LeBron James teams up with Kevin Love and Draymond Green; after retirement Tom Brady, driven by a desire to stay close to sports, invests in another club with former tennis player Kim Clijsters; football star Patrick Mahomes and tennis players Nick Kyrgios and Naomi Osaka are there, along with actress Eva Longoria and model Heidi Klum.
Since its establishment in 2021, the league continues to expand and this year will award prizes in excess of $2 million; it is the fastest growing sport in the US, with a staggering 8.9 million people engaged in it by 2022 – an incredible 89% increase from the previous year.
It’s not football or baseball, it’s not football either. It’s called pickleball – and any connection to pickles is purely coincidental.
It is extremely difficult to explain this phenomenon because it makes no sense. Countless reports speak of the players’ sense of community that attracts more participants. Perhaps it is that everyone can play and enjoy it without committing to it professionally, that the effort is not as great as in other sports, or that the managers’ well-developed marketing has attracted attention and increased exposure.
But all these factors still do not explain this one bizarre fact – a game that combines tennis, badminton and table tennis, and may look to most Israelis like “matkot (paddle ball) with a net” spreading like fire across sports scene at levels that other disciplines can only imagine.
In 1965, politician Joel Pritchard was hosting friends at his Washington state cottage, and the kids were bored. Pritchard asked his 13-year-old son Frank to invent a game, as that’s what he used to do at his age.
The bold child replied, “Why don’t you invent a game?” So what does a sane person who later becomes a senator do? He invents a new sport to stop the kids from pestering him in a world without screens to distract them.
As an American politician’s summer house, there was also a badminton court. So the father lowered the net, made makeshift paddles, and sent the youngsters out to play with a plastic ball.
The mother, a crew enthusiast who noticed that her husband took a little from each game, called it “Pickleball,” since “pickle” is the term for a boat filled with left-over rowers from other boats.
The rest is history. Neighbors excited about the invention spread the word, creators started a company, established rules and began producing specialized equipment. Slowly but surely, the sport spread across the United States.
The sport finally exploded in popularity at the beginning of this decade, and not by accident. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed people to seek more fun and easy outdoor activities that men and women can play together without investing too many resources.
Organized in a system of centralized tournaments in one city that award points, the league draws thousands of spectators to each event, and the audience only grows in size. Even those who are not at a competitive level enjoy the sport as a combination of one-size-fits-all fitness and socializing with friends.
And the madness only spreads. A new startup is opening pickleball courts inside malls; research has found that more and more Americans are planning their vacations based on the availability of places where they can gamble, and travel agencies have begun to specialize in marketing such packages; many tennis courts are being remodeled for the new activity; major sports channels broadcast league matches; and one of the slogans that stuck to the sport, “the game anyone can play anytime”, is gaining traction and appealing to audiences of all ages that marketers and advertisers are always trying to reach.
In addition to popular and community interest, pickleball also appeals to professionals with a background in tennis who feel they have an opportunity to stand out and benefit from an evolving sport with more comfortable physical demands.
For example, Sam Query, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals in the past, switched to pickleball this year, and Noah Rubin, a former Wimbledon junior champion, explained why he changed direction.
“The tennis court is too big and there’s too much ground to cover. The moment I discovered pickleball, everything clicked for me. It’s the most accessible sport in an effortless way I’ve ever encountered.”
And here comes the Israeli perspective – Dekel Bar. At his peak, he was ranked 570th in the world in tennis and tried his luck for six years at the professional level, but struggled with injuries.
A few years ago, he stumbled upon pickleball by accident, and today he shines in Las Vegas night events and is ranked number six in the world. What an upgrade.
“Pickleball is a very social game and easy to learn. It’s suitable for all skill levels so the whole family and everyone can play,” says Bar. “It’s a special, very entertaining game and more practical than tennis in terms of court size and the number of courts that can be set up. With the size of a tennis court, you can fit four pickleball courts.”
So when will it hit our shores?
“In my opinion, there is definitely potential to develop it in Israel. We need courts and coaches to explain and introduce the game to people, and it can gain a strong foothold in the country. Almost everyone who tries to play, fall in love with pickleball and start playing regularly. It’s strongest in the US and Canada. It’s also growing rapidly in other parts of the world, such as Australia and Asia, and it’s slowly picking up in Europe.”
“It just started because I was a crappy little kid,” Frank Pritchard said recently in an interview.