As I watch and participate in the dramatic explosion of pickleball in United States sports culture over the past few years, I can’t help but see parallels in the growth and acceptance of pickleball in mainstream culture. with another racquet sport that has had a similar meteoric rise in this country: racquetball.

Both sports have exploded in popularity in a short time, but as we speak, racquetball is falling apart in terms of participation nationwide. So the question is, is pickleball a fad, or does it have more “stickiness” than racquetball has been found to have?

Racquetball as a participation sport grew from a little-known variation of paddleball in the early 1970s to become the nation’s biggest sporting phenomenon in the late 1970s. The sport established itself as a faster version paddleball (or a less painful version of handball) and began to generate interest and demand from players. This has spurred a massive amount of investment in custom facilities, as club operators rush to build facilities to meet insane demand. Competing governing bodies emerged in the form of the International Racquetball Association and the National Racquetball Club, both vying to control the direction of the sport, and in particular the direction of the professional tours. Celebrities and professional athletes were drawn to the sport, and the covers of National Racquetball Magazine at the time featured famous faces every month. The men’s pro tour became dominated by a mercurial young star in Marty Hogan, who went nearly undefeated in the 1976-77 season at the age of 19 and became the brash face of the sport, even appearing on an episode of “The Superstars” in February 1980. The sport grew from a slow, methodical pace in its early days to a faster, more powerful sport in the late 1970s and the sport’s slower-paced tacticians were quickly overtaken and kicked out of the sport, complaining to them that the game was now “too fast”.

Wow, does that previous paragraph sound familiar or what?

Consider what we’re seeing right now in pickleball:

  • Explosion of participation: We see pickleball go from a niche activity five years ago to being the fastest growing sport in the country, with 10% of the US population having tried it last year.
  • Investment in facilities: We are currently seeing massive investments in custom pickleball courts (or outright conversion of little-used tennis courts). Almost every day we hear a new announcement about a multi-million dollar facility or investment in existing parks.
  • Competitor Pro Tours: the Association of Pickleball Professionals and the Professional Pickleball Association vie for control of Pro play. We also have international NGBs competing in the International Pickleball Federation and the World Pickleball Federation.
  • Interest in star power: Pickleball has appeared on the Today show, Major League Pickleball has gotten investment from dozens of professional athletes and celebrities, and the internet is full of NBA, NFL, and ATP stars playing and enjoying the sport.
  • Best Young Stars: Replace “Marty Hogan” with Ben Johns and/or Anna Leigh Waters and you have your unbeatable young superstar at the top of today’s professional circuit.
  • pace of play: the sport evolves before our eyes, becomes younger, faster, more athletic, more muscular. It used to be everything was a ‘third drop shot’, now it’s a ‘third drop shot’ and maybe a ‘5th drop shot’ if you can’t drive it anymore. Older players are now complaining about “bangers” and bemoaning players who choose to attack instead of dink.

The parallels are quite striking.

The similarity between the two sports is one thing; how about the biggest question? Will pickleball experience the same type of growth and decline life cycle as racquetball, or will it be more persistent in American sports culture?

Although I don’t have a crystal ball, I feel like pickleball will stick around for the long haul and won’t fade like racquetball does for one main reason: Easy access to facilities.

A large number of custom pickleball courts are being built in this country. A lot of them are in public parks, and these courts aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In places without dedicated courts, players border pickleball boundaries on existing tennis courts or basketball courts that have been around for decades, and those flat tops aren’t going anywhere either. Recreation departments and public schools have maintained these tennis and basketball courts for decades, and now, all of a sudden, they’re getting a ton of new uses. The barrier to entry for playing pickleball is incredibly simple compared to racquetball: all you need is a flat surface large enough to lay out a court, an inexpensive plastic ball, and a few paddles.

The big problem with racquetball is that access to the court depends mostly on private companies building indoor courts in expensive per-square-foot locations. These courts are either owned by small businesses (many of which have been put out of business by Covid) or by large chains (LA Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, Gold’s and YMCA) which in many cases deprioritize the sport in favor of denser use of space.

Racquetball courts remain in places like universities and in smaller numbers with existing channels, but they’re more of a novelty than a revenue generator, and there aren’t enough courts to build large-scale programming. ladder. The one thing all of these racquetball courts have in common is membership requirements. You usually can’t walk into one of these places and play; you either have to pay a monthly fee or be a student at a school with courts already built.

Now look at pickleball: although there are private clubs with courts, there are tens of thousands of public tennis courts that can accommodate pickleball players for free. You don’t need to be a member of a $150/month club to play pickleball: all you need is a flat surface and a net. You can play pickleball indoors or outdoors, in warm and cold weather.

There is a secondary reason behind the rise of pickleball and the fall of racquetball, and that is demographics. Racquetball is hard on the body and players age competitively. Tennis is the same way, with aging players eventually becoming frustrated with the physical demands of covering a large tennis court. Guess where the two groups of aging players are flocking to now? Pickleball. Courts are filled with retirees playing throughout the day, retirement communities in Florida like The Villages now have thousands of players, and 60+ and even 70+ draws at local tournaments are as full as 19 draws. +. Pickleball requires less court coverage than tennis, is less physically demanding than competitive racquetball, and has a strong emphasis on doubles play and social engagement that appeals to both casual and competitive players.

Conclusion: Pickleball is growing rapidly, will continue to grow, and is here to stay.

(Disclosure: The author sits on the USA Racquetball Board of Directors and one of our main concerns is to address the declining numbers of participants in our sport. I have also done a ton of historical research on the sport over the past 20 years for a project called Pro Racquetball Stats).

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