Cruise past community spaces, tennis courts, or park district gymnasiums, and you’re bound to see a rising sport played. Pickleball originated in 1965. In the decades since, it has enjoyed some organic growth. In the past few years, that growth has turned explosive; Pickleball now has a pro tour and an increasingly large presence in public spaces. Now, it’s even popping up at sportsbooks in some legal betting states.
I spoke with representatives from USA Pickleball and the PPA Tour to dive deeper into this burgeoning game, its place in the world of sports, where it’s headed next, and pickleball betting.
USA Pickleball’s Watershed Moments
Since its inception in 1965, Pickleball has seen a few key moments that shaped the sport into what it is today. The game was invented on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington. The 40 years following saw Pickleball expand to new areas organically, but none of that growth was particularly notable beyond word of mouth.
Melissa Zhang, Director of Communications and Content for USA Pickleball, comments on the formation of the organization and how it marked a turning point for the sport.
“USA Pickleball was created in 2005. A lot of people were already involved with the sport, but they were seeing it as a retiree sport. USA Pickleball started to make it more ‘legitimate’ in a way.”
Arguably the biggest watershed moment for Pickleball, however, was a two-year period. COVID-19 spurred lockdowns, followed by social distancing requirements. Pickleball seemed ready-made to keep people together amidst those trying times thanks to its built-in social distancing and overall accessibility. Pickleball Courts feature a “kitchen,” a four-foot zone on both sides of the net where players can’t step.
Jeff Watson, Vice President of Communications for the PPA Tour, said:
“As horrible as COVID lockdowns were, they really did benefit Pickleball. It’s something you can play with your grandma, your mom, your kid. You can get everyone on the court and play at the same time. It’s hard to say that about any other backyard sport or sports in general. You can set it up in your driveway and get equipment online. Pickleball is very easy to access, but it is hard to master.”
As Pickleball experienced rapid growth in 2020 and beyond, the long-running USA Pickleball organization and the fledgling PPA Tour (founded in 2018 and hosted its first tournament in 2019) both worked to shepherd Pickleball along its journey into the public eye.
Organization Begets Expansion
Any growing sport — especially one with a professional and amateur element — will eventually require governance, administration, and sanctions to lend the game credibility. Pickleball’s governing bodies kicked into high gear over the past few years to bring new players to the game, offer opportunities to play, and get equipment to prospective Pickleballers.
Melissa Zhang again:
“USA Pickleball does a lot for grassroots growth as the national governing body of the sport. We work with the PPA, the MLP, the APP… it’s kind of an alphabet soup of organizations. But our focus is primarily on our amateurs and recreational players, so most of the country’s Pickleball players. We provide a grant program to get people equipment for schools and colleges. We create a unified rulebook, sanctioned tournaments, memberships, and a National Championship.”
Zhang also notes that USA Pickleball is involved with bringing Pickleball to other countries and building an international presence.
The PPA Tour, meanwhile, works closely with USA Pickleball but focuses mostly on the professional side of the game. Jeff Watson said:
“This year, we did 23 tournaments across the country. We have about 60 players across singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Each stop along the tour also has about 1,000 amateur participants. We have a ton of sponsors and we’re broadcasted on Amazon Prime, ESPN, CBS, FS-1, Tennis Channel, and more. We just announced a massive partnership with Tennis Channel to create Pickleball TV in November.”
While USA Pickleball fosters growth at the sport’s amateur and beginner levels, its work with rules and standards also fuels the PPA Tour’s growth in the professional space. The two organizations interact regularly — it’s a perfect representation of the sport, which is accessible at all levels, from complete beginner to honed expert.
Pickleball: A Game for Superstars and Newcomers
Atop Pickleball’s summit stands two juggernauts of the game: 24-year-old Ben Johns and 16-year-old Anna Leigh Waters. They’re the top PPA Tour players in the men’s and women’s tournaments, respectively, and they’re partners in mixed doubles. Jeff Watson comments on their success:
“They’re the GOATs of Pickleball. They both have many Triple Crowns, wins in all three events on the same weekend.”
Johns and Waters are the No. 1 players, decided by the PPA Tour’s ranking system. All this is to say that Pickleball has a competitive structure for anyone who wants to play at the professional level. It’s possible, and events exist that empower players to give it their all.
On the other hand, Pickleball is a uniquely accessible sport, and both the PPA Tour and USA Pickleball aim to make the sport as friendly to newcomers as possible.
Melissa Zhang emphasizes the “pick up and play” nature of Pickleball:
“You don’t need lessons or training to play Pickleball. Consider tennis, for example. You’d need to learn a swing, get some instruction to get a rally going. But with Pickleball, we hear all the time that people are hooked from the first time they pick up a paddle.”
Jeff Watson agrees:
“There’s no sport like Pickleball, where you can pick up a paddle and start playing without being complete trash at it. And right now, that’s fueling the sport’s growth. We see the amateur side feeding into the professional circuit.”
When Pickleball and Sports Betting Meet
In a way, everything above has led to an inevitable conclusion: Pickleball betting. Justin Mader, Gambling Operations Manager for the PPA Tour, has been leading the charge for the organization. He works with sports betting partners and regulators to get all the proverbial ducks in a row.
“States all have their own rules: who can bet, where they can bet, when they can bet, and what they can bet on. We have to approach state regulators, often in partnership with sportsbooks.”
In most states, the onus is on sportsbooks to submit sports for betting consideration. This means the PPA Tour first has to get sports betting operators on board before they can get a meeting with regulators. Mader continued:
“We’re live with our partnership with FanDuel. It’s not exclusive, necessarily, but it’s the only sportsbook we’re live with at the moment. Through that, we hope to show that people are interested in Pickleball and willing to bet on it so other sportsbooks will jump into it.”
When sportsbooks present Pickleball as a beatable sport, Mader acts as a point of contact and a well of knowledge. He’s the Pickleball expert, available for questions and details a regulator may need about the sport. Pickleball has to be buttoned up from a rules and regulation perspective in order to be offered on sportsbooks. The PPA Tour has that area locked in, according to Mader.
“We follow the USA Pickleball rules, which is what regulators are looking for. They want consistency in the rules.”
Once the regulators and sportsbooks are on board, Pickleball has to appeal to bettors at the end of the day. Mader thinks there’s a lot of fun to be had in Pickleball wagering.
“Sports betting can drive engagement in any sport, even if it’s a game the bettor wouldn’t necessarily care about, otherwise. In NFL betting, if two bad teams are playing each other, you might not watch. If you have money on the spread? Different story. You now have a reason to watch. As for Pickleball, it’s an entertaining sports product. We have a stable ecosystem for bettors thanks to our brackets and play structure. It’s really appealing from a betting standpoint.”
A Racket Sport Rumble?
Before writing this story, I had heard — anecdotally, mind you — that tennis players view Pickleball with some measure of disdain. Pickleball can sometimes encroach on tennis court space, according to certain outlets. Naturally, I had to ask about the perceived feud between tennis and Pickleball players.
Jeff Watson keeps it simple:
“I personally would rather see full Pickleball courts than empty tennis courts. Pickleball organizations do a lot of research when converting tennis courts; they consider the community’s opinion and try to convert the right number of courts and keep everyone happy.”
Both the PPA Tour and USA Pickleball fervently deny any formal feud. Melissa Zhang of USA Pickleball said:
“We don’t think there’s a feud. We love tennis and we think a rising tide lifts all boats. There’s been a lot of media coverage bout the turf wars between tennis and Pickleball. Anecdotally, I’ve seen it myself; there’d be an hourlong line for Pickleball courts with two empty tennis courts adjacent to it. But in general, we think it’s cool to see the sports connect. We’ve seen tennis players make the leap and fall in love with Pickleball. The media can dramatize things, but it’s all overblown.”
Naturally, the detractors and naysayers tend to be the loudest voices in the room, and that’s certainly the truth in this case. Watson shared a story about actual protests at a recent PPA Tour event.
“We had fun, small protests at a recent event in Seattle. There were tennis people saying ‘We can’t believe you’re bringing Pickleball here!’ There were Pickleballers saying, ‘You’re taking Pickleball away from us!’ In fact, we were converting tennis courts for a beautiful pickeball tournament, then resurfacing the tennis courts. Pickleball gets the exposure and play time, then the tennis players get brand new resurfaced courts. Everyone wins.”
The protests fizzled almost immediately once Watson explained the benefits for each group. He also notes that many professional tennis players have enjoyed playing Pickleball. Some are even on the PPA Tour, now.
We closed things out with a discussion of a long-term, pie-in-the-sky goal. Will Pickleball ever come to the Olympics? Never say never, of course, but you can say it will be a long while.
According to Melissa Zhang, it’s a possibility down the line.
“We’re working very closely with leaders in the sport from other countries, putting together these governing bodies, and really pursuing that Olympic inclusion in future years.”
Of course, Olympic representation is no easy feat. Watson and the PPA Tour have explored the possibility. The process is predictably cumbersome and time-consuming, but that won’t stop them from trying. Watson said:
“From a logistical perspective, it’d be pretty easy. Look at a badminton court. It’s the exact same dimensions. You’d just need to move the net down. As for the administrative hurdles, there are plenty. You have to submit years in advance and have a certain number of countries represented in global rankings.”
Timing prevented the PPA Tour from submitting for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, but Watson is confident Pickleball’s time will come.
How to Get Involved with Pickleball
Want to give Pickleball a try? You can visit Pickleball Central for equipment and head to USA Pickleball for information about local play.