In 2016, Randy Sussman’s job transferred him from Las Vegas to Florida.
He arrived in Marco Island in the state’s southwest corner knowing nobody. He was bored and spent nights alone at home eating ice cream, until one day he saw a news report about a pickleball tournament to be held in nearby Naples. It was the inaugural U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. He went because he had nothing else to do. He had no idea he was about to upend his life.
He watched the game, often described as a cross between tennis, pingpong and badminton, and was mesmerized. “As soon as I saw them playing, I was hooked,” he says.
He bought a paddle and showed up at his local park that week, and soon he was playing pickleball nearly every day. “This game changed my life, and it saved my life,” he says.
Gone were nights spent alone. In their place were physical activity, robust friendships and a new entrepreneurial path. Now the co-owner of a pickleball apparel company (PB1965) and another that runs pickleball tournaments, including the inaugural Atlantic City Pickleball Open held in September, Sussman calls pickleball a runaway train, and he’s just along for the ride.
That’s an apt analogy. The game is everywhere, and everyone is playing it—or at least it seems that way. The sport grew to 4.8 million players by the end of 2021, an increase of nearly 40% in two years, according to a 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry Association Single Sport Report on Pickleball.
USA Pickleball keeps a running tally of locations with courts. As of the end of 2021, that number reached 9,524. That’s just locations—the total number of known courts was 38,140, with more being added monthly.
As Rick Landry, a tennis and croquet pro who took up pickleball in the last few years, put it: “Pickleball is the utopia of sports. Everybody wants the perfect thing. This is it.”
Like a long rally that bounces back and forth, each shot building on the last, each shot more important than the one before, the reasons for pickleball’s explosive growth are numerous.
1. You can pick it up quickly.
It’s relatively easy to start from zero and have fun playing on your first day. That’s not possible in almost any other sport. If you’ve played a sport involving a racket or paddle, you’ll grasp the basic motions immediately. Note I said grasp, not master.
Despite never having so much as touched a paddle, I flew to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to play in the Atlantic City Pickleball Open. After training with Kyle Yates, Sussman’s business partner and friend who is widely considered one of the best players ever, I entered the event the next day.
The game is most fun when played as doubles. Also, doubles allows twice as many players to play at the same time compared with singles, no small thing considering the high demand for court time. My teammate was Steve Riley, communications and partnership manager at Dietz & Watson, a tournament sponsor. Riley had exactly as much experience as I did.
The most important traits are hand-eye coordination and proper strategy. (Hit the ball at your opponents’ feet.) Skills required in other sports—speed, agility, power, stamina—are only marginally important, especially for beginners.
2. It’s good exercise without being exhausting or demanding.
The sport first exploded in retirement communities and now has flooded into the broader culture. Part of its appeal is that it requires some movement but not a ton; you don’t have to be in great shape to start, or even to excel, though being fit helps more as the competition level increases.
I played four matches in one day in Atlantic City; according to my Fitbit, I covered 8.39 miles, took 18,616 steps and burned 3,521 calories. That counts the whole day, much of which I spent wandering the Atlantic City Convention Center to watch other games.
3. It’s addictive.
On one play, your opponent lofts a ball high over the net. It looks like it’s the size of a watermelon. You absolutely pound it with an overhead smash. Your opponents have no chance to return it. They clap their paddles and say, “Nice shot.” I got this, you think to yourself, as you ready for the next play…
Your opponent lofts a ball over the net—again! It looks like it’s the size of a pea. You try to absolutely pound it with an overhead smash, but you mishit it and it goes sailing far out of the court and over the fence behind it, interrupting a point on the court there.
You laugh; your opponents laugh; the people whose court the ball lands on laugh. I don’t got this at all, you think to yourself. You want—no, need—to learn to hit that shot consistently. And after you master that shot, you’ll move onto the next.
“There’s always something you’re working on,” says Jim Langan, 61, of Palm Beach, Florida, whose team trounced mine. “That’s what makes it addictive.”
4. Pickleball players share a unique camaraderie.
The many practical benefits of pickleball don’t really capture what players love about their sport. I knew, or at least I was pretty sure, that participating in the tournament as a complete newbie would not be a problem, a conclusion I drew in large part because I was invited. Organizers of tournaments in other sports would never have issued such an invitation.
Riley and I entered our matches with three goals: Don’t embarrass ourselves; don’t get skunked; don’t get hurt. “I’d rather get hurt than get skunked,” he said.
We were 1-for-3. We didn’t get hurt—unless you count being sore the next day. Then we were 0-for-3.
A match is best two out of three games to 11, win by two. We lost all four of our matches, and three games were 11-0. We won one game and didn’t completely embarrass ourselves in a few of the others. That’s a low bar, and we were, of course, quite bad. We were predictably soft in our understanding of and adherence to the rules. We committed fouls that, in other sports, would have annoyed me if I was the opponent.
I tell you all of this so I can tell you how we were received, which remains stronger in my memory than any shot I hit (or mishit). Not only did our opponents not mind our incompetence, they embraced the chance to teach us. In the middle of matches, they gave us helpful tips about strategy, form and where to position ourselves. One team offered do-overs when we made beginner’s mistakes. Though we had too much pride to accept, it’s worth noting that, say, in a softball tournament, if someone took a called third strike, nobody would offer them another pitch.
Players showed a sense of ownership of the sport, a desire to share it and be ambassadors for it. Larry Gordon, who coaches players in Florida and won a gold medal in the 2021 U.S. Open, gave me lessons after we talked about his love of the sport. There is no way a golf pro (for example) would do that.
The friendliness is not to say the sport is not serious. It’s serious enough that 744 people paid $95 apiece to enter the tournament; serious enough that some doubles teams wore matching outfits, players flew up from Florida to enter the tournament, and when one team in my division won its first six games 11-0, there was grousing that those guys should not have been playing at the beginner level.
But players don’t take the games or themselves too seriously. In a day of watching and playing in matches, I did not hear one raised voice, see one thrown racket or witness one disagreement about whether a ball was in or out.
5. It’s a sport and a party.
If the question is, is pickleball a sport or a party, the answer is yes. Pat McKernan, who offered the do-overs, couldn’t convince his wife to play. He built a lighted court in his yard, and now he jokes he can’t get her to stop. He showed me a photo taken courtside in the wee hours of the morning with 20-something people smiling broadly, basking in the joy of the raucous, nightlong action on the court. The neighbors didn’t complain about the noise or the lights keeping them up all night because they are all in the photo.
Once, McKernan didn’t show up at his local courts for a few weeks. A woman who noticed his absence called to check on him. He told her he had an ear infection. She happened to be an ear, nose and throat specialist, and she ordered him to present himself at her office, so she could get him healthy and back on the court.
I heard story after story of instant friendships formed and long-lasting ones strengthened by whacking a plastic ball over a net. “I just moved from Las Vegas. I didn’t know anyone,” Sussman says. “Next thing you know, I’m being invited to people’s houses for dinner, going out to group lunches. I made 20 friends before you knew it.”
Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected]