Pickleball And Racquetball Parallels – Is Pickleball Here To Stay?

As I watch and participate in the dramatic explosion of pickleball in sports culture in the United States in recent years, I can’t help but see some parallels in the growth and acceptance of pickleball in mainstream culture with another racquet sport, the ones This country experienced a similar meteoric rise: racquetball.

Both sports have exploded in popularity in a short space of time, but as we speak, racquetball is lagging behind in terms of participation at the national level. So the question is: is pickleball a fad, or does it have more “stick power” than racquetball has been shown to have?

Racquetball as a competitive sport grew from a little-known variation of paddleball in the early 1970s to the country’s biggest sporting phenomenon in the late 1970s. The sport caught on as a faster version of paddleball (or a less painful version of handball) and began to generate significant interest and demand from players. This led to massive investment in custom facilities as club operators scramble to build facilities to meet the insane demand. Competing governing bodies emerged in the form of the International Racquetball Association and the National Racquetball Club, both vying to control the direction of the sport and particularly the direction of the pro tours. Celebrities and professional athletes were drawn to the sport and the covers of National Racquetball Magazine of the period featured famous faces monthly. The men’s Pro Tour was dominated by a young, spirited star in Marty Hogan, who went almost unbeaten in the 1976-1977 season at the age of 19 and became the sport’s brazen face, even starring in an episode of The Superstars. occurred. in February 1980. The sport evolved from a slow, methodical pace in its early days to a faster, power-driven sport by the late 1970s, and the sport’s slower tacticians were quickly overwhelmed and driven out of the sport, with complaints about them Way out that the game is now “too fast”.

Wow, does that previous paragraph sound familiar or what?

Consider what we’re seeing in Pickleball right now:

  • explosion of participation: We’re watching pickleball grow from a niche activity five years ago to the fastest growing sport in the country, with 10% of the US population trying it last year.
  • plant investment: We are currently seeing massive investment in custom pickleball courts (or outright conversion of underused tennis courts). Almost every day we hear a new announcement of a multi-million dollar facility or an investment in existing parks.
  • Competing Pro Tours: The Association of Pickleball Professionals and the Professional Pickleball Association both vie for control of the pro game. We also have competing international NGBs in the International Federation of Pickleball and the World Pickleball Federation.
  • Star Power interest: Pickleball has appeared on the Today Show, Major League Pickleball has attracted investment from dozens of professional athletes and celebrities, and the internet is full of stars from the NBA, NFL, and ATP playing and enjoying the sport.
  • Top up-and-coming stars: Replace “Marty Hogan” with Ben Johns and/or Anna Leigh Waters and you have your young, unbeatable superstar at the forefront of the current Pro Tour.
  • pace of the game: Sport is evolving before our eyes, becoming younger, faster, more athletic and more powerful. It used to be all third shot drops, now 3rd shot drives and maybe a 5th shot drop when you can’t drive it anymore. Older players are now complaining about “bangers” and lamenting players choosing to attack rather than think.

The parallels are quite striking.

Similarity between the two sports is one thing; how about the bigger question? Will pickleball experience the same type of growth and decline cycle as racquetball, or will it be more enduring in American sports culture?

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I feel like Pickleball will stick around for the long haul and not fade away like racquetball does, for one main reason: Easy access to facility.

A large number of custom pickleball courts are being built in this country. Many of them are in public parks, and those spots aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In places without dedicated courts, players line the pickleball boundaries of existing tennis courts or basketball courts that have been around for decades, and those flat tops aren’t going anywhere either. Recreational departments and public schools have maintained these tennis and basketball courts for decades, and now they’re suddenly getting a slew of new uses. The barrier to entry for pickleball is incredibly simple compared to racquetball: all you need is a flat surface big enough to paint a court, a cheap plastic ball, and a couple of racquets.

The big problem with racquetball is that court access depends mostly on private companies building indoor courts on expensive-per-square-foot sites. These spaces are either owned by small companies (many of which have been bankrupted by Covid) or within large chains (LA Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, Gold’s and YMCA), which in many cases are demeaning the sport in favor of higher density use of space.

Racquetball courts remain in places like universities, and in smaller numbers at existing chains, but they’re more of a novelty than a revenue driver, and there aren’t enough courts to build a large-scale program. All of these racquetball courts have one thing in common: membership requirements. You generally can’t just walk into one of these places and play; You must either pay a monthly membership fee or be a student at a school with courses already built.

Check out Pickleball now: while there are a few private clubs with courts out there, there are tens of thousands of public tennis courts that can accommodate pickleball players for free. You don’t have to be a member of a $150-a-month club to play pickleball: all you need is a flat surface and a net. You can play pickleball indoors or outdoors, in warm and cold weather.

There’s a second reason for the rise of pickleball and the decline of racquetball, and that’s demographics. Racquetball is tough on the body and players are aging from a competitive standpoint. It’s a similar story in tennis, with aging players eventually becoming frustrated with the physical demands of playing a large tennis court. Guess where both groups of aging gamers are flocking to now? pickle ball The courts are filled with retirees playing all day, Florida retiree communities like The Villages now have thousands of players, and the 60+ and even 70+ draws at local tournaments are as busy as the 19+ draws. Pickleball requires less court coverage than tennis, is less physically demanding than competitive racquetball, and emphasizes a doubles game and social involvement that attracts both casual and competitive players alike.

Bottom line: Pickleball is rising fast, will continue to rise, and is here to stay.

(Disclosure: The author serves on the USA Racquetball Board of Directors and one of our primary concerns is to address the declining participation in our sport. I’ve also done a lot of historical research on the sport over the last 20 years for a project called Pro Racquetball Statistics ).

follow me Twitter or LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *