Pickleball Is Booming. Not Everyone Is Happy About That

According to its evangelists, pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport (it depends on how you measure). According to Architectural Digest, it’s the perfect amenity for new luxury real estate development (it might be). According to your grandmother, it’s blowing up at her retirement home (it definitely is). The last few years are probably the first time you’ve ever heard of the sport, if you have at all, and you may be wondering what is going on. Fear not, an avalanche of recent pickleball press can answer all of your questions. This year, The New York Times declared the sport “ready for prime time.” NPR bemoaned the mere 10,000 places to play across the country. Town and Country called it the “preferred sport of the one percent.” The New Yorker asked, “Can pickleball save America?”Most of the recent articles on pickleball follow a predictable rubric, beginning by explaining how the game works: Players use composite or wooden paddles to whack a plastic ball back and forth over a short net until it bounces twice or out of bounds—like a game of ping-pong where you can stand on the table. Then, as if it follows naturally from the game’s simplicity, they trace the game’s meteoric rise in popularity, from invention in the ‘60s by a quirked-up Republican congressman to its rapid ascent to the mainstream over the last few years.The only thing moving faster than this venture capital-backed gold rush are pickleball’s haters, of which there are many. No one wants to be told to like something, after all. To detractors like us, it’s a senior citizen’s idea of something youthful and hip—the Pete Buttigieg of sports, if you will. Once an improvised summertime driveway activity, pickleball has since transformed to a multi-million dollar revenue stream, with three different professional leagues vying for U.S. supremacy, two competing international leagues, three separate organizations claiming to be the sport’s official Hall of Fame (they combined forces recently), and countless manufacturers of merchandise, gear, media coverage, even pickleball-themed entertainment complexes. Today, you’re more likely to see pickleball in a promo video starring Bill Gates or on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange than on the street in front of your neighbor’s house. With earned media across print and TV—and even a prominent feature in the reality show Vanderpump Rules— there is the overwhelming sense of something being marketed.“That’s how kale took off in America: a good publicist. That’s all that’s required sometimes,” says podcaster, brand consultant, and pickleball skeptic Chris Black. “As soon as corporations get involved, it gets talked about as a culture when it’s not.”Beyond the PR astroturfing, there are more concrete reasons to dislike pickleball. The most immediate, for anyone nearby, is its signature annoying sound: There’s no better symbol of this brash takeover than the pickleball’s thwack. (“Pickleball Noise Is Fueling Drama From Coast to Coast,” reports the L.A. Times). And because it is played at closer quarters and at lower intensity than other racket sports, there tends to be a lot of talking. In fact, to participate, it’s imperative to learn the sport’s unique terminology—”dinks” (a type of shot), the “kitchen” (a no-volley zone), “OPA” (a phrase to shout mid-point once volleying becomes legal). You may also hear the terms, “flapjack,” “dillball,” or “hand battles.” You simply must understand: this sport is fun and different—leave your stuffy tennis whites at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.