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Pickleball fever rises in America: 'Everybody we know now plays'

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Pickleball is booming among recreational racket sports in America.

The game, which is similar to tennis, ping-pong, badminton, and racquetball, creates an outlet for retired tennis players, professional or casual, seeking to stay competitive while minimizing bodily strain. Plus, courts used for similar sports like tennis can also be easily converted into smaller pickleball courts.

The sport's governing body, USA Pickleball, reported that pickleball adoption grew by 14.8% from 2021 to 2022, amassing 4.8 million players in the U.S. Bolstered by late-pandemic growth, proof of scale, and colorful investment personalities, pickleball has been dubbed "America's fastest-growing sport' by NPR.

"It's addictive so we just started playing and now with our other friends and relatives — actually everybody we know now plays pickleball," one player in New Hampshire told NPR.

The organization also reported that 1.3 million are core players (as opposed to casual participants) who play more than 8 times a year. Over half of the core pickleballers are over 55-years-old. But the sport's popularity is not exclusive to older players, and the community is actively exploring ways to get younger demographics involved.

In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 photo, clockwise from left; Gary Dyson, Del Teter, Donna Shattenberg and David Bone compete in a game of pickleball at Sun City West senior community in Surprise, Ariz. A hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is played on a court a quarter the size of a tennis court, with hard rackets and a variety of whiffle ball.
In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 photo, clockwise from left; Gary Dyson, Del Teter, Donna Shattenberg and David Bone compete in a game of pickleball at Sun City West senior community in Surprise, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

"We have a project called the APP Youth Foundation, and in doing so we are bringing nets, balls, and equipment to elementary schools where there are APP tour stops," Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) Founder Ken Herrmann told Yahoo Finance in an email. "It is our hope to bring equipment along with education so that more people can start playing in the youth development."

Sportswear giant FILA told Yahoo Finance that the popularity of the niche sport has positioned the ball in their court by driving sales of pickleball paddles and other equipment.

"We can confirm that we continue to see incredible growth and opportunity in the pickleball market, led by significant growth in footwear sales," a FILA Tennis spokesperson wrote in an email. "We have seen strong double-digit increases year-over-year since 2020."

FILA is also buying into the pickleball boom in other ways. The sportswear brand is the acting athletic apparel and footwear supplier for the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championship and the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), which backs a separate tournament tour not sanctioned under USA Pickleball.

SAN CLEMENTE, CA - JUNE 27: The Pro Pickleball Association hosts the Orange County Cup in San Clemente where 14-yer-old Anna Leigh Waters, pictured, competes in the womens singles against Lea Jansen on Sunday, June 27, 2021. Jansen took the trophy.  (Photo by Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
The Pro Pickleball Association hosts the Orange County Cup in San Clemente where 14-year-old Anna Leigh Waters, pictured, competes in the women's singles against Lea Jansen on Sunday, June 27, 2021. Jansen took the trophy. (Photo by Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

'There's money starting to come into this'

At the NYC Franklin Open over Memorial Day weekend, the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) served up big prizes and garnered even more excitement for the fast-growing sport.

The five-day tournament held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens was one of the stops on the APP 2022 tour that consists of 32 tournaments. The tour draws an average of 800 players in each tournament, spans five countries, and is offering a total of $2 million in prizes.

“What an honor what a thrill to be here, kind of building that bridge between tennis and pickleball,” APP Tour CEO and Founder Ken Hermann told Yahoo Finance at the NYC Open. “We’re at the hallow grounds of the Billie Jean King National Center, and to have the opportunity to come in here and bring one of the biggest prize money tournaments in pickleball kind of gives you goosebumps when you’re here on stadium court.”

Over 1,300 players competed across 130 events at the Franklin Open, separated by age and amateur or professional status. Prize money awarded to the top players totaled $132,200.

"To see the prize money actually getting there and more sponsors getting involved, it's just better for the players actually saying, 'Hey, you know what? There's money starting to come into this,'" Parris Todd, a former American tennis player turned pickleballer, told Yahoo Finance.

Todd, who also owns a fashion brand, took gold in the Women's Pro Singles and silver in the Women's Pro Double brackets this past weekend — taking home a purse totaling $9,000. Her training schedule involves playing pickleball for three to six hours a day.

"I can actually commit, and this can be my full-time job," Todd said.

Creating 'household names' of pickleball pros

FILA also sponsors three professional pickleball players: former Slovakian tennis player Lucy Kovalova, Florida native Leigh Waters, and her 15-year-old daughter Anna Leigh Waters.

At just 15 years old, Anna Leigh Waters is the youngest touring player in professional pickleball and the first to win a PPA title. She was reportedly absent from the Franklin NYC Open to focus on her schoolwork.

The pickleball phenom took up the sport when she was 12 and now plays for the Chimeras, a Major League Pickleball (MLP) team. (Each MLP team consists of two male and two female players.)

The official 2022 tour schedule for the Association of Pickleball Professionals.
The official 2022 tour schedule for the Association of Pickleball Professionals.

Recently, more executives have taken an interest in pickleball organizations and teams. The PPA was acquired by Carolina Hurricanes NHL team owner and TopGolf investor Tom Dundon in early 2022. Other MLP teams boast owners such as entrepreneur and NFT promotor Gary Vaynerchuk as well as lecturer-researcher Brené Brown.

"What’s interesting now is we used to have to call [sponsors]," USA Pickleball CEO Stu Upson told Yahoo Finance at the Franklin NYC Open. "And now they’re calling us because corporations really understand how big pickleball has become and they’re calling us to figure out 'How do I get involved? 'How do I participate?'"

Yahoo Finance Producer Josh Schafer contributed reporting to this story.

Luke is a producer for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @theLukeCM.

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