Pickleball’s Skyrocketing Rise to Mainstream Success

Most new sports are hybrids of older ones, and pickleball is no exception. An offspring of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, pickleball is played by singles or doubles teams hitting a ball back and forth over a 3-foot-tall net until an opponent commits a fault.

In 1965 the inventors of pickleball played with what they had – a repurposed badminton setup, ping pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball.

Today 4.8 million American pickleballers have much more to play: in the United States, there are 38 140 courts, 300 pickleball equipment manufacturers and hundreds grassroots clubs.

There has been much speculation about pickleball’s explosion in popularity. But now the sport looks set to break into the mainstream, with james lebron and other NBA and NFL luminaries recently announced major investments in the professional circuit.

Still, the young athlete is not immune to growing pains. As I say in my book “Emerging sports as social movementsthe popularity of some fledgling sports may seem obvious in the headlines. But their less visible social undercurrents ultimately determine whether they will continue to attract new players and fans.

The Feudal Period of Pickleball

For an organized sport to thrive, it needs structure – a common set of rules, rankings, equipment standards, scheduled events and a sense of identity that can unite players and the fans.

Currently, the social fabric of pickleball is scattered and woven by a web of competing interests. For each title about the miraculous growth of pickleball, you can also find stories of conflict and infighting between various leagues and governing bodies, as well as between pickleball players and tennis players.

The sport has three professional leagues battling for control of the pickleball kingdom. It has two international governing bodies: the International Pickleball Federation and the World Pickleball Federation. The little lords of pickleball too quarrel with tennis players on dual-use courts and expansion plans in public parks, with reports of “turf wars” and “a showdownbetween the two racquet sports.

Picklebalkanization,” somebody?

Infighting is common in emerging sports movements. Cornhole, disc golf and esports, for example, had to contend similar challenges. In some cases, conflict can be a good thing. This can stimulate innovation. But it can also leave some fans, sponsors and potential players wondering who they should be watching, investing or playing for.

Compared to traditional racquet sports, pickleball is less expensive, requires less space, and may be more compatible with the aches and pains that come with age. And unlike other emerging sports, the future of pickleball looks bright. But for now, he has more in common with French feudalism from the ninth century – when territorial disputes were commonplace – than a modern unified sports movement towards the Olympic Games.

Birds of a feather dink together

If two strangers meet at a bar and share an interest in pickleball, they won’t stay strangers for long. Shared passion is the glue and fuel of emerging sports communities. But the human tendency to bond with those like us also poses a problem for sports looking to gain popularity.

Sociological studies show that our love of similarity is part of why our social groups and networks tend to be homogeneous, such as male-dominated professions, white-dominated community groups, and friendship circles united by a single religion. For grassroots sports, which spread via social media, the similarity problem can limit growth by narrowing the herd to those with similar feathers.

Pickleball insiders like to talk about the relatively balanced sport gender report, that is approximately 60 to 70% of men and 30 to 40% of women. The newest professional league, Major League Pickleball, promotes the sport through mixed competitionswith teams made up of two men and two women – a format unique in the male-dominated world of professional sports.

But grassroots sports are born from scratch, and long-term growth depends in part on the demographic diversity of key players. Pickleball may be younger, but a third of its avid players are from retirement age. About half of the population of pickleball players likely saw the Apollo 11 moon landing. It is difficult to calculate accurate statistics on niche communities, but from my review of several academics and journalistic sources, pickleballers are predominantly older, white, affluent and suburban. For example, two poll-based studies with large samples estimated the proportion of white gamers at 93.5% and 94.1%.

Demographic homogeneity is a difficult trend to counter. Of course, some sports, like golf and NASCAR, have expanded their reach without solving the similarity problem. But given the nation’s reckoning around race and gender, a successful push for greater diversity might be the only thing that separates pickleball from the crowd of upstart dreamers.

Will the revolution even have to be televised?

That the sport thrives when the mainstream media pays attention to it seems obvious. Increased media coverage from ESPN or CBS attracts more attendees and consumers, attracts sponsors, and fosters stronger sporting institutions.

Yet, as a growth strategy, buy airtime on ESPN — which sports like cornhole and ax throwing do — can provide little more than airy hope. As pickleball strives to expand its audience, it faces fierce competition from traditional sports brands such as the NFL and NBA, as well as emerging brands such as esports, mixed martial arts , disc golf, cornhole, drone racing, round net, darts and ax throwing.

With so many options, some sports won’t make it big. The history of emerging sports is full of ups and downs. Interest in gambling sports like jai alai and horse racing has has decreased enormously since the end of the 20th century. ESPN’s X Games popularized alternative sports like skateboarding in the late 1990s, but some disciplines, such as street sledding, were left behind. Drop “poker” into a google trends search box and you will see that the Texas Hold’em boom lasted about three years, from 2004 to 2006.

The next big thing in sports might not thrive at all. Since young consumers are migration to streaming servicesrevolution may not be televised to mass audiences, but will instead be streamed to hardcore fans.

Niche sports like pickleball can have an edge as sports spectator shards. For smaller sports, a modest following with slow but steady growth could be the recipe for lasting success. There are many options to watch pickleball matches, such as YouTube channels, live streams via Facebook, fuboTV, and some coverage on broadcast and cable channels, but the demand for live coverage stay modest.

Ultimately, with so many shiny new sports to choose from, the winners won’t be determined by flashy media exposure or top-down business forces, but rather bottom-up community building. Regardless of how popular pickleball advertising is, the consumer base for watching the sport will strongly appeal to people who already enjoy playing it. The love of any sport has its roots in culture – not commerce.

If pickleball lives up to the hype, it will do so on the backs of local volunteers and organizers who can turn a loose network of casual players into an international community of pickleball fanatics.

Josh Woods is a professor of sociology, West Virginia University.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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