Pickleball is America's fastest-growing sport. Why is it so addictive — and divisive?

Illustration of dancing pickleballs.
Pickleball is coming for you! That could thrill some — but not all. Here's why. (Getty Images/Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News)

Hey America: "Pickle!"

Pickleball is now the fastest-growing sport in the nation for the fifth consecutive year in a row, with 48.3 million U.S. adults (19% of the adult population) having played at least one game in the last 12 months, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals.

That's welcome news for "picklers," or self-proclaimed addicts. But many others? Not so much. Over the last few years, in response to courts popping up everywhere and bringing the noisy "ticktock cacophony" that comes with the game, communities around the country have been fighting, sometimes through ugly legal battles, to restrict pickleball play. Some simply find the game off-putting, saying it can feel like a "cult," while others are finding it's not as risk-free as originally believed, as game-related injuries are on target to cost Americans upwards of $500 million in medical costs next year.

Say what you want about pickleball, though: It does not lack drama. Here’s all you need to know about the sport.

What is pickleball?

Invented in 1965 by three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — as a way to entertain their kids during summer vacation, the cross-genre sport combines tennis, badminton and ping pong, and can be played in singles or doubles.

It’s also relatively inexpensive and simple to start — a paddle, balls and a pickleball-sized net can be had for well under $200 in total — and tennis and basketball courts are often converted for pickleball use, making it easily accessible.

Four players playing pickleball on a backyard court.
Four players playing pickleball on a backyard court in Bethesda, Md. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images)

How pickleball became a phenomenon

By the 1990s, pickleball was played regularly in schools and retirement communities, given that it’s easy to play and enjoyed by people of all ages, from kids to seniors. Its popularity really took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were in need of safe, socially distanced, outdoor exercises.

The number of pickleballers increased from 4 million to almost 5 million (a rise of 14.8%) between 2021 and 2022, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the premier trade association for the sporting goods and fitness industry. That demand led cities to convert community tennis and basketball courts (at YMCAs, parks, schools, community clubs and residential neighborhoods) to part-time, sometimes full-time pickleball venues. By the end of 2022, there were over 44,000 pickleball venues in America.

Why some say it’s addictive

Erin McHugh, pickler and author of the guidebook Pickleball Is Life, credits the addictive factor — and what outsiders may perceive to be "cultlike" — to the game being easy to learn and fun to play, thus inspiring those who love it to want others turned on to it, too.

"It tends to be a kind and inclusive sport," McHugh tells Yahoo News, "so there are plenty of missionaries who want to spread the word, who want everyone to experience the joy that they do.”

Further, adds Connor Pardoe, founder and CEO of the Professional Pickleball Association Tour, no other sport has been able to bring people of so many ages, backgrounds and cultures together in such a short time frame.

“I’ve seen it again and again at our tournaments over the years, both on the professional and amateur sides,” he tells Yahoo News. “The low barrier to entry and endless opportunity to improve allow for new players to get hooked fast and stick with it for a lifetime.”

There's also a clear mental health boost that comes with playing the game, according to sports-psychology coach Bill Cole. He tells Yahoo News that pickleball "contributes to lower levels of stress and anxiety, and people can get a good workout that kicks in the endorphins," which is part of why players keep returning for more.

Why it's divisive

  • The noise

Folks across the country have been in an uproar over the noisiness — described by some as loud “popping” sounds that can be jolting — often taking the fights into courts of law.

  • A perceived cultishness

Despite its being hawked as a friendly sport for beginners, some disgruntled players believe it’s become overly cliquey; outsiders, meanwhile, can be turned off by its extreme marketing, the silly name, the belief that it's "not a sport" ("Any game that you can take up after breakfast and be pretty good at by lunch is not a sport," gripes a recent Washington Post op-ed) or by the cult-like "proselytizers" pushing others to pick up a racquet too.

But Amanda Montell, author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, puts this feeling into perspective.

"The profoundly human drives — identity, connection time meaningfully spent — that land people in destructive socio-spiritual groups are not so different from the ones that might cause someone to get a little too into pickleball with their friends," she tells Yahoo News. "Of course, there are important differences between those types of affiliations," with the "psychological motivations" being largely the same.

Pardoe says the majority of pickleballers are community-driven, and that their passion for the sport can bring out the best and worst in anyone. “Each match, from beginners to pros, can be competitive,” he says. “This leads to great passion for playing the sport, and the will to continue to improve.”

  • Turf wars

Some residents have been upset that parks, basketball courts and other public spaces are being converted into pickleball courts without notice or community input; in one case, in New York City, parents of kids who used a public space to scooter, bike, run and play ball games went to war with pickleballers, who were eventually ordered to take their game elsewhere. The same fights have been breaking out in communities around the country, particularly when it comes to pickleball being played in basketball or tennis courts.

Pickleball players in Centennial, Colo.
Pickleball players in Centennial, Colo., where new courts were coming until the city halted the project due to noise concerns. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images) (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images via Getty Images)

McHugh says it's par for the course, and more a problem of sharing. “It’s primarily about real estate,” she says of the recurring disputes. “You hear stories of communities that have, say, 24 tennis courts, and they refuse to give three over to pickleball players. Where’s the sharing? In so many cases, it’s not even about asking for funding, it’s about ceding a little of the wealth of the available pace.”

“Some groups want to shut us out completely because they think it takes over park space, or creates too much noise,” she adds. “They will push for censure or closure of public space, rather than figuring out how to house more than one group or sport in different time slots. Isn’t this what public space is all about?”

The main takeaway

Whatever side of the net you're on, pickleball is here to stay: There's even a push to make it an Olympic sport by 2030. While not everyone might understand the appeal, McHugh maintains it's a game with universal draw: "People love it," she says, "because everyone can play."