Participation in the tennis-type competition has taken off in recent years, spans generations and holds promises for healthier living.
While Americans have long loved football, basketball and baseball, a sport that's only a half-century old has captured the hearts of boomers and millennials alike and skyrocketed in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sport is pickleball – a hybrid of tennis, ping-pong and badminton that’s played on a court roughly half the size of a singles tennis court. The whiffle-type ball used is lighter than a tennis ball, and players are armed with a shorter, lighter paddle that's only slightly bigger than one used for ping-pong. Pickleball doesn't require as much running back and forth as tennis does, can be played indoors or out, and players claim it's an easy sport to learn with an uncomplicated scoring system.
The ease and simplicity of the sport are, in part, why U.S. pickleball participation among those 6 years and older steadily rose by an annual average of 11.5% from 2016 to 2021, growing from close to 3 million players to nearly 5 million over that span, according to data provided by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The sport gained additional momentum as COVID-19 lockdowns encouraged recreational opportunities closer to home, with participation surging by nearly 40% between 2019 and 2021.
In January of last year, The Economist dubbed pickleball "the fastest-growing sport in America," with Vanity Fair reporting in October that Leonardo DiCaprio, Larry David, Melinda Gates, Jamie Foxx, Giuliana Rancic, and Amal and George Clooney all engage in the sport. The same article references Los Angeles-based pickleball pro Matt Manasse’s reputation as the “pickleball coach to the stars," but Manasse insists the sport is appealing far beyond the glitz and glamor of Hollywood.
"I teach 7-year-olds and 78-year-olds who all walk off the court with a massive smile on their face. Pickleball is a sport everyone enjoys," Manasse tells U.S. News.
Ed Wertz, a frequent player and the co-founder of paddle maker Vantaze Pickleball in the Salt Lake City area, agrees, saying his company has sold paddles to members of every generation. "Though people of a variety of ages are spectators of many sports, I've never seen a sport with such mass appeal to players crossing over all age groups the way pickleball does," he says.
Wertz says companies like his struggled to keep up with demands throughout the pandemic. "Our sales increased 40% every quarter throughout 2021," he explains, adding that the industry isn't showing any signs of slowing down. "Every day, players are creating more players," he says.
Indeed, while there’s still room to grow – pickleball participants skew heavily white and higher-income, for instance – data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association shows the generational breadth of pickleball’s popularity. Approximately 21% of the sport’s more than 4.8 million participants in 2021 were between 6 and 17 years old. Close to 30% were between 18 and 34, with another 20% between 35 and 54 and another 30% ages 55 and up.
Jared Paul, an Austin, Texas-based player and founder of online pickleball community The Kitchen – a reference to a key portion of the typical pickleball court – recognizes the contagious nature of the game.
"The beauty of the sport is its inclusivity and incredible nuanced nature," he says. "Anyone – regardless of age, gender, body size or shape – can go out and have a great time."
And though the sport has proved to have intergenerational appeal, health experts are especially encouraged by the number of seniors drawn to it. "Pickleball is a sport that seniors can play with relative ease and find enjoyable, which is important as age and medical conditions may make some sports more difficult to continue as we get older," says Dr. Edward Laskowski, a specialist in physical medicine, rehabilitation and sports medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Pickleball holds benefits for hand-eye coordination, and research indicates it can improve movement and increase muscle strength. One study even points to how playing pickleball can curb depression.
Lance Dalleck, a professor of exercise and sport science at Western Colorado University, co-authored a 2018 study that explored cardiovascular benefits as well.
"We showed that pickleball players who played at least three days per week … can expect to see improvements in fitness and heart health; namely a 12% increase in cardiorespiratory fitness, a 3.5% reduction in blood pressure and a 5% improvement in good cholesterol," Dalleck says.
Jeff Robbins, a 61-year-old frequent player of the game who lives in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, says he used to play tennis regularly, but that sport was much harder on his body. "I had to cross twice the distance when playing tennis and had to hit much harder for my swings to cover the full court," he explains. Pickleball, by contrast, "is much easier on my joints, shoulders and arm,” he says. “It's a sport I can play without worrying about it having a negative impact on my body at my age."
Courtney Brewster, a 20-year-old from Orem, Utah, says she enjoys playing against pickleballers of all ages, but insists that millennials and Gen Zers are just as passionate as boomers about the sport.
"I spent my high school years playing soccer," she explains. "When I started college, I craved something that would challenge me athletically while also appealing to my competitive nature. Pickleball has become that sport for me."
Above all, players praise the social aspect of the game: "Pickleball brings people together," Wertz says. "I have met more people through this sport than any other and have established many genuine friendships along the way."
Players compete casually against neighbors, family members or friends, but many elect to play in local tournaments as well. Amateurs can even access and play against top professionals in the sport by enrolling in national tournaments put on by the Pro Pickleball Association.
"The pickleball community is a special one," says Manasse, the L.A. pickleball pro and coach. "There is such an inclusive, welcoming vibe in every pickleball town in America. To be able to sweat and compete and then grab a meal with those same people afterwards is truly what this sport is all about. It’s changed so many people's lives for the better."
Adds Matt Denning, an associate professor of human performance and recreation at Brigham Young University–Idaho: "With what we know about the health, psychological and social benefits, I believe pickleball is a wonderful alternative to other forms of leisure physical activity."