It’s not often that a new sports craze is born right in front of our eyes, especially one that shapes the cultural canon in ways that go beyond a hobby or a pastime.
And yet, this generation of humans (at least in the United States) has witnessed the rise to fame of pickleball, a relatively new game that gained immense popularity during lockdown and is now part and parcel of the average New York lifestyle.
What exactly is pickleball?
First things first: played on both indoor and outdoor courts with a perforated hollow plastic ball, a 36-inch-high net and solid-faced paddles, pickleball is basically a combination of tennis and ping pong. During a single or doubles match, opponents are to hit the ball over the net back and forward.
Although the majority of New Yorkers had not heard of pickleball prior to 2020, the general consensus is that the sport was invented by three men on Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle, who were trying to entertain their families back in 1965.
As for the name, there are two divergent origin stories that make equal sense. Some suggest that it is an ode to one of the creators’ dogs, whose name was Pickles and who liked to, you guessed it, play with balls.
Others yet believe that one of the men’s wives actually came up with the moniker in reference to the characteristics of the game itself, which remind of the "pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats."
Whatever the origin of its name, one thing is for sure: pickleball has taken hold of New York’s fitness scene in a very unique way. It’s not just that courts keep popping up all around town (by some accounts, the city is home to 404 public courts that are free to use)—it’s that the demographic of people playing locally is wide and inclusive, something that doesn’t necessarily happen within other sports circles.
Why are New Yorkers obsessed with pickleball?
"The pandemic is probably the best thing that could have happened for pickleball," says Andy Peeke, lead pickleball pro at Life Time Sky in Manhattan. He’s been engaged with the sport since way before COVID-19 upended regular life. “You’re playing in a space where you can physically distance yourself from others but still be very social and interactive.”
What Peeke touches on rings true all across the country: as folks started embracing anti-lockdown measures, they tried finding activities that would allow them to exercise while also being social without incurring too much risk of infection.
That particular aspect of pickleball’s story feels incredibly resonant in a city like New York, where residents are used to living in close proximity yet entirely alone in their apartments. In a way, the sport is the athletic translation of a New York City lifestyle: you're sharing a relatively small space with others—the average pickleball court is 44 feet long and 20 feet wide to a tennis court's length of 78 feet and width of 27 feet—but can still socially distance.
There is, however, much more to the game, especially now that we’re a few years into the trend (which clearly isn’t just a trend).
"Pickleball has a whole lifestyle surrounding it," explains Rachel Simon, author of Pickleball for All. "You can play casually but so many people get addicted to the sport and attend themed parties, wear specific clothing and sign up for adjacent exercise classes."
As Simon notes, “New Yorkers generally love to take on an identity and do something communal, so pickleball fits the bill.”
Take Time Out New York National Sales Director Sabrina Schneiderman, for example, who started playing in June 2021 as “a way to be active and COVID-safe after my second baby.”
Praising the sport in all its facets, Schneiderman, who now plays in tournaments around the country, notes that she and her husband “basically plan everything around pickleball.”
“We have weekly date nights playing pickleball,” she says. “We get a sitter, play and then go to a bar after for food and drinks with friends. We play competitively as well so have done tournaments together and also with our friends. It also gives us an opportunity to meet new people and play with new people. Our local bar even knows us as the pickle crew.”
Where can you play pickleball?
If the rapid rate of Life Time Inc.’s expansion is any indication, the popularity of the sport is bound to reach new heights very soon.
The chain of health clubs is, in fact, the country's largest owner and operator of pickleball courts across its network of luxury clubs, specifically operating permanent courts at eight tri-state area locations, including five in New York and three in New Jersey.
Although debuting each court certainly takes time and effort, the rate at which these are launching points to another reason why the sport is probably so popular on this side of the Atlantic.
"New Yorkers are very resourceful and they make pickleball courts wherever and whenever they can," explains Peeke. "You can go to a basketball or tennis court that is not in use or an empty parking lot, take your portable net and put it down anywhere. Chalk some lines and you have a court. The game has great mobility to be played anywhere."
Who can play pickleball?
Especially in a city like New York, where space is limited, being able to quickly set up a match virtually anywhere is an obvious plus. Add to it the fact that it’s a relatively easy game to learn and you’ve got yourself a recipe for continued success.
"It takes a lot of skill to get very good at it but it's very easy for people to pick up the sport no matter their age, gender and athletic ability," explains Simon. "Even people in wheelchairs can play."
Peeke echoes the author's sentiments. "Pickleball is easy to learn and difficult to master," he explains. "Other sports are highly technical and very hard to learn. People who are good athletes tend to pick up pickleball very rapidly but people that aren't can still learn."
Schneiderman's own experience serves as a great example. "There's a lot of things I love about pickleball, including the ease of the game," she says. "I have never played paddle sports before but was able to pick up the game pretty quickly."
Given the pace of life in the city and New Yorkers’ most common refrain—”I don’t have time to learn something new”—the popularity of a sport that doesn’t require much effort to learn should come as no surprise.
Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that pickleball is just … fun!
"People feel such enjoyment playing this game," says Simon. “There are so many mental and social benefits from it and because of that people want to incorporate it in their lives."
Alas, a sport that New Yorkers are genuinely into!
Will interest in pickleball fade away?
Sadly, though, whether we like to admit it or not, we’re a city filled with fad hunters. We love to lay claim to the next shiny new thing and drop it like it’s hot as soon as something else pops up. So will pickleball soon go the way of canned cocktails, outdoor dining structures and fondue? According to the experts, absolutely not.
"I think pickleball is here to stay," says Simon. "It may be having a moment right now but it's going to last as more major brands are sponsoring the sport, it's being played more in school, celebrities are investing in it and there are talks about it being part of the Olympics in the future."
Pickleball is also not a new sport, having been around for decades albeit only recently gaining more widespread attention, Simon says. In a way, pickleball has already proved its worth.
As Peeke notes, all it might take to cement the sports’ status as an indelible part of New York life is our openness to actually play it.
“New Yorkers that play pickleball know this but those that don’t don’t know it: it’s really just fun to play!” says the expert. “Pickleball turns us all into kids again.”
Once again, here we are chasing eternal youth—albeit, this time around, we may actually get fit while pursuing it.