Women Are Leading Pickleball’s Big Boom

·5 min read

As a practicing attorney, entrepreneur, and author, Stacie Townsend has never had a lot of free time on her hands. But five years ago she started devoting her precious few work-free nights and weekends to a time-consuming venture: pickleball. The West Palm Beach–based Townsend learned about the sport—a mix of tennis, racquetball, badminton, and Ping-Pong—through a relative and quickly became a fan of its fun sense of play and low barriers to entry. Before long, she was hitting the courts regularly, playing casually with friends, and eventually competing in tournaments against some of the sport’s biggest pros. Within a year of picking up the game, Townsend was so inspired by the pickleball's tight-knit community that she launched The Pickler, a site featuring strategies, player stories, and merch. Today it boasts nearly 2 million readers, with a newsletter, podcast, shop, and more—all led by Townsend.

The 34-year-old, who still works full-time at a law firm while devoting upwards of 20 hours a week to The Pickler, tells Glamour that she never expected pickleball to become such a major part of her life. “I’m surprised at the level of involvement and engagement I’ve gotten from the sport,” she says. Yet Townsend’s journey is an increasingly familiar one for many pickleball fans, some of whom, like her, have quit jobs, started side hustles, or even moved cross-country to be closer to the game’s biggest hot spots.

Take Catherine Baxter, a 31-year-old from Cincinnati who left her job as an executive at Planned Parenthood in March to focus full-time on Nettie, a pickleball paddle and gear company she founded in 2021. An amateur player who first picked up the game after her fiancé’s parents set up a makeshift court in their living room at the start of the pandemic, Baxter saw a hole in the market for stylish pickleball equipment and decided to take the plunge. Although she’d never run a company before, she loved the idea of using her skills in leadership and community building to reach the sport’s fast-growing audience. “Pickleball is so joyful, and it’s important for people to have a joyful thing in their life,” she says. “I just wanted to be a part of that.”

“I never thought I’d be so addicted to a sport. We eat, sleep, and drink pickleball.”

With 4.8 million players in the U.S. as of the end of 2021—with women accounting for the fastest growth rate—pickleball has swiftly become one of the sporting world’s most booming industries. Major brands like Carvana and Casamigos now sponsor tournaments, while Alice+Olivia has started selling pickleball merch and travel companies have started offering international pickleball trips. There are even rumors that the game will make its debut in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. So what is it about pickleball, exactly, that has inspired so many people to make it the center of their lives?

Shelly Duncan, a 62-year-old retired U.S. Navy officer from Fernandina Beach, Florida, was first introduced to the sport in 2016 but got more involved two years later, when she began helping to organize leagues and tournaments in her local area. When she was approached about becoming an official USA Pickleball Ambassador, a volunteer local representative of the sport, she jumped at the chance to run events and offer lessons to new players. In her spare time she and her husband, a fellow player, drive hours to tournaments across the country in their camper van; to date, they’ve camped and played pickleball in 38 states, with six more and a Canada trip planned for this summer.

In March, Duncan and her husband bought a two-acre parcel of land near their home, where they’re planning on building a pickleball facility with numerous courts and memberships called Nassau Pickleball 365, a nod to their tendency to play every day. “My family thinks I am crazy for trying to start a business at my age and that it will take up so much of my time,” she says. “But I enjoy it so much. I see running a business focused on pickleball as a joy, not a chore.”

<cite class="credit">Design by Channing Smith</cite>
Design by Channing Smith

Not all fans of the game are starting companies, of course. Many players, like Sharon and Issy Kunnemann, a retired couple from Jupiter, Florida, prefer to focus their time on traveling for pickleball in their R.V. The technical reason is to compete in tournaments—they’re both skilled players who’ve played up and down the East Coast—but the bulk of their trips is spent fraternizing with other players. Recently they spent nine days at the U.S. Open of pickleball, fitting games in between dinners, drinks, and pickleball hangouts. “I never thought I’d be so addicted to a sport,” Sharon says. “We eat, sleep, and drink pickleball.”

Occasionally, the women say, a family member or friend expresses skepticism about the couple’s pickleball-centric lives, but neither woman takes it to heart. In fact, “we usually sucker them into pickleball,” Sharon says with a laugh.

“I love my pickleball life and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Even some of the game’s most avid fans weren’t originally on board. “I was the worst player ever at the beginning,” says Jennifer Corbin, a 55-year-old from Point Roberts, Washington. Yet drawn in by the social aspect of the game and a desire to improve, she spent months honing her skills until she was eventually good—and addicted—enough to become a certified pickleball coach for other players. At the end of 2018, she left her self-described lucrative position as a professional speaker and business coach to focus solely on pickleball. In addition to traveling frequently for the sport—she often plans vacations based on hotels’ proximity to courts—she runs two companies: Pickleball Profitability, where she works as a pickleball business coach, and the upcoming PickleballPDQ, intended to be a one-stop shop for pickleball products and resources.

“Everyone predicted I would miss the glamour and adventure of flying first class around the world,” Corbin says. “But I don’t miss it. I love my pickleball life and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Rachel Simon is a writer, editor, teacher, and crossword constructor. Her debut book, Pickleball for All, will be out in August 2022.

Originally Appeared on Glamour