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Pickleball — a sport that fuses tennis, badminton and table tennis — is the nation’s newest craze. The sport was invented in 1965 but received mainstream attention during the pandemic. More than 4.8 million people played the sport in 2021, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That’s a 39% increase from 2019.
Local governments are noticing the growing interest in pickleball as well. Cities like Portland, Minneapolis and Orlando are starting to invest resources into their local parks to include pickleball players. However, with all this new excitement around the sport, city officials still have to balance the needs of other neighborhoods that may be better served by different investments.
In an article for Smart Cities Dive, Gaby Galvin wrote, “key among cities’ challenges is ensuring pickleball courts are accessible to all residents and that they don’t divert resources from other critical projects. Pickleball players tend to be passionate and vocal about the sport, city officials said, which runs the risk of overshadowing other community needs.”
Galvin spoke to Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about pickleball’s popularity and how cities are adapting to its growth. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Look, I learned something in this piece that pickleball was actually established in 1965, is when it was invented. But it does seem like only in the past, like what, like five years that it’s really kind of taken off. What has happened that has made it so popular?
Gaby Galvin: Yeah, it’s really grown, hasn’t it? Pickleball got very popular during the pandemic, among people who were looking for a reason to go outside, looking for something new to do. It’s really easy to pick up, it’s really social, so it’s very popular among families. It really took off. It’s actually now considered the country’s fastest-growing sport.
Ryssdal: And as such, it needs places to be played, and this is happening in my little town in the Los Angeles foothills, it’s happening in big cities. There just aren’t enough courts to go around, and so it has become an infrastructure problem.
Galvin: Exactly. I mean, pickleball players are pretty passionate, and there’s a bit of a tennis-pickleball rivalry in some communities because they’re played on the same courts. So local officials are trying to grapple with how to meet that demand for pickleball courts, while not, you know, disrupting other recreational athletes or other people who are trying to get out. I mean, even in the country’s 100 largest cities, the number of pickleball courts is up to 2,090 — up from 420, just five years ago. So it’s really been a big issue.
Ryssdal: Can we talk equity here for a second? Because there are lots of cities in this country without enough parks, to begin with, let alone pickleball. And now cities are thinking about adding new parks in areas that maybe they would be better served doing something else.
Galvin: Yes, I mean, if you take a step back from this issue, and remove pickleball itself from the picture, at the heart of the trend is really questions around how cities, specifically local parks departments, are allocating their resources, and where that attention and investment is going. And so that is where the kind of questions around equity and access come in. You know, the solution is not that every neighborhood gets a pickleball court, because not everybody wants one. So it does become a big infrastructure question, as you alluded to.
Ryssdal: So what are cities doing? I mean, how do they make the right decision here, because you got to put a park in a place that people are going to use, and not all places want to play pickleball?
Galvin: Cities are, you know, trying to balance those kinds of short-term demand, while also kind of thinking about their longer-term needs. Neighborhoods are changing and evolving all the time. And so they want to make sure that the investments are going somewhere where they’re going to be used, you know, not just for the next couple of years, but longer term. So they’re doing things like converting tennis courts into dual-use courts. There’re some neighborhoods, which have maybe some dilapidated tennis courts, [they] are being rehabilitated into pickleball courts. And then they’re also thinking about their longer-term plans. You know, when a city is planning a new park or a new development, they’re trying to decide, “OK, do we put pickleball here? Do we focus on other needs that they have?” You know, trying to take a longer-term view.
Ryssdal: Yeah. All right. Here’s the $64,000 question: Do you play and are you any good?
Galvin: I do not play but reporting this story got me very interested actually. So I might have to pick it up.
Ryssdal: All right. Well, I will call you back. We’ll see how you did. How about that?
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