According to numerous sources, pickleball is now the fastest-growing sport in the United States. The sport transcended fad status during the pandemic, as suddenly, every neighborhood tennis court was now accompanied by paddles smacking wiffle balls.
In 2021, pickleball participation ballooned to 4.8 million players, according to USA Pickleball’s research. This 14.8% annual growth from 2020 follows shooting up 21.3% from 2019 to 2020. This even outpaces a ridiculous 11.5% average annual growth rate over the past five years. While everyone seems excited about the sport’s explosion, from Leonardo DiCaprio and the Clooney family to a Pittsburgh grandma’s “whooping on” Pittsburgh Steelers, there’s fallout from the roiling flames. From coast to coast, the mighty mass of pickleball players is encroaching on sacred green, acrylic-coated concrete.
What is pickleball? Pickleball is similar to ping-pong in that it’s easy to pick up and tough to master. Pickleball rules are similar to other racquet sports with some minor alterations. Similar to its basement-dwelling cousin, pickleball is accessible to all ages and fitness levels because there’s only a small amount of ground to cover. A little more than a quarter the size of tennis courts, pickleball borders are 20 by 44 feet and divided in the middle by the net. Each side is split into right and left service courts, with a “dead zone” 7 feet in front of the net on each side.
While the sport may be democratic, this doesn’t suggest pickleball is a unanimous choice. The game can draw the ire of tennis players hitting alongside 20- to 30-person pickleball meetups. As opposed to the focused intensity of two- to four-person tennis matches, most pickleball gatherings feature shouts, jibes, claps, and the din of 20 to 30 contestants, attendees, and barking golden retrievers.
Pickleball tournaments are quick, rowdy, and can include up to 16 players in an area similar to the size of a tennis court. There’s a suburban equality to the collection. Equipment is cheap. All players need to set up shop are shoes, a paddle, a net, and a perforated, polymer ball. Tape goes at the top of tennis courts, however, as do chalk lines and multicolored tape that mars the clean surface beneath.
In Long Beach, California, tennis players and pickleballers jousted as the latter encroached on the former’s territory at various public parks. One side wondered why people were pooping on the party, and the other pointed to plastered courts and weak nets strapped down by pickleballers. Each lobbed verbal jabs at the other throughout the spring, threatening to alert authorities. The dispute grew so heated that Long Beach City Council got involved. Its solution? Assign a former city councilman and current nonprofit pickleball association owner to head of operations at the outdoor Seal Beach Tennis & Pickleball center. Let’s just call this one to be continued…
In Exeter, New Hampshire, none other than tennis great Martina Navratilova weighed in. One of the top five women’s tennis players of all time told pickleballers to go make their own court.
“I say if pickleball is that popular let them build their own courts :)” Navratilova tweeted.
It’s not just tennis players expressing their dissatisfaction with the pickleball hordes. Dozens of legal proceedings assert that pickleball violates various municipal codes and/or association rules, and local governance is often at a loss at what to do.
In 2021, Roxanne Hudson lived next to pickleball courts in remote Iron Mountain, Michigan. Hudson told The Daily News, the local paper, that she and her husband “just want to move” as paddle and plastic ball noise goes on “hour after hour” and “just drives you nuts.” City manager Jordan Stanchina proposed limiting play between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., but about 20 pickleball partisans attended a council meeting to object.
“We’ll try to mitigate (the noise) somehow,” Mayor Dale Alessandrini said after 40 minutes of public comment.
No word yet on whether the Hudsons remain.
Last year, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a local blogger wrote that the village with about 25,000 residents had “declare(d) war on pickleball.” On Mayne Island, British Columbia, just about 100 miles north of where pickleball was invented in 1965, the local Capital Daily laid out the long-form saga of tennis-encroaching newbies dubbed, The Pickleball Coup.
While pickleball’s grip on recreational hearts may find sympathetic ears from community players, leaders, and developers, the sport still dwarfs tennis. More than 22.6 million people took to tennis courts in 2021 — up approximately 1 million players from 2020 and more than 26% in the last two years. As the sports grow together, so will the battle between the two for the blessed ground inside chain-link fences.
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