less expensive than golf. Country clubs and recreation centres across the country are converting some of their tennis courts into pickleball courts to meet demand. And the more places there are to play, the more people who will give it a try.
Even manufacturers of tennis racquets are starting to make pickleball kit too. “Pickleball was seen as a threat in the tennis community,” says Stu Upson of USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body, who used to work for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But now, he insists, it's viewed as an opportunity. Tennis pros are adding pickleball lessons to their repertoire. As more people take up the sport, demand for televised matches and sponsorships will increase. Mr Upson hopes that one day pickleball will become an Olympic sport, although, for now, that's a long shot.
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