By Bill Clevlen
Pickleball is currently the fastest growing sport in America and odds are you have no idea how or where to play it. It’s been around since the 1960’s, but only in recent years has the game exploded in popularity across the country. According to the USA Pickleball Association, the number of people playing the game on a regular basis has increased by a whopping 650% in the last six years. Pickleball is a mix of three sports – badminton,
tennis, and ping-pong. And, while the best players tend to have experience in one of those games, anyone can learn to play in a relatively short amount of time. The ball could be described as a glorified wiffle ball and the paddle (don’t call it a racquet!) is slightly larger than the one used in ping-pong.
With the sport’s rapid growth and unique social aspect, Pickleball is becoming big business and creating opportunities for venues like resorts, hotels, and community centers. In fact, pickleball is becoming so popular, that travelers increasingly select accommodations for family reunions, vacations, and even business meetings based on if the venue has dedicated courts on-site. And anyone in the meetings and events industry that laughs off the craze or doesn’t take it seriously, does so at his own peril.
If you’ve heard of pickleball, or know someone that plays it, you probably have a basic idea of who tends to choose pickleball as a sport. Older. Retired. Grandmas and Grandpas.
And you’d be wrong. Sort of.
While the increased popularity is in fact due to mostly baby boomers or seniors that once played tennis, they no longer remain the sole demographic in love with the game. On a typical summer weekend in St. Louis, you’ll find children, families, college students, young adults, and yes, seniors, filling up dedicated pickleball courts in one of the regions many public parks.
The sport has even arrived in beautiful Forest Park, at the prestigious Dwight Davis Tennis Center where notable tennis matches between top ranked players were once a major attraction in town. These days, the Championship court is dedicated solely to pickleball. John Callahan operates Callahan Pickleball Academy on-site during the week, where current players can expand their skills and groups can spend time team building or socializing.
“We just had an event with about 40 software engineers, most of whom had never even talked to one another before. Because of the nature of this game, the employees were able to come out of their shell, have fun, and quickly learn the basics” says Callahan. “Trying these events with almost any other sport can be a complete disaster. For example, if we did a team building session with tennis, only a few would be good players, while everyone else would get bored or frustrated. With pickleball, it’s easy to learn and it’s not an overstatement to say that everyone, regardless of athletic ability, can figure it out.”
Chris Evon is a co-founder of the U.S Open Pickleball Championships, one of the sport’s most prestigious tournaments, currently based in Naples, Florida. What started as an 800 person event just a few years ago, is now maxed out at 2,000 participants with only a lack of court space prohibiting additional players. Smaller tournaments are happening weekly all across the country. A quick glance at pickleballtournaments.com shows events coming up everywhere, from Mississippi to California and Baltimore to Albuquerque.
“Officially, there are 3.3 million pickleball players in the U.S. and the arrow points straight up for future growth” says Evon. (That number may not even include people that simply play at home on a driveway or at church with family or friends.) She also notes that forward-thinking leaders in the hospitality industry are already making sure their properties are equipped with places to play. When asked if players are choosing places to stay, based on the availability of pickleball courts alone, her answer was short and sweet: “Absolutely.”
Pickleball tournaments can also be a big win for venues, small businesses, and communities in general. With each event, travelers use hotels or resorts, dine in local restaurants, and – if produced thoughtfully and properly – organizers can create an annual event with growth potential.
Unlike other sports that often require years of practice, or are played on a team or solo, pickleball is generally quite social; with players open to mixing and mingling with strangers. The game is also highly addictive. Once the initial head scratching wears off from the game’s name, the bizarre scoring method, or the weird sound the ball makes, it’s easy to fall in love with it. What seemed like a long shot idea in North Kansas City, Chicken N Pickle proved that pickleball is, in fact, good for business. Most nights are packed with guests playing in leagues or learning the sport with professional instructors. It’s also become a popular event space since anyone can learn to play, no matter the person’s athletic ability. The amount of private events and corporate bookings is skyrocketing with meeting planners making pickleball part of their team building or work day retreats.
The biggest mistake venues make when adding pickleball? “They cheap out” says Chris Evon. “We’ve seen it over and over, places decide to make use of existing tennis courts and slap down some paint and sometimes don’t even bother to change the net.” she says. “If you want to attract Pickleball players, do the research when it comes to courts and do it right the first time.”
Bill Clevlen is a contributing writer from St. Louis, MO.