Pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport, as well as the world’s fastest growing sport. I first heard about pickleball when my sister and my dad played pickleball together during the previous winter break – they had lots of fun and encouraged me to play as well. And in March, I attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference 2023, where there was a panel specifically dedicated to pickleball and how it was the world’s fastest growing sport. At the conference, there was also a live Pickleball Open Play presented by the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA). It was here that I learned more about the background and statistics of this sport.
Invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island (Washington), pickleball was created as a way to pass time when three dads and their kids were bored with their usual summertime activities. Since then, pickleball has involved into a multinational popular sport, growing internationally to Europe and Asia. The explosion in popularity is due to multiple factors – it’s easy to start playing and hard to stop, there are multiple facilities with pickleball courts (found within YMCAs, PE classes, retirement communities, and community centers), is low impact, and the pickleball court is easily convertible from existing tennis or badminton courts.
In this article, I will analyze data to discuss trends within pickleball and its popularity, and also analyze stats between pickleball and tennis to decide which is likely to be the most popular racquet sport in the next years to come. I will also discuss the Major League Pickleball (MLP) and Pro Pickleball League (PPL) and the stats associated with each of these pro leagues.
Ultimately, I will answer the question: can pickleball maintain its moniker as America’s fastest-growing sport over the next couple of years?
Pickleball: Taking Over the World?
Using data collected from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) Single Sport Participation Report on Pickleball, I created these two charts. It is evident that the number of pickleball players has increased exponentially over the past couple of years.
It is also important to note that pickleball growth increased substantially in 2020 (most likely due to COVID, which brought the coming of new outdoor activities) and in 2022, which means that pickleball is still on an upward trend. What’s also surprising to me is that pickleball grew more in 2022 than in 2020.
Also, seen from the Google Trends graph below, it is clear that increase in search entries for pickleball have increased by a whopping 467% over the past 5 years (since 2018).
First of all, why is pickleball so popular? There are several different factors to potentially explain this. For one, pickleball is a low-impact sport, which makes it popular among senior citizens as well as those who are injured or cannot perform high intensity exercise. Many former tennis players have switched over to pickleball since it is easier on their joints but still replicates similar movements. It is also very easy to learn.
One of the SSAC panelists, Jessie Irvine (Professional PPA player), reflects on the addictiveness of pickleball due to its “neutralizing” effect – pickleball enables people of all different ages and genders to play together. This builds a better sense of community within the sport.
From this bar chart (created from data from USA Pickleball 2022 Fact Sheet) above, it is interesting to note that the majority of core players last year were among the older generation. However, the majority of casual players were in the 18 to 34 age bracket. This can provide some insight on popularity and “seriousness” of competition in this sport. It is also interesting to note that the average age of pickleball players was 38.1 years in 2021 and an average of 41.0 years in 2020. Following this trend, I can predict a rise in younger players over the next couple of years.
According to the Pickleheads website (a blog on pickleball news and updates), California and Florida had the highest number of pickleball courts in the US in 2021. I created a data visualization below to show this. Additionally, according to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the top 10 states in terms of USAPA membership as of 2021 are: Florida, California, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, and North Carolina.
It's important to note that these rankings are based on USAPA membership, which may not accurately reflect the total number of pickleball players in each state. Additionally, these numbers may be constantly changing as more people become involved in the sport.
Also according to the USAPA, some of the regions in the US that have seen strong growth and interest in pickleball in recent years include:
- Pacific Northwest: The Pacific Northwest, which includes the states of Washington and Oregon, has been a hotbed of pickleball interest and growth, with many top players and tournaments located in this region. Since pickleball originated in Washington, the Pacific Northwest serves as a birth hub for this sport.
- Southwest: The Southwest, which includes states such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, has seen significant growth in pickleball, particularly among retirees who have embraced the sport as a way to stay active and social.
- Southeast: The Southeast, which includes states such as Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, has also seen strong growth in pickleball, due in part to its warm weather and large retiree population.
- Midwest: The Midwest, which includes states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, has also seen a surge in pickleball interest and growth in recent years, with many new facilities and players emerging.
To play pickleball, the equipment is quite minimal as well – you simply need a paddle, a ball, and (preferably) a pickleball court (which is the same size as a badminton court). Not only is the equipment to play pickleball minimal, it is also relatively cheap.
I also created a graph comparing the average prices of sports equipment for the six most popular racquet sports. A key takeaway from this is that pickleball is in the middle of the price range – which means it relatively affordable sport for most.
Pickleball vs. Tennis
Is pickleball overtaking the spot as the leading racquet sport in the US? From the graph below showing the total number of pickleball vs tennis players in the United States over the last couple of years, it is evident that pickleball is still lagging in popularity compared to tennis. However, with the consistent growth trend, pickleball could potentially overtake the top spot.
From this graph, it is interesting to note that both tennis and pickleball grew in total number of players in 2020 – the most likely cause is the COVID-19 pandemic. Another key aspect between tennis and pickleball is sheer size – you can fit up to four pickleball courts inside one tennis court. This is shown in the figure below.
Something else to consider is the ranking system for each sport respectively. In tennis, players are ranked based on a points system that adds up players’ 18 best results in the previous 52 weeks. In order to earn ranking points, tennis players must participate in events hosted by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). The number of points earned by the player depends on the round the player loses.
In contrast, there are two ranking systems in pickleball - which causes confusion and can result in mismatches between players at tournaments. The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) prefers the DUPR (Dreamland Universal Pickleball Rating) system, which tracks the outcomes of matches as reported by players. However, the USA Pickleball Association (USAP) goes with the UTPR (USA Pickleball Tournament Player Ratings) system, which tracks entirely different metrics that are not self-reported. Additionally, UTPR only tracks tournaments sanctioned by USAP, disregarding any that are purely recreational.
On top of these various differences, there are growing tensions between tennis and pickleball players.
One reason for potential tensions between pickleball and tennis is competition for court space and resources. Both sports require a similar type of court, and as pickleball's popularity has grown, it has led to increased demand for court time and space. This can create tensions with tennis players who may feel that their access to courts is being limited or disrupted.
Another reason for potential tensions is the different cultures and demographics of the two sports. Tennis is often seen as a more traditional and elitist sport, while pickleball has a reputation for being more inclusive and accessible. This can create cultural differences between the two sports that may lead to tensions or misunderstandings.
There have also been instances where pickleball courts have been built in close proximity to tennis courts, which can lead to noise and other disturbances that may be disruptive to tennis players. This has sometimes resulted in conflicts between the two groups.
Overall, while there may be tensions between pickleball and tennis, it's important to remember that both sports have their own unique cultures and communities, and there is plenty of room for both to coexist and thrive.
Future of Pickleball
From these charts, I can foresee pickleball attracting much more players each year in the upcoming years - so much so that I believe it may be a sport in the Olympics soon! Approaching 6 million players in the US alone, pickleball has reached both national and international levels of play. Ultimately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the one who decides which sports will be included in the event. It must pass several requirements, which include:
- The sport needs to be regulated by an international non-governmental organization.
- Next step is to ensure that the game follows the Olympic Movement Anti-Doping Code. All players must be found to be clean of performance-enhancing drugs.
- The sport must meet a certain threshold of international popularity. (A potential Olympic sport must be played in 75 countries across four continents if it is played by male athletes, or 40 countries across three continents if played by female athletes.)
- The sport must have adequate facilities.
- The sport must have enough popularity around the world enough to gain viewer interest.
As of now, pickleball has not reached all the criteria (yet), but it is a likely option to be added to the LA 2028 Summer Olympics – so keep an eye out for pickleball’s potential debut in the Olympics then! What’s interesting to note is that there are some other very popular sports that are not in the Olympics with much more players than pickleball – cricket (30 million players worldwide), squash (20 million players worldwide), American football (5 million players worldwide), polo (500,000 players worldwide).
As for the general public, pickleball remains a fun and easy way to stay fit, as well as practice a low-impact sport. Pickleball is a sport that can be played by all ages, doesn’t require much money to play, and will entertain friends and family for hours – so don’t be afraid to give it a try!