Easy to learn and fun for competitors, pickleball is sweeping the nation, including the Eugene, Cascades & Coast region of Oregon. But what is pickleball? How much has it grown in popularity? And where do locals play? Let’s take a dive into this new craze.
What is Pickleball?
Pickleball is a paddle sport invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington and was named the official sport of Washington in March. Three fathers set out to entertain their families by playing badminton but couldn’t find all the gear and improvised with paddles and a plastic ball. They lowered the net, wrote the rules and by 1990 pickleball was being played in all 50 states.
Combining elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, pickleball is played on a court the size of a doubles-badminton court with the net in the center just 34 inches high. The ball is perforated plastic and is hit with composite or wooden paddles about twice the size of a table tennis paddle. Different balls are used for indoor and outdoor play.
Pickleball is a game that is appropriate for players of all ages and skill levels. Rules for pickleball are simple, making it a great introductory sport. It can be played with two players playing singles or four players playing with two on each team.
The popularity of pickleball has exploded over recent years. In both 2021 and 2022, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) named pickleball as the fastest growing sport in the United States. Pickleball has averaged an 11.5% annual growth rate in the number of players over the past five years and surged by nearly 40% to 4.8 million players just between 2019 and 2021 according to USA Pickleball.
The sport shows impressive age diversity, with all five main age brackets representing at least 12% of all players. It is most popular among the 18-34 demographic, which makes up 28.8% of all U.S. players. According to statistics from SFIA and USA Pickleball, about 60% of pickleball participants are men, but female players are arriving at the sport at a faster rate. Players’ average age continues to drop, to 38.1 years of age last year from 41 in 2020.
In 2019, the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) and the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) were formed to help amplify the professionalization of the sport. Similar efforts continued last year with the development of team-based Major League Pickleball (MLP).
The PPA broadcast its first event on national television in August and has inked broadcast deals with CBS and Fox.
US Open Pickleball is the biggest pickleball tournament in the world and is held in Naples, Florida on the 64-court mecca of East Naples Community Park. This year's tournament drew almost 3,000 players ranging in age from eight to 87 who competed for $100,000 in prize money. The championship aired on CBS Sports Network in front of an estimated 25,000 in tournament spectators. The tournament now has more than 40 sponsors and contributes more than $9 million to the local Naples economy, with people flying to the event from all over the world.
There are 66 new places to play pickleball opening in the U.S. every month — and MLP aims to grow pickleball to 40 million players by 2030, according to Front Office Sports.
By the end of next year, Life Time health clubs plan to deliver 600 to 700 dedicated pickleball courts across the country. The company has added 84 permanent courts at 30 clubs since October.
Riding the wave, one “eatertainment” venue, Chicken N Pickle, offers pickleball courts, event space, outdoor patio games and bar service, served up with rotisserie chicken and other food options. They currently have five locations with three more opening in 2022 and hope to open another 18 in 2023.
The Eugene, Cascades & Coast region of Oregon is no exception. Pickleball has grown exponentially in the region over the last few years as well.
Roger Schaljo, Vice President of the Emerald Valley Pickleball Club (EVPC), adds, "We formed the Emerald Valley Pickleball Club in 2015 with 45 club members. Currently, we have approximately 650 paying club members. Our growth locally reflects the phenomenal growth in this country and now spreading rapidly around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it as an Olympic sport sooner than later. The other trend that we are seeing both nationally and locally is the increase in younger players. Pickleball is being taught in more middle and high school PE classes here locally. Also we are seeing more high schools develop pickleball clubs. I expect there will be intramural competition between schools soon. In different parts of the country, we are also seeing university and college pickleball clubs. I am sure that will become popular locally as well."
With such tremendous growth in the region, so too is an increase in demand for new facilities. Currently, the two eight-court outdoor venues for pickleball are Westmoreland Park in Eugene and Meadow Park in Springfield. Both locations constantly have lines of people wanting to play. Local indoor venues that accommodate pickleball include KIDSPORTS Fieldhouse at Civic Park, Bob Keefer Center for Sports and Recreation and the Eugene YMCA. The indoor venues all have limited times that pickleball can be played.
The Emerald Valley Pickleball Foundation (EVPF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established to support the fundraising needs of the EVPC, has penned an agreement with Lane Community College (LCC) to construct a regional pickleball facility on the LCC campus. The new facility will include 24 state-of-the-art, outdoor courts including 10 that are covered. Easy access off Interstate 5 and large parking lots make LCC a great location.
The facility is expected cost between $2.5 to $3 million. The money will come from a combination of public and private funds. Donations for the project can be made through the Emerald Valley Pickleball Foundation website. The earliest construction can start is June 1, 2024, with an expected three month start-to-finish time frame.
The new facility will be able to accommodate drop-in play, leagues, clinics, lessons and tournaments. Emerald Valley Pickleball Club will co-sponsor or rent the venue for large regional and national tournaments, something organizers predict will result in a positive economic impact for the community.
Here to Stay?
There seems to be consensus that pickleball is here to stay and is not just a passing trend. The sport has grown dramatically fast and has inspired people of all ages to get out, grab a paddle and a friend, find a court and play the hottest sport in America.