Thursday, March 2, 2017

SPORTS BIZ | Fastest-Growing Game–Pickleball (Updated Apr 4, 2017)

Pickleball courts in Minnesota.
Sports are big business, What are the fastest-growing sports in America?

Depends on what measure of growth you use.

If you are interested in spectator sports, the most-watched sports on television are football (NFL games) and stock-car (NASCAR) races.

If you are asking about participatory sports, based on how many people play, then tennis was growing the fastest, 31 percent, during the period 2000 to 2012. It has the advantage of being a participatory as well as a spectator sport. It requires less investment and player fees than golf. Among young people, lacrosse and soccer are also showing growth.

But now there is a new participatory game in town, and it's Pickleball. The fastest-growing demographic is the retired elderly, and they love the game. It was founded by Rep. Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell on Bainbridge Island, Wash.

It apparently got its name not from the wiffle ball that is used, which looks a bit like a round pickle, nor from the name of the Pritchards' dog Pickles), but from the term that rowers use for the slowest boat in a competition, i.e., pickle boats. Thus the pickle boat in a race may be made up of the leftover members of the crews of the other boats. The H.M.S. Pickle, which was part of Admiral Lord Nelson's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, probably got its name from the fact that it was the smallest of the warships in Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar.

The belittling name for the H.M.S. Pickle has some historical irony because it was the first boat to bring back the news to Britain of the great defeat of the Spanish and French fleet fighting for Napoleon by the British fleet under Nelson (alas, the news was also delivered that Nelson lost his life in this battle). There is an annual dinner in New York City honoring Nelson and it is called the Pickle dinner.

The analogy is that pickle ball is a game made up of pieces of other games – tennis, badminton, table tennis, wiffle ball—and it is played on a smaller court (two pickle ball courts can be fit into one tennis court).  The rules are easily found on the Internet.

From an economic perspective, having surveyed the economic impact of sports while I was working for the NYC Comptroller, I predict its continued growth, for the following reasons:
  • The courts are smaller than tennis courts, which makes them less expensive to install. They are 20 feet wide and 44 feet long, a little longer than a typical swimming pool. The net is 36 inches high at the end and 34 inches high in the middle.
  • Pickle ball courts are approximately half as long and as wide as a tennis court, which is 36 feet wide and 78 feet long. So one can fit nearly four pickle ball courts in a space the size of a tennis court.
  • Because the courts have a hard surface rather than a clay one, they require much less maintenance. An outdoor court costs about $20,000 to install, but there is then no need for someone to spray and brush the court.
  • Although the hard court surface is harder on the feet (and more dangerous to fall on), there is more strategy and less running in pickle ball than in tennis.
  • As I said at a recent meeting where pickle ball players wanted to have proper court built, "the tennis players of today are the pickle ball players of tomorrow."
Here are some introductions to the sport:

Pickleball terms like The Smasher and The Slam:

Video of the overhead — more wrist than in tennis: