Pickleball craze has Canadians of all ages headed for court

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If you know a dink from a flapjack and a falafel from a volley llama, you might be among the million or so Canadians who have made pickleball the fastest growing sport in the nation.

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You might have heard that pro sports stars Tom Brady, Lebron James and Kevin Durant have all bought franchises in Major League Pickleball; or that talk show maven Stephen Colbert will host a Nov. 17 celebrity tournament on CBS, sponsored by Claussen’s pickles, and featuring the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Emma Watson and Will Ferrell.

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The quirky court sport with the vocabulary to match has been around for six decades, but only truly caught fire during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it shows no signs that it will run out of fuel any time soon. Pickleball Canada’s executive director Carla Anderson said the sport’s social qualities, affordability and accessibility have pushed participation from 350,000 across the country a year ago to more than a million now. Membership in Pickleball Canada has topped 40,000, up from 16,000 when Anderson joined the organization in April 2021. She believes an updated strategic plan has to provide for 150,000 members sooner than later.

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“It truly is a sport that’s easy to learn, so you get that instant gratification,” she said from Ottawa. “I’ve heard people say, after playing an hour, they’re thinking ‘oh my god, like, am I a phenom? This is amazing.’

“I think people walk away feeling I wasn’t bad at it. Nobody wants to try something new, especially in front of other people, and not be good. It does give you that feeling that I was pretty good for my first time trying that sport. Now I want to try again to get better, or play somebody harder.

“It’s easy to learn. The talent, and why it’s a sport, is because it’s difficult to master.”

Anderson, who has worked in the Canadian high-performance sport system for three decades, cannot recall a meteoric rise to rival that of pickleball.

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“I have seen sports take off. There was racquetball. Then there was freestyle skiing. But never like this. Never with all age groups.”

She said a survey commissioned by Pickleball Canada last January showed the highest growth in the 18-34 demographic, but the largest component was still older Canadians. Those numbers are similar in the United States, where pickleball was invented in 1965. Three friends combined table tennis paddles with a Wiffle ball and badminton net. There is also an aspect of tennis at the root of this family tree, though the game is played indoors and out on a court about one-quarter the size. You can gear up for the price of a pair of court shoes or runners, a paddle that can cost as little as $10 or as much as $240, and a plastic ball that goes for $1.

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The only real barrier to entry these days is access to courts, and that problem grows in concert with the sport’s rabid popularity. Pickleball Canada’s website lists 98 facilities in B.C., 36 in Alberta, 13 in Saskatchewan, 14 in Manitoba and just one in Yukon, the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse. There are scads in Ontario, but only 10 in Quebec, eight in Nova Scotia, 11 in New Brunswick and four in Newfoundland.

“One of the challenges is, the sport is growing so quickly, that there aren’t enough courts across Canada,” said Anderson. “There are a lot of communities that are going to their local governments to say we need more pickleball courts.”

The temptation is often to cannibalize a tennis court in favour of four pickleball venues, but that’s turning a blind eye to the fact that many people play both sports.

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“If you love pickleball, that’s an easy solution. If you like tennis and want to support tennis, that’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Brad Colcy, vice president of the Glenora Community League in central Edmonton. “You realize that tennis infrastructure is expensive and hard to come by.”

The Glenora complex sports three new pickleball courts that sprang out of a facility reorganization. There are also two tennis courts on the property and the hope is the amenities can co-exist and in fact be complementary. But that might take some time and innovation.

“If you’re familiar with our area, we’re a community-driven community league, and I think there is a learning curve for how to manage maybe a bit of a loud sport,” said Colcy. “There is some acoustical netting that would help mitigate the sound. It’s tough, because for the people who live around the courts, that’s an issue. It’s a new amenity and I think we have to deal with it respectfully. I think it’s possible to make everybody happy with some of the sound mitigation that’s out there.”

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It’s not only the joyful noise of several pickleballers having the time of their life that can apparently crawl under a neighbour’s skin, it’s the constant plinking of a plastic ball against a hard paddle, be it wood or carbon fibre.

In a July issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune, audiologist Amanda Levy wrote that pickleball produces 70 decibels of sound at a distance of about 30 metres and 64 decibels at about 60 metres. By way of contrast, Levy wrote, ambient neighbourhood noise checks in at 45 decibels and the average conversation at 60.

Pickleball obviously won’t damage your ears, but it can play havoc with a quiet summer day on the deck.

That said, courtside neighbours can revel in the knowledge that some of those pickleballers will inevitably pull a muscle, sprain a knee ligament, tear an Achilles tendon or break a wrist and be gone, at least for a period of rehab and recovery. According to the Journal of Emergency Medicine, there were 19,000 pickleball injuries in the United States in 2017. Most are of the slip, trip, fall and dive variety.

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Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons has been among the walking wounded.

“I lunged forward to hit a shot,” he wrote in an email. “Instantly it felt like I’d been shot. I tried to stand up but couldn’t. Thank God I was in a fenced-in tennis court. I eventually grabbed the fence and hobbled on one leg to my car. Six months later I was walking again. Being injury prone, I haven’t played pickleball again and I miss it terribly. It’s a fantastic game.”

And it’s spreading beyond North America. The World Pickleball Federation was founded in 2018 and counts 37 member countries, including Canada, on five continents. The international governing body will hold the inaugural World Pickleball Games from May 2-7, 2023 at the Austin Pickle Ranch in Texas. Delayed a year by COVID, this event “demonstrates that pickleball is getting ready for the Olympics,” the federation said in a press release.

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The sport’s insiders are indeed eye-balling a spot in the five-ring circus. It’s not on the programme for Paris 2024 and doesn’t appear to have a serious shot at Los Angeles 2028, but Anderson is optimistic for Brisbane 2032.

In the more immediate future, Anderson said Pickleball Canada will focus on strong grassroots programming for youth and the establishment of a senior national team. Both projects will require more money than the tiny organization currently derives from membership fees and tournament sanctioning, so application for federal funding has been made to Sport Canada. The rather amazing growth of the game also presents potential opportunities for sponsorship, and Pickleball Canada is exploring that avenue as well.

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There is certainly some money in the sport, largely confined to the top-level professionals playing on one of three North American tours: Major League Pickleball, the Association of Pickleball Professionals and the Professional Pickleball Association. Steve Deakin of Pitt Meadows, B.C. had been a regular on the APP and is now a contracted player on the PPA. He’s coming back from two wrist surgeries and at age 48 has only a few more seasons left to cash in on his acumen for a game he took up after exhausting his potential in tennis.

“I’ve done everything I could possibly do with tennis. But pickleball, I’m constantly learning, constantly evolving,” he said. “The faces are new. There’s new college tennis players coming in, trying to change the landscape, and there’s some of the old guard still doing what they do well. It’s been a really cool experience at my age to play a sport for a living.”

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As he winds down his competitive career, he’s growing a teaching academy business with plans to hire more instructors and branch out all over the country. And whenever pickleball makes it into the Olympics, he wants a piece.

“I think it is going to be outside of my playing career, but I don’t think it’s going to be outside of possibly representing Team Canada as a coach. Unless I’m still the top player in Canada in eight years. We’ll see. If I keep myself fit you never know, I might still be relevant.”

What had been a niche sport for decades has certainly broken into the mainstream on a recreational level, and Deakin believes that the initial interest shown by television networks like CBS, ESPN and Fox counts as another step in the right direction.

“I don’t think you’re going to stop this sport,” he said. “It’s growing too quickly and too many good things are happening.”

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