Is this newer sport that everyone is raving about merely "ping pong on steroids" or a "tennis wannabe"? Let's explore why this sport is definitely not like one sport but a combination of many, is definitely on steroids, and why it turns out that it is very "STICKY" - so it will be around for a while!
Blog updated March 31st referencing Washington State bill which made Pickleball the official sport of the State. No suggestion of a fad here!!
Let's start with the question - which sport is Pickleball most like? Joel, William and Barney first invented this family game on vacation in 1965 for their bored children and Golden Retriever (my attribution) Pickles. They adopted whatever they could find for invention purposes (does "MVP" ring a bell for those in high tech?) and combined multiple sports including but not limited to: ping pong paddles; higher badminton net lowered for the kids (34" at the middle); Pickle's ball which was a wiffleball; makeshift badminton court (20'x44'); and, rules made up to make it difficult to smash the ball for easy winners such as the "no-fly-zone" of the kitchen (7' no volley zone at the net), one bounce rules and underhand serves. So the answer is it's not like one sport it's a "mashup" of many!
First up... Tennis is a very popular sport that has been in some ways buoyed by its TV friendliness. It's fun to watch on TV and in stadiums, and multiple angles show off the game's intricacies and the players' skill. Viewing audiences and attendant sponsorships help to raise players' purses (in more ways than one) and in turn, participation. It's fun to play and something like 20M players in North America agree according to the Tennis Industry Association's latest surveys. Pickleball shares many racquet and net sport similarities but it has smaller courts (2 to 1 approx), lower net, lighter and smaller racquets and a slower more responsive ball. These factors and more could help to explain its general popularity and take-up including 5M+ players in North America especially among the young, retirees, and boomers - in spite of the fact that the average casual Pickleball player's age in North America is approx. 34 years old (ref: USA Pickleball Association).
Squash and Racquetball were never TV-popular as it unfortunately made very difficult shots and returns look easy somehow. Attempts at showing different angles in glass court pro events and different viewer-friendly coloured balls never quite worked. Great work out (1,000+ calories/game at the competitive level) but requiring fairly good athleticism, fitness and hand/eye coordination. Squash courts and lines vary depending on European or North American games, and singles vs doubles games vary significantly regarding court sizes, lines, balls and sometimes racquets. Pickleball on the other hand is a very similar game whether it's singles or doubles (save for some obvious differences), increasing the take-up vs sports that require different venues and equipment based on number of players and dependant on the variation of the game they adopt. Also two different viewing angles in Pickleball nicely show off the game's two most common situations: dinking and close quarter banging at the kitchen; and base line play.
Ping pong is lots of fun to play, but almost too fast at the competitive level to follow, and for those of us who play on our home table with family and friends to mimic or fully appreciate. Badminton has its fine nuances that also doesn't seem to translate as well on video. Chess is a terrific mind game but matches are too long and strategy too complex to hold interest for the casual player, and TV and You Tube viewers.
But Pickleball as a "mashup" of all these sports seems to have all the right ingredients by luck and/or design: slower and well placed back and forth dinks in and around the kitchen which are unique to this sport; chess-like moves like an ATP (around the post, not over the net), purposeful misdirections and set-ups; well timed lobs that have opponents scrambling; then crazy back and forth smashes like doubles tennis at the net.
These factors and more keep the estimated 5.3M players (approx. 40% growth over 2 years) in about 9500 North American venues fully engaged, add to viewership and TV coverage, and therefore purses and popularity. CNN is talking about Pickleball "sweeping America" and states that it is now played in 70+ countries. ESPN and the Tennis Channel/PPA are showing pro matches, and You Tube is replete with introductory and advanced training videos and matches. Facebook has a plethora of interest groups dedicated to Pickleball like the Canadian Pickleball Forum, Pickleball Forum, USA Pickleball Seniors and others.
Triple "AAA" Sport - for All, Anywhere and Always. The fact that Pickleball can be played by anyone is primarily because it was designed from the beginning to accomplish just that. Portable courts (Amazon and others have everything that you need) can be set up in back yards, driveways or on tennis courts - but if you commandeer a tennis court, don't ask anyone before the game, ask for forgiveness later 😇. It's fun and very social - just approach any group of Pickleball players and I can guarantee that you will be invited to join! Anyone can pick up the game and its rules in one session, and equipment is not expensive. In addition, take-up may have been given a boost during the pandemic when most gyms were closed and given the attraction of getting some exercise (similar to squash in that my smart watch says up to 1,000 active calories in a 2 hour match), and playing a game outside that is easy to set up and play, as opposed to an enclosed court in close proximity to your opponent.
Finally, the smaller navigable court and mechanics of the game allow players (singles, doubles or 3 players) of varying ages, skill sets and mobility to enjoy a game. Rain or shine, hot or cold, night or day you'll find Pickleball enthusiasts indoor and outdoor enjoying a match and good company. Different strokes, whiffleball spins, lobs, smashes, pace and strategic positioning make the game as competitive and fun as you can possibly handle. Switching partners (rec games) every so often levels the playing field (court) adding to the fun. A pint or glass of your favourite beverage after is a large part of the game and social benefit. Just "dink" responsibly!
State of Washington Official Sport and Conclusions. You may agree that even given the somewhat limited arguments presented in this Pickleball Passion™ Myth Buster #8 of 10, there are many reasons why Pickleball is enjoying its exponential growth in popularity as the fastest growing sport in the world. No indication here that it is just a passing fad - in fact, Washington just became the 16th State to have an official sport and you guessed it - it's Pickleball!! Governor Jay Inslee actually signed the bill at the location on Bainbridge Island where the sport as discussed above was founded. How cool is that!!! Won't replace hockey as Canada's unofficial sport, but will come in a close second in my view.
Go out and give it a try if you haven't already, and you'll discover the many ways in which Pickleball enjoys a majority of the favourite elements of the sports we have grown up with. Who knew that a backyard combination of multiple sports would end up taking the world by storm? Just ask anyone who has experienced that eureka moment - or if you're very lucky "moments" - of an idea in business or sport that was just at the right time, market and place!!