diversity · fitness · inclusiveness · team sports

Pickleball

Two women in green shirts smiling and posing with racquets and a silver cup
Team Racquet Ralph (Grace-Ann and Elan) posing with the league cup we certainly did not win, but took a photo with it anyways.

Know someone playing pickleball right now? If you do, they will likely tell you it is a great sport–easy to play and growing widely in popularity.

As a newbie to pickleball (just finished my first half-season this fall), I would like to share some early reflections (and random internet searches) to consider why pickleball is gaining popularity, and for whom.

A Fun Sport for Seniors, and Others

Pickleball was invented in 1965 in Seattle by three men: two are described by this article as a congressman and a “successful businessman” who thought up the sport to entertain their bored children.

Today, pickleball is often regarded as a retirement (or near retirement) sport. This 50 Plus Today website article describes the key benefits of pickleball as:

  • Healthy (and easy on joints)
  • Easy to learn
  • Social
  • Space friendly
  • Playable at various ages
  • Playable at various skill levels
  • Affordable
  • A year-round sport

As a tennis-style game, but played with a wiffle ball and on a slightly smaller court, it can be played singles or doubles. Because the point count ends at 11 points (with a 2-point difference), a round of pickleball can be played in as little as 10-15 minutes.

Where I live, in Ontario, Canada, the province’s Pickleball Ontario association has a publicly available policy statement on diversity and inclusion. The document describes the board’s commitments to increasing opportunities for underrepresented groups in pickleball, and includes a long list of inclusive key terms. The rec league I have played on is “open,” so no gender specific teams.

Paying to Play

The above suggests to me that the sport is aspiring to keep its barriers to entry low by encouraging players of different ages and abilities.

Pickleball isn’t an expensive sport compared to some others, but it still requires equipment (paddles, nets, court shoes) and sufficient indoor or outdoor space. Although you can make an available tennis court work for free, sports clubs organize leagues so charge individuals and teams to play.

Folks with philanthropic and economic interests are tapping into the growing popularity of pickleball. On one webpage I found that pickleball was being used as a charity fundraiser event. On another page, an investment company provides advice to retirees by comparing wise investing with pickleball strategy. To understand and play pickleball today is to have some social and cultural capital.

For some, the sport itself may represent affluence. This Wall Street Journal article from 2018 highlights tensions in an American retirement community after some residents proposed installing a pickleball court, while others disagreed due to the high cost. The article’s author describes the disagreement among these residents as a symbol of the growing wealth gap in America.

An “International” Sport

Pickleball has been described as a sport as growing in popularity around the world. This site lists over 2 dozen national pickleball associations. I do notice that mostly Western and middle- and high-income countries are on the list. 

On the web I found evidence of pickleball being played in some countries not on the above international associations list–but the players are vacationers, not residents. Examples below describe all-inclusive pickleball getaways, featuring special training and tournaments:

At the time of writing, there are only a few web articles I could find that consider the racial and ethnic diversity in pickleball, but both articles I found were behind paywalls.

The Future of Pickleball

The folks I’ve met in our fall pickleball league at the YMCA gym are a friendly and fun group, mostly couples or buds in their 40s to 60s. I expect most of them only wish they were retired.

Next season, the league moves to a venue across town with indoor courts that are dedicated for pickleball. The cost to play will double.

Pickleball evolved from other racquet sports. It will be interesting to see how this game continues to grow and evolve, depending on who plays it, and where.

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