By Olivia Lawrence
USA Pickleball, an organization promoting the sport, has announced that April is National Pickleball Month. A whole month to recognize a sport that’s been around for just barely 60 years. And even then, it was just a backyard diversion for decades. Real leagues and tournaments and related pickleball organizations didn’t get off the ground until just a few years ago.
Discussion about pickleball falls into certain camps. There are the wildly enthusiastic players who can’t get enough. There’s the tiny minority still asking, “what is this strange game and do I want to play it?” Then there are those who’ve had enough of pickleball mania and their eyes glaze over if you try to start a conversation about how your dink shot has improved. There are also those who are miffed because their tennis courts have been taken over, retrofitted into pickleball courts.
If you fall into the latter categories, move on to the next story, because this is going to be all about celebrating pickleball — a sport with perhaps the dumbest name in the history of sports.
The game is “the fastest growing sport in America (and possibly Europe)” according to a multitude of sports experts. All signs point to the accuracy of that statement. The Stamford Mall recently opened an indoor facility with 28 courts. Central Park just added another 14 courts. Local courts, indoor and out, are proliferating too, as is the availability of lessons, leagues and other enhancements.
For instance, Wallingford’s spring recreation registration lists numerous beginner pickleball clinics. Those classes are full. The town is also renovating tennis courts at Harrison Park for pickleball use.
“I used to play tennis, but pickleball is, in my opinion, a way-more engaging sport,” said Sharon Houck, in an Record-Journal interview last summer. “Pickleball is so much fun — we laugh, we have a genuinely good time, no matter what the score is,” she said.
New pickleball courts were installed at Cheshire Park last year and ever since have been packed with players, the R-J reported. Another R-J story revealed that Cheshire is considering installing lights on some courts and that Parks and Recreation pickleball leagues fill right up.
You’ve probably heard what’s behind the immense popularity. Almost anyone can play; age, gender and other physical attributes don’t seem to matter too much at the recreational level. The game is easy to learn, free courts are becoming widely available, and the action is so much fun it translates into a social element that players really appreciate. (There’s always going to be “next-level” players out to win, but most of us are just happy to have a great rally no matter who ends up with the point.)
Earlier this month, pickleball saw some celebrity action on the courts when tennis greats John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Michael Chang and Andre Agassi put on a pickleball slam with a $1 million purse. Supposedly, ESPN and other sports promoters want to see if grassroots popularity translates to a viewership that can turn a profit. That’s what sports analysts said.
Not long before that match, McEnroe was saying pickleball “sucked” and was “pathetic,” according to Essentially Sports and other outlets that reported on his disdain for this lowly wannabe sport.
Pickleball found its audience in record time and that had nothing to do with influencers, stars, promoters or any kind of public relations campaign. The time was right and, in this case, older people, looking for a friendly, versatile outlet for their sporting natures, landed on pickleball. Their grassroots interest launched a wide wave of enthusiasm that continues to spread.
The Age of Pickleball may be one of the greatest sports stories ever — not because it’s a major league enterprise, but for the opposite reason. Because so many ordinary people find joy in playing it.