Despite its critics, pickleball’s disruption of the sports landscape should be celebrated

As a longtime sports journalist and keen athlete, there’s nothing I love more than unpacking drama and diving deeply into social and political discussion about the sports landscape.

There is a sport that has taken off in Canada. Neighborhood parks are full of enthusiastic athletes, but the sport’s popularity has become polarizing on many courts: the centre of said drama is pickleball.

There are noise complaints, annoyances to local residents and also a movement to reduce it because it is pushing children away from playgrounds. Is pickleball really threatening the suburban happiness of Canadians? Is it a sport or a leisure activity? Why are people so mad about it?

Other sports like disc golf and spikeball also claim to be on the rise but are not upsetting Canadians at the same rate. The reality is that even sports like cricket that are not traditionally played in Canada are burgeoning. Why the fuss about pickleball?

First of all there is some disagreement as to where Pickleball was invented. Leland, North Carolina claims to be the birthplace of pickleball, where in 1965 three dads are said to have created a fun summer activity for their kids. But the state of Washington would like a word. It has been reported that it was, in fact, created there by a Republican congressman named Joel Pritchard, and what pickleball experts believe to be the accurate history.

We do know that pickleball came to Canada in the 1970s from snowbirds who found it in the United States. The Canadian home of pickleball is Vancouver, where the first courts were built by 1984. According to a survey done this January, there are an estimated 1.37 million players — also known as picklers — in Canada.

Since 2022, the number of women’s picklers has increased by 50 per cent. Pickleball Canada has experienced a rise in membership and I don’t foresee this craze slowing down anytime soon. Famous athletes like Kevin Durant, Tom Brady, LeBron James and even celebrities like Eva Longoria and Drake have invested in Major League Pickleball. And then there was the exciting news that Canadian Tennis star Eugenie Bouchard has signed onto the Professional Pickleball circuit.

But what of the complaints?

The first problem with pickleball is that it is accused of being noisy. The ball is plastic and makes a popping sound when it connects with the paddle. For people whose residences are surrounded by pickleball courts, it’s understandable why the incessant popping might seem frustrating.

But the dislike of the sport has gotten so intense that there are now legal actions, petitions and motions against pickleball communities to limit hours, and demands for noise mitigation. Apparently, the enthusiastic picklers have now taken over parks and the vibe has changed so children don’t enjoy the monkey bars and swings like they used to. Well, that’s what’s being alleged. I also remember the same critiques of rollerblading when the sport became popular — people got over it.

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There is a little bit of condescension about pickleball from people who think it is not a rigorous activity and reports that pickleball only clocks in the same amount of steps as a leisurely walk. And there are the opinions that it’s just a  glorified version of an activity for old people.

I read a few prickly op-eds from critics of the sport and have been thinking about why this is the case. And I also decided to try it out. As someone who has played soccer her whole life and certainly dabbled in squash, badminton and had a brief but intense fling with table tennis during the intense days of COVID-19, I felt I should give it a fair shot. Pun intended.

I went to try out pickleball at an event this week and played against Zane Navratil, a former tennis player who is now the fourth ranked men’s singles pickleball player in the world.

“Watch a little bit of pro pickleball, maybe some Major League Pickleball, and see if those people look unathletic to you,” Navratil told me. “This ball is being blasted at you from 14 feet away, and the time you have to react is similar and sometimes less than Major League Baseball players have to hit a pitch.”

The hand-eye coordination is key and so is the anticipation of where the shot might land. Navratil explained that some of the rules of the game were also designed not to give unfair advantage to someone who might stand at the net. For example, you aren’t allowed to blast it if you stand there.

I also learned that softer shots above what is known as “the kitchen line” are strategic and part of the game. I enjoyed myself tremendously but wanted a different perspective and asked a friend, Amina Mohamed, a trained physiotherapist who specializes in treating geriatric clients.

Pickleball, not tennis

Mohamed is also an athlete who has played soccer, hockey, and softball at competitive levels. I saw on her social media that she had tried it.

“The thing with pickleball is that anybody can pick up the sport, whether you’re experienced or you’re completely new,” she told me. “It’s a great social sport and gets your heart rate up — it’s good for cardiovascular fitness and it can help with agility.”

She added, “I find it enjoyable because it’s not easy.”

Navratil said that someone with a tennis background can get better really quickly, but even someone like Eugenie Bouchard might not be able to beat a seasoned pickleball player right off the bat. The style and manner of play are specific to the sport.

“I first showed up and played tennis on a pickleball court and found out that didn’t work particularly well,” Navratil said. “I got my butt kicked by some people much much older than I was. And so I was losing until I decided to actually play pickleball rather than tennis.”

We should be celebrating a sport that connects an older generation to fuse with the young, and engage in play. And maybe a little disruption to the old guard of tennis isn’t such a bad thing. The noise did not bother me at all, and as someone who has watched dozens of sports it was no different than anything else.

I had fun. Navratil was going very easy on me but I enjoyed the rallies we had. I have already started conspiring with Camryn, my colleague, about a CBC Sports pickleball tournament.

If it happens, I will love every second of it.

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