The fastest-growing sport in America for the third year in a row, pickleball is continuing its reign as the biggest sports trend to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Participation in the sport nearly doubled in 2022 and has grown by 158.6% over the last three years, according to the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association Topline Participation Report.
And the younger generation is leading the trend.
Players age 24 and younger are the fastest-growing age bracket, with participation increasing 21% year over year, says Brandon Mackie, the 34-year-old founder of Pickleheads, a pickleball court-finding website based in Atlanta, and a self-described pickleball fanatic.
According to a 2022 Pickleball University participation study, about a third of respondents who said they have played for one or two years are between the ages of 13-34.
"I think one of the biggest reasons this really appeals to the younger generation is the social nature of the sport," Mackie says of pickleball, a racquet sport for two to four players that blends aspects of tennis, badminton and table tennis.
Pickleball is typically played in an open play format, in which people can show up at the court at any time during set hours for open play (some courts are continuously open play) and line up their paddle in the paddle rotation system and wait their turn to play.
"That just allows you to meet so many people that you otherwise wouldn't," Mackie says.
The pandemic was a time when young people were struggling with loneliness and a lack of community, and pickleball's ability to fill that void is partly behind the sport's exponential growth with the younger generation over the past few years, he says.
"Maybe the biggest reason why the sport has appeal to young people and it's growing the way it is is because anybody can learn," Mackie says. "I think kids really love that instant gratification of being able to just kind of pick up a paddle and have fun with it and learn very quickly. I see a lot more young kids out on the courts, because it's something the whole family can do — like the parents, the grandparents, the kids, they can all go out and play, and there's just not a lot of sports like that."
Some pickleball gear companies, including Baddle and Vulcan, are now making paddles specifically designed for kids, with features such as grips sized for smaller hands and a fiberglass hitting surface that makes them lighter and easier for kids to maneuver.
The city of Chattanooga's Parks & Outdoors Department started organizing black light pickleball nights for families last year at its community centers, with the next planned for early June.
In addition to the adult leagues the city offers at its Wyatt and Washington Hills centers, the city also plans to have summer camp leagues for youth in its community centers and outdoor courts, Parks & Outdoors Communications and Marketing Director Brian Smith says.
"We have plenty of desire to do more, but only limited staff," he says, adding that waitlists are formed for programs just after they are offered.
The city is continuing to add outdoor courts to keep up with demand from pickleball-loving Chattanoogans, including redesigned tennis courts at Batter's Place in East Brainerd, at Lookout Valley High School and behind Hixson Community Center that were converted to pickleball courts this spring.