Like many of you out there, I had never heard of pickleball until recently. I first heard the name one year ago as I was driving from my home in Palm Desert, past the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens, on my way to La Quinta.
I wondered what all the cars were doing pulling into the Tennis Gardens. A few days later, someone mentioned that the pickleball championships had just ended and I looked at them like they had lost their minds. "Pickleball?", I said.
It turns out that this sport is the fastest growing sport in the USA. There are about 3.1 million players across the country with about 2.5 million being core players. The largest group of core players are 55+ years old with a whopping 74.5% of them playing 4-7 days a week.
Started 54 years ago by three guys in the Pacific Northwest, that region continues to have the largest group of core players, surprisingly the upper North Central is next, followed by the South. These areas represent about 50% of all core players in the USA.
Men make up the dominant group of players, but nearly 40% of all players are women. There are nearly 7000 facilities to play pickleball with almost 21,000 courts and it is reported that there are 85 new places opening each month to play. (All statistics courtesy of the Sports Fitness Industry Association)
This weekend the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships conclude in Indian Wells. They will crown winners in multiple categories from 6-17 year old age brackets, up to 65+ year old age groups from 2200 participants playing this week. The pros will be playing for a total prize money of $75,000.
There are groups within the groups, as the industry rates people by skill levels, from 3.0 up to 5.0, and then pros. This allows for players of like skill to play each other and keeps the matches competitive.
One of my oldest friends, and I mean by age not duration of knowing him, came out here to take in the games and I joined him to get my first taste of the sport. A quick nugget: There are not many fat people playing pickleball apparently. It turns out this is a pretty entertaining sport to watch, and I'm guessing to play also.
Doubles is the premier version, unlike tennis, and specifically mixed doubles is the most popular. Because the sport is played with a wiffle ball like orb, it tends to slow down the speed and this really allows women to be on an equal footing with men when playing.
I will say that when you watch the younger players, especially those in their late 20's and early 30's, the sport is much faster paced with more overhead slams than in singles and older age brackets. It's almost violent in nature in those matches.
I also found it interesting to see people in the stands matching the age group they were watching. Not many youngsters were watching the 65+ age brackets play and vice-versa. Players were, for the most part, very congenial to each other, congratulating them for a good shot, and I saw no yelling or fighting.
A few more paddle tosses, or some loud "F" bombs, would have livened things up. Even an occasional, "nice swing and miss old man" would have been welcome. I never saw one mixed double team get in each others grill, unlike in real life where a misplayed shot would have resulted in finger pointing and name calling.
I did not see any beer carts driving around the courts either, like you would see at a golf outing, but there were tables for the players that had sports drinks, energy bars, oranges, and bananas. That made me question what kind of people play something for their health?
If you are looking for something to keep you in shape as you age, gracefully or not, you may want to consider pickleball. It appears to be fun, social, and a great workout.