By Ernie Williamson
Can you guess the nation’s fastest-growing sport?
A clue: It has a goofy name.
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball is America’s fastest-growing sport. The association says more than a half-million people have picked up a pickleball paddle since 2020 and participation has doubled since 2014.
The sport is a mix of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong played on a court about a fourth the size of a tennis court.
Pickleball is most popular in the Northeast and Mountain West and has been named the official sport of the state of Washington, where the game was founded.
If, like me, you weren’t aware of the sport until recently, it is probably because Texas has fewer pickleball courts per capita than any state except for Mississippi.
But that doesn’t mean pickleball isn’t catching on in our part of Texas.
Lake Jackson, for instance, has added pickleball lines to its tennis courts at two parks to make the space available for both tennis or pickleball play, according to Robin Hyden, Lake Jackson’s director of parks and recreation.
She says the Lake Jackson Recreation Center has also opened space in the mornings for pickleball players, and there are competitive leagues several nights during the week.
In Angleton, the recreation center sets up pickleball courts on Tuesday mornings. Most of the players are seniors, but playing isn’t limited to seniors, according to Jason O’Mara, assistant director of parks and recreation.
My first glimpses of pickleball came at the Pearland Recreation Center and Natatorium when I noticed people hitting a plastic whiffle-type ball on the basketball courts.
I watched from my wheelchair, and before long I was invited to try it.
Since I was an avid tennis player before my spinal court injury, it came pretty easily. I immediately understood why the sport is growing so fast.
The sport is easy to learn, appeals to all ages and offers a way to compete in a sport while minimizing bodily strain.
The nets are lower than in tennis, and the smaller court means there is less sprinting, particularly in doubles.
Matthew Manasee, a nationally ranked professional player who runs a pickleball program in California, told the New York Times he began organizing matches in April of 2021.
“In tennis, the technique takes years and years,” Manasse said. “But in the first pickleball lesson, we are able to play a full game and get rallies going.”
Nationwide, about 17 percent of players are 65 and older while a third are under 25, according to a survey of 18,000 Americans on their participation in 100 sports.
Players are called “picklers.” They “pickle.” When they lose, they’re “pickled.”
Pickleball was founded in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, by two families trying to amuse bored children.
For years, the legend was that the game was named after a family dog, “Pickles.”
One of the founders disputed that, however, and explained the name referred to rowers who would race for fun in local “pickle boat” crew race competitions.
For years, the sport had only a cult following. Then it started appearing in retirement communities, country clubs and the homes of Hollywood elites.
Now the sport has gone mainstream.
The Association of Pickleball Professionals sponsors a tour of 32 tournaments that draws an average of 800 players in each tournament, spans five countries, and offers $2 million in prize money.
Companies are capitalizing on the pickleball craze.
Recently, CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports, ESPN3 and the Tennis Channel have announced plans to broadcast the sport.
Franklin Sports, known for its baseball gear, is making balls, paddles, nets and bags. Pickleball is now Franklin’s fastest-growing segment of revenue.
Joola, a company that has manufactured table tennis equipment for 70 years, is making paddles specific for pickleball, the first time the company has branched out into a new sport.
Although I have practiced hitting a pickleball, I don’t know whether the sport lends itself to competitive matches for those of us in wheelchairs. I wouldn’t mind trying though, even if I get “pickled.”
(Contact Ernie at email@example.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)