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April is Pickleball Month: A Guide to America’s Fastest Growing Sport

April is Pickleball Month: A Guide to America’s Fastest Growing Sport

Is April the biggest sports month of the year? It’s easy to make the case. Just think of all the action that’s packed into 30 days: March Madness finale, NBA and NHL playoff games, major league baseball, The Masters, NFL draft and the Boston Marathon. It’s time to add one more sport to this blockbuster lineup: Pickleball Month!

For an estimated 36.5 million “pickleheads,” April is the official time to celebrate the nation’s fastest growing sport three years running. No longer a game dominated by seniors, the sport has been transformed by 18- to 34-year-olds, now the largest group of players.

No question about it, pickleball is on a moonshot trajectory. As an activity, it has already leapfrogged basketball, golf, tennis, baseball and soccer as the country’s third most popular participation sport. Only biking and running claim a larger following. The growth rate over the last three years clocks in at a whopping 223.5%.

Why the explosive growth? Start with simple rules; low bar of entry for folks of all ages; smaller, less physically demanding court size; modest equipment requirements; and the game’s social, conversation-friendly spirit. In a word, pickleball is a blast.

Evolving Pro Sport

The distinctive poc-poc sound of a plastic wiffleball on hard paddle is now familiar just about everywhere. There are now about 14,000 places to play, with California, Florida and Texas leading the way for court locations. New York City has more court locations than any other city with 58.

With all this excitement, it’s natural the game would evolve with tournaments, sponsors, pros, coaches, televised matches and, yes, even a hero or two.

The pickleball pro game is still a long way off from the fan following associated with big-time pro sports. The money a pro pickleball player – man or woman – can earn is small by most pro sports standards. Take tennis, for example. A quarterfinalist at a major tennis tournament will earn upwards of $185,000. The dollars are even higher at one of tennis’ four Grand Slam events. The entire purse at a major pickleball tournament is $125,000, with the champion taking home $10,000 (pickleball is gender equitable, women and men earn the same). 

Superstars in the Making

That disparity may slowly fade as stars emerge to capture the public’s imagination and with it, social media buzz, sponsorships and broadcast exposure. Fortunately, the sport is already has a pair of budding superstars: Benjamin Johns and Anna Leigh Waters.

Johns, a 25-year-old Maryland native, is widely considered to be the greatest male pickleball player of all time. He currently holds the No. 1 ranking in men’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles, which he has held the past three years. His near total domination in the sport includes a 108-match singles winning streak. No male player has taken home more championship trophies than Johns, now over 80 and counting.      

Yet, for all of Johns’ achievements, they may ultimately pale in comparison to 17-year-old Waters. Already considered the sport’s first true superstar, Waters has a Sports Illustrated cover to her credit. A Jon Wertheim profile recounts how she turned pickleball pro at 12, virtually taking over the women’s game from day one and routinely winning tournament triple crowns in singles, doubles and mixed doubles in pro-level tournaments. Her celebrity earned her a variety of national endorsement deals. Along with tournament winnings, her income this year could top seven figures, a breakthrough for a pickleball athlete.

The top five pro male and female players according to the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), the global governing body of men’s and women’s professional pickleball:

Men                                                     Age

Benjamin Johns                                     25

Collin Johns                                           31

Dylan Frazier                                         23

James Johnson                                     22

Matt Wright                                           47

Women                                                Age

Anna Leigh Waters                               17

Catherine Parenteau                             30

Mary Brascia                                         25

Lea Jansen                                           32

Salime Devidze                                     38

PPA pros compete across 26 tournaments in 2024 in 16 states. Points earned are used to qualify the top eight finishers in each group for the year-end PPA Finals from December 5-8 in San Clemente, Calif. The respective singles and doubles winners are named the world  No. 1.

Recently the PPA merged with a rival competing pro pickleball body, Major League Pickleball (MLP). The MLP utilizes a team format and has attracted team owners like superstars in sports and business like LaBron James and Mark Cuban. The name of the new joint entity is the United Pickleball Association. Over 150 pro pickleball players have signed multi-year deals with the new entity.

Weekend Warriors Welcome

Not everyone aspires to take on Johns or Waters. Weekend warriors can turn to USA Pickleball for guidance on rules, places to play and tournaments in their area. For example, a series of 14 regional tournaments are scheduled for 2024, all culminating in the amateur game’s premier event, the 2024 Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships in Mesa, Arizona from November 10-17. Each tournament has categories for players of various skill levels and age groups.

Given it’s growing sport and cultural stature, what are pickleball’s prospects as a college or Olympic sport? Many colleges and universities have pickleball club teams. USA Pickleball maintains a web page with a directory of collegiate clubs, club registration details and other resources for organizing and competing as a campus pickleball team. There are no plans at this time to introduce pickleball as an NCAA sport, though that could change in coming years.

Olympic competition isn’t imminent, either. There is talk of introducing it as a demonstration sport no sooner than the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Games. However, the 2032 Summer Games seems more likely at this time.

Pickleball, Anyone?

The best way to recognize Pickleball Month is to get out and play. If you’re a pickleball veteran, you know all about the fun and exercise that’s powering the sport phenomenon. If you’re new to the game, there’s never been a better time to spring for a paddle and ball and head to your local courts. Check out the excitement for yourself.