by Cathy Moran
Tennis clubs and public spaces are buzzing with the sound of ball against racquet, like never before. But it’s not just tennis that is inspiring people to get active on court and remain playing and enjoying their club post-pandemic. Whether new to a racquet sport or a seasoned veteran, racquet sports are at an all-time high in popularity.
The phenomenal growth of pickleball and the gradual emergence of padel as alternative racquet sports are on track to transform the landscape of accessible recreation. In the long term though, does their upward trajectory demand a shift in the culture of sports clubs to embrace less highbrow racquet sports? Is their popularity a revolution sparked by a desire for socializing during Covid, or a positive evolution engendered by real societal change?
Pickleball, actually a game developed in the mid 1960s, has seen growth of 40% in the past two years. It boasts 4.8 million players and its supporters include long term advocate Bill Gates. Inherently, the game itself of pickleball cocks a snook at the exclusivity and restraint of tennis clubs by attracting a wider playing population. This player population, of all ages and all with a common goal to socialize in an atmosphere of healthy competition – seems to lay barren those doubles cliques and Tuesday morning games which have graced the tennis courts for, say, the last 25 to 40 years.
Friendships forged, support networks formed, social differences forgotten; on the face of it pickleball offers so many advantages as a national game. Perhaps pickleball’s real zenith will be represented through successful public health initiatives for communities, both gated and informal neighborhoods, with enough space to create courts. Yet even this scenario has its downside. The game is tantalizing in its simplicity, and this can have consequences for older less agile players. Stretch and slip injuries are on the rise and players and facilitators must also focus on fitness as a precursor to enjoying the sport. Maybe this presents further opportunities here to adapt or adopt an holistic approach to seniors’ fitness.
It also is creating a variation: Pickleball on clay courts. With the softer surface comes some difficulty with the bounce of what is essentially a whiffle ball, but the Onyx 2 seems to be doing the trick for now, and we are sure there are other balls in the works to be created for clay-court pickleball.
As a people-centric sport, pickleball ticks all the boxes and its popularity is self-evident. Can it also offer opportunities for long term development, in clubs where profit is a necessary cog in the operational machine wheel? The strength of country clubs is ingrained in tradition; well formed structures of management and membership, and ownership at the higher echelons by the members – at the lower levels by a corporation, partnership or individual.
The desire to monetize this new racquet sport will differ between these entitities. Private members clubs, never really holding a desire to create their own member-spend to create profit, might potentially allow pickleball to wallow as a social outlet. Whereas, a “for profit” club might be induced to overwrite the tennis or squash courts with pickle or padel if the owners can see an upside in terms of monetization. Perhaps somewhere in the middle is where pickle will fall – not as easily monetized as tennis since it simpler to master as a beginner, but not unwholly unwanted at the top tier either.
With pickleball, wherever you lay your net, that’s potentially your home. Maybe that is why the game is innately so diametrically opposed to country clubs, where courts are tended with utmost care and there is a general familiarity with the protocols of club membership. There is also an overtly fun aspect to pickleball which may be at odds with the reserved dignity of a country club atmosphere. Despite this, opportunities exist to monetize pickleball by offering a unique experience backed up by professional coaching, dynamic marketing and targeted event planning. We are seeing this at some of the more exclusive, larger, member-owned clubs as a trend into 2023.
Padel, while not yet seeing the same surge in the US as its alliterative companion, nevertheless has a strength forged by huge overseas popularity in Europe and South America and recent inclusion in the Roland Garros schedule. Its easy popularity in southern parts of the USA has attired the sport with a Latino and European flair. For those involved in raising the sports’ profile and attracting new players and facilities, padel is seen as the perfect, seamless addition to country club tennis facilities and a great, timely way to diversify. The Houstonian Club in Texas, is one such example, now offering padel courts in its list of racquet sports facilities.
The race is on to have padel recognised as an Olympic sport and courts are now springing up all over the country, designed as facilities which offer a luxury setting alongside a tennis/squash based padel experience. Recent and potential growth attracts investors in a discrete development program, for example New York’s stylish Padel Haus complex. However, we must remember, that both padel and pickleball may have been fast-tracked by unprecedented circumstances.
Future or fad? It’s difficult to say. What is certain is that however these two interlopers are regarded by traditional institutions, they have a valid place in a post-Covid transformation of participant sport in the USA and locations far beyond that country’s borders.
Cathy Moran, a long-time contributor to tennis periodicals in the UK with her wit and versatile writing style, has joined the team at Beyond The Baselines. Although her British phrases, such as “cocks the snook” – which means openly show contempt or a lack of respect for someone or something -may not be an idiom well known by our American readers, we believe her insight into racquet sports, private members clubs, and the business of sport is more than welcome here on our international site.