What Do LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Stephen Colbert Have in Common? Pickleball, Baby
If you've previously ignored pickleball because of its funny name or the fact that your parents were the ones begging you to play, it's time to get properly acquainted. The sport — a mash-up of ping-pong, badminton, and tennis — is on a rocket ship, rising in popularity thanks in large part to the pandemic. In fact, pickleball has been named the "fastest-growing sport in America" for the second year in a row, according to The Sports & Fitness Industry Association's 2022 report. And as of August 2022, Google searches for "pickleball" reached an all-time high.
The sport's historical reputation as a middle-aged hobby isn't entirely unfair. In 2019, the average age of a pickleball player was 43.5 years old. But it's also no surprise that, when people were searching for new hobbies in the midst of the pandemic, it began to catch on among a younger crowd. It's easy to pick up, athletes of any age and ability can enjoy it, and it's incredibly fun. Now, the biggest age group of pickleball players is 18 to 34 years old, according to USA Pickleball, the governing body of the sport. The sport has even spread outside the US; pickleball is now played in more than 70 countries around the world.
"We're all still learning and discovering new aspects of the game every day, and that's so exciting," Catherine Parenteau, one of the top-ranked professional women pickleball players, says. "The growth of the sport in the past two years has been incredible, and I can't wait to see where it is in five."
The sport is growing with such fervor, it's even attracting the attention of top-tier athletes from other sports. Most recently, LeBron James and Tom Brady made headlines for their support of Major League Pickleball (MLP), the premier professional pickleball league in the US. James joined as an investor alongside business partner Maverick Carter and fellow NBA champions Draymond Green and Kevin Love, among others. Brady (alongside tennis great Kim Clijsters) joined an ownership group that has bought an MLP expansion team for the 2023 season. Earlier this year, MLP also announced investments from retired NFL quarterback Drew Brees and retired tennis player James Blake.
If you're not already a pickleball fan, hopefully by now you're at least curious about the sport. We've gathered everything you need to know about pickleball (including why it's called pickleball in the first place) and how to start playing.
What Is Pickleball — and Why Is It Suddenly So Popular?
Pickleball is a racquet sport played by either singles or doubles on a court (similar to a tennis court, but a quarter of the size) with paddles and a badminton net. You hit the ball back and forth over the net, trying to score points against your opponent.
Pickleball is shockingly easy to pick up — even for those who haven't played racquet sports — and you can play as casually or as intensely as you like. Because it's so accessible and also played in groups, there's a really engaging social element, too. There are even venues popping up that tap into that, pairing pickleball courts with a full-service bar (think: Topgolf, but for pickleball), as well as resorts that cater to pickleball-focused travelers, says Laura Gainor, founder of Vossberg Gainor, a pickleball marketing agency that works with USA Pickleball.
"That's why everyone loves this game and why it's growing so much, because it has such a fun, social atmosphere," says Gainor. "Plus, you're getting exercise, but you don't really realize it . . . the game's easy to learn, and so it's fairly easy, no matter what level you are, to have a good time."
Gainor, who picked up pickleball in 2019, now plays quad-generational pickleball with both her parents, grandparents, and her kids — living proof of the wide audience that pickleball can attract.
"At first, there was this stigma that it was a retirement community sport, a senior citizen sport, but we're really quickly getting over that — and in the past three years, it's really picked up," says Gainor. "I've stopped getting comments about that because people are seeing that it is an athletic sport."
Case in point: you can play competitively. There's a series of qualifiers that can grant you admission to the National Championships, which are played in Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Palm Springs, CA, in November. There are also two pro pickleball tours as well as the newly formed MLP league, which is expanding from 12 to 16 teams. And even if you're not pro-level good, you can play in local pickleball tournaments in your area.
The growing popularity of the sport among millennials and Gen Zers, especially, has given rise to a sort of "pickleball aesthetic," too — like "tenniscore" fashion but a bit more whimsical (just like the game itself). Brands like Nettie Pickleball Co., Recess Pickleball, Luxe Pickleball, and Picklish Pickleball are bringing trendy prints and updated style to pickleball gear, while Real Dill Pickleball Clubs does the same to entire pickleball venues, and Civile Apparel and Devereaux aim to level up pickleball fashion.
"The sport feels a lot more 'real' now, in a way, because there's a lot more money coming into the sport than there was a few years ago," Parenteau says. "And people are playing professional pickleball as a career now, where three or four years ago, it was more of just a fun hobby. Players are starting to take it more seriously."
Investors like James and Brees aren't the only big names who've gone public with their pickleball support, either. Ellen DeGeneres started making her own pickleball paddles in 2021, and tennis GOAT Serena Williams has gushed to her about her love of the sport. Bill Gates has apparently been playing for 50 years and is now "stunned — and delighted — by the sudden popularity" of one of his favorite hobbies, he wrote in a July blog post. Even the pop-culture-juggernaut Kardashian-Jenner family are in on the craze: in 2020, Kylie Jenner bought a mansion with a pickleball court, and they even played during an episode of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." And most recently, Stephen Colbert announced plans to host a two-hour celebrity pickleball tournament, called Pickled, on Nov. 17. The tournament will benefit Comic Relief US and is set to feature celebs like Will Ferrell, Kelly Rowland, Aisha Tyler, and Emma Watson.
Why Is It Called Pickleball?
Pickleball's origin story is just as quirky as its name: In 1965, on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, three dads were tasked with keeping their kids entertained, according to USA Pickleball. Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum cooked up a new game using handmade equipment and simple rules pulled from other sports — and somehow, it stuck.
But why is it called pickleball? Like most urban legends, there's no clear answer. In the early years of play, the sport had no official name; it wasn't until it grew in popularity that it became known as pickleball. Joel Pritchard's wife, Joan, says she started calling the game pickleball because, "the combination of different sports reminded [her] of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats," according to USA Pickleball. However, according to McCallum, the game was named after the Pritchards' dog, Pickles, who would often chase the ball. Other people claim both stories may be true.
How to Play Pickleball
Pickleball is played on a 20' by 44' court; you can find pickleball-specific courts in certain tennis or recreation centers, but it can also be played on a tennis court, badminton court, volleyball court, or basketball court as long as the correct markings are present (whether painted or taped on temporarily), according to USA Pickleball.
The game is played with a lightweight plastic ball with holes (very similar to a Wiffle ball) and paddles (similar to ping-pong paddles, but a bit larger and more rectangular).
The basic rules of pickleball are as follows:
- Players serve underhand or via a "drop serve" from the right side of the court. Paddle contact with the ball must be made below waist level.
- After a serve, the receiving team must let the ball bounce once before returning it. Then, the serving team must let it bounce once before returning.
- After the ball has bounced once in each team's court, both teams may either volley the ball (hit the ball before it bounces) or play it off a bounce (ground stroke). If the ball bounces more than once on either side of the court, it is a fault (any rule violation that stops play).
- A point can be scored only by the serving team when the receiving team makes a fault, such as hitting the ball out of bounds or missing a return shot. If the serving team makes the fault, the other team then gets to serve, but they do not earn a point off the fault.
- If a point is scored (by the serving team), the server switches sides. This means if the serving team scores a point off the first volley, the server will initiate their next serve from the left side of the court. That server continues switching back and forth after each point until they make a fault and it's the other team's turn to serve. That team can serve from whichever side the server happens to be on.
- The non-volley zone (aka "the kitchen") is the court area within 7 feet on both sides of the net. You are not allowed to volley the ball from within this area. If you do so, it's a fault.
- Games are normally played to 11 points, and you must win by 2.
While this all sounds a little confusing, fans attest to the fact that it's incredibly easy to pick up once you're playing. You can read more detailed rules and official competition rules on USA Pickleball.
The Mind-Body Benefits of Playing Pickleball
Pickleball will make you feel like a serious athlete — all while you're having fun and getting a pretty good workout.
"Pickleball significantly improves cardiovascular health," says Katie Easter, pickleball coordinator at Life Time Bloomington North. "It has a much lower impact on the body than other racquet sports." That's in part because the court is much smaller and thus requires less running and also because the ball moves slower. "You gain also strength and agility playing pickleball, as it utilizes a lot of muscles and changes in direction," she says.
The American Council on Exercise conducted a small study of the effects of pickleball on middle-aged and older adults (age 40 to 85 years) and found that in just 15 minutes of pickleball play, the participants' heart rates easily reached the threshold of moderate-intensity exercise and even peaked into the vigorous-intensity range. After six weeks of playing pickleball for 60 minutes, three times a week, the researchers saw improvements in cardiometabolic markers including cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
That said, "the intensity of a Pickleball match is really up to the participants," wrote the researchers — so if you're a beginner or need to take it slower, you absolutely can.
Aside from the physical benefits, pickleball can also positively impact your mental health, Easter says. "It can lighten your mood and make you feel happier, and it can also lower your risk of dementia. The social interaction that comes with pickleball is good for your brain."
How to Get Started Playing Pickleball
"One of the reasons I love pickleball is because it's easy to pick up, even if you've never played any sports before," Parenteau says. "You can play with all ages, too. (For example, I can play with my grandfather.) And it's inexpensive to play!"
To get started, you'll need this pickleball gear:
- A good pair of sneakers: You can get away with any pair of supportive sneakers for pickleball, but if you decide to stick with it, consider investing in a pair designed specifically for court sports, such as these Adidas or Nike sneaks.
- A pickleball paddle: You can play with a wood paddle ($15-30) or composite pickleball paddles ($40-100). Find them on Amazon or at a sporting goods store, such as Dick's, or a local racquet sports store near you. If you want a paddle that looks as good on TikTok as it does on the court, try one from Nettie Pickleball Co., Recess Pickleball, Luxe Pickleball, or Picklish Pickleball.
- A few pickleball balls: Make sure you buy balls that are pickleball-specific, not just any plastic ball with holes. They'll run you about $10 for a three-pack on Amazon.
To find a place to play pickleball near you, head to places2play.org. Or grab a portable pickleball net from USA Pickleball or Amazon and create a court in your driveway or cul-de-sac using chalk or tape. (USA Pickleball has specific instructions on how to DIY your own pickleball court.)
If you'd like to take a lesson or find some people to play with, find a pickleball club near you using USA Pickleball's club finder.
Either way, it shouldn't be long until you've made friends and gotten hooked on the sport. As Easter says, "Pickleball players are notoriously friendly and just want to play!"
— Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan