The (Not-Surprising) Rise of Pickleball

by Jeff Weiss

In 2019 I wrote a piece on the growing popularity of pickleball with Active Agers.  Back then there were approximately 2.8 million pickleball players in the US alone, with 75% of “core” players aged 55 and over. It is a great activity for Active Agers who either still play tennis or who can’t play anymore due to mobility issues, as well as for those who just want to get some exercise, socialize and have fun.

Fast forward to almost three years later and it is estimated that more than 4.2 million Americans are now playing pickleball, making it the fastest growing activity in the country. Who knew? No wonder Vanity Fair just published an article titled, “How Pickleball Won Over Everyone From Leonardo DiCaprio to Your Grandparents.”

Besides DiCaprio, pickleball is being enjoyed by a wide variety of celebrities including Jamie Foxx, Owen Wilson, Larry David and Melinda Gates – the latter two are prime examples of Active Agers, at the ages of 74 and 57 respectively.  Pickleball courts are popping up at clubs and private homes across the country and even the Kardashians have gotten in on the craze.

When I saw pickleball taking off with Active Agers I approached several sporting goods brands about the opportunity of getting into the activity early.  After all, pickleball players need shoes, paddles, balls and new outfits, of course!  A whole new market was there for the taking, yet they all decided that older people chasing a wiffle ball around a small tennis court wasn’t worth the effort. My, how they were wrong.  And now several of them are scrambling to take advantage of the growing popularity.

So, what happened and what does this growth mean for the future?  At the core of it I think that there are three things driving the growth of the pickleball. First, people are looking for new reasons to have fun, especially Active Agers who have the time and interest in trying new things. Second (and no offense to anyone here), you do not have to be athletically-inclined to play pickleball. It does require movement and coordination, but nothing like other racket sports including tennis and squash, making it a great activity to help stay physically fit. And third, pickleball is a highly social activity. It is a great way to meet new people and/or to get together with friends and socialize over food and drinks after a match.

The other thing that occurred to me is that pickleball is a prime example of an activity going mainstream that primarily started with Active Agers. Could it be that younger adults are aspiring to have fun and enjoy life like older adults? You might have been led to believe that it was the other way around.

Finally, and the question I will leave you with is, what’s the next pickleball? What other activities meet the criteria that made this sport so appealing to Active Agers and that younger adults are ready to launch or to revive? Could we see the growth of lawn bowling with a twist?  Something to ponder and I will share my thoughts in a future blog.

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