Out There With 12 Sports: Wichita on leading edge of fast-growing pickleball craze
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A few years ago, Patrick Smith was strong-headed in keeping his background and tennis and not wanting to give pickleball a go.
That is, until he tried it.
“It seems so simple. I would make the dumbest mistakes, silly mistakes,” said Smith, a Germany native who played college tennis at Missouri-Kansas City. “It just really bugged me so much that I was like, I need to figure this out. That competitive drive did it for me.”
He is now part of the millions of Americans flooding to pickleball courts across the United States. There are now more than 36 million players in America, as the sport has grown by more than 150% in the last three years - the fastest-growing sport.
Though the sport has been around since the 1960s, it wasn’t until the last decade when the sport began to pick up steam. Part of the growth comes from professional leagues - MLP and the PPA. Professional pickleball teams are also owned by several high-name investors from Kevin Durant to Heidi Klum to Tom Brady, and far beyond into the celebrity world.
“The sport has been growing so quickly. The game actually started in 1965 but never had that growth we had now,” said Jay Devilliers, the No. 4 singles player in the world who calls Wichita home. “Celebrities love the game, so I think that helped to get people on the court. Once you get started, it’s hard not to fall in love with the game.”
Pickleball is played by two or four people with paddles and a wiffleball. It resembles a blend of tennis and ping-pong, but has specific rules.
Games are played to 11, and points can only be scored by the serving player/team. The most notable rule from other resembling sports is the non-volley zone, with is a 7-foot area around the net in which players are prohibited from entering unless the ball bounces in the area.
But because of its ease of rules, small court and sparse equipment, it’s a sport accessible to everybody.
“My kids five and four play. My grandpa is 90 and also playing,” Devilliers said. “Everyone can pick up a paddle and start playing at least. ... I would say go on the court, have some fun, then once you’re hooked start looking at the best player and try to replicate and copy what they do well.”
Smith has seen firsthand how far the sport has come at a professional level, with millions of dollars in prize money up for grabs.
“I remember our first tournament we played was a public park in Chicago. Now you’re in these amazing places, have these little stadiums and arenas, TV coverage,” Smith said. “It’s just blown up. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
“Just have fun. Don’t be scared of playing it. Don’t be scared of that plastic wiffleball. I’m sure you’ll be hooked and fall in love with the game.”
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