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The good and the bad of the pickleball explosion

The good and the bad of the pickleball explosion

Over the summer, we visited a friend’s lake house in Georgia. There were 17 of us in the group, and while there we played pickleball.

The host family was already skilled at the sport and owned the necessary equipment. The rest of us had not played much, if at all, and experienced a steep but enjoyable learning curve that afternoon. When we were finished, we all looked at each other, and said something along the lines of, “That was so fun. We should play more often.”

On the car ride home, we ordered rackets and balls. Since then, our family has been playing a lot of pickleball. Whether it’s two of us, four of us or six of us, we’ve been hitting up the pickleball courts at Lake Junaluska and Canton. We’re finding it to be a very fun change of pace from running and working out at the gym, not to mention it’s something we can do together as opposed to other forms of exercise which are often solitary. 

Apparently we’re not the only ones falling in love with this beloved leisure activity. There’s been a significant surge in what a lot of people call “pickling.” According to a CNN article published earlier this year, pickleball is America’s fastest-growing sport. The number of individuals playing grew by 159% over three years to 8.9 million in 2022, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group.

Numbers released in the 2023 APP Pickleball Participation Report, via a study conducted by YouGov, shows that 14% of Americans played pickleball at least once in a 12-month period. And over 8.5 million people played eight times or more. Moreover, high profile athletes such as LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Kevin Durant and Tom Brady have taken up the sport, offering it even more exposure and allure. 

With that being said, it’s not all fun and games when it comes to the current pickleball explosion. There are people who have been playing the sport for decades when it was still a quiet pastime and are now having to wait hours for courts to open up. Even people disinterested in the sport, such as parents of young children, neighbors and serious tennis players, are annoyed. This is especially true in small neighborhoods or cities where the sounds of pickleball filter into homes and businesses. Pickleball tends to be much louder than tennis for several reasons. The game fits more players into the same space. Hits during a rally are more frequent and noisier. It’s also a social sport, so games can get loud and boisterous with players bantering during and after points.

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You may be wondering when pickleball originated. The story goes that after playing golf, Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington, and Bill Bell, a successful businessman, returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. As a solution to entertain bored family members, they sought to play badminton on an old badminton court but couldn’t find the proper equipment. They improvised and played with table tennis paddles and a perforated plastic ball. This was the birth of pickleball. The year was 1965. 

Part of the reason so many people have started playing pickleball is the sport is easy to learn and relatively inexpensive. Further, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the surge of pickleball coincided with the post-Covid era. The pandemic helped us realize simple joys of life are what matters most of all — recreation, relaxation, laughter, fun and spending time with our loved ones. Where did all that hustle and bustle get us when we when the world shut down and we were isolated and alone? I know I’ve had a different view of the world and my individual trajectory since the pandemic. I still have big dreams and goals, but I’ve also realized that’s not what’s most important to me. Pickleball is one of many leisure activities I’ve embraced since the pandemic. 

Finally, if you decide to play the sport yourself, be sure to use the correct vernacular. I’ve already mentioned “pickling.” That’s just one of many pickleball-related terms. Others include “pickled” (when a team scores zero points in an entire game), “poach” (when playing doubles, a poach is crossing into your partner’s side of the court to hit a shot), “volley llama” (an illegal move or fault where a player hits a shot in the non-volley zone), “kitchen” (the seven-foot section of court on either side of the net; players are not allowed to volley the ball in this zone), “Opa!” (a cheer shouted after the third shot has been hit and open volleying begins), and there are others. 

Like everything, the pickleball explosion will eventually stabilize one way or the other, whether that’s by building more courts or bystanders getting accustomed to the sounds in their neighborhoods. Personally, I like the sounds of pickleball but then again, I’m one of the players on the court… enjoying myself immensely, I might add.

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist with The Smoky Mountain News, Smoky Mountain Living and Mountain South Media.)

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