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Move over, tennis. Across the country, people are turning to the game of pickleball as their recreational sport of choice.
Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association 2023 Participation Report. The report marked the number of pickleball players in 2022 to 8.9 million players in the United States
Pickleball can be described as a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong. Instead of a racket, players hit a plastic ball with a paddle, and several people can be on the court at the same time.. There are so many pickleball courts across the country that they are take over empty stores and shopping centers.
In 2021, the largest age range of pickleball players was 55 and older, according to the 2022 SFIA Pickleball Single-Sport Participation Report.
To understand why this age group has turned to pickleball, CNBC Make It spoke to players over 70 about their experience with the sport and its impact on their overall health and well-being.
Mailen Kootsey played tennis for most of his life, starting in his 20s. When he worked at Loma Linda University in California, he also had access to their tennis courts where he played with a group of friends his age.
“One day, about five or six years ago, a friend of mine had started (playing) pickleball on one of the tennis courts (and) you can put four pickleball courts on one tennis court,” Kootsey explains.
“He said to me, ‘Look! Come try this pickleball thing,’ so I did and that was it. I never went back to tennis.”
Tennis has kept Kootsey in shape and helped him maintain his physical health, and pickleball also keeps him active. But in Kootsey’s experience, pickleball is much more social than tennis. “I met more people, fun people, and from there it was a sale,” he says.
I met more people, fun people, and from there it was a sale.
84-year-old pickleball player
In Redlands, California, where he lives, his pickleball group worked with the city to develop a group of eight pickleball courts. “In doing so, they built a small space with a roof over it with tables and chairs so that people could, between matches, sit and talk,” he says.
“Having more courts has attracted a lot more people. In fact, people who don’t live in this area have heard about the group of people who play there, so we have people who come from surrounding towns,” Kootsey says.
When asked to choose the best thing he gained from pickleball, Kootsey said, “It’s a choice between exercise and social interaction. Those are two things I enjoy.”
Getting into pickleball wasn’t as smooth a transition for Beth Henry as it was for Kootsey.
“I’m not an athletic person. A lot of people who play pickleball are ping pong or racquetball or tennis players. But I’ve never played an organized sport before,” Henry told CNBC Make It . “So for me, pickleball was a lot more of a challenge because I’m not an athlete. I had to work a lot harder to get there.”
Henry got into pickleball because many of her friends in Rancho Cucamonga, California, played the game, and she wanted to try it. She was able to find a pickleball group to join at a sports complex in her town.
Since playing pickleball, Henry has started prioritizing her physical health. “It inspired me to hire a personal trainer and be a lot more active,” she says. “One of the things I do is make sure I get 10,000 steps a day, and all of that is not only good for me, but it also helps me play a better game.”
Henry’s pickleball community extends far beyond the original group she joined two years ago. “My husband and I have made so many new friends. So not only is pickleball a fun game, but it’s also a very important social part of my life,” she says.
I have so many new friends that I can’t hire any more.
73-year-old pickleball player
Through one of Henry’s pickleball groups, “my husband and I made friends with three other couples and we go out to dinner together,” she says. “We’re going to take the train and spend the day in Los Angeles together.”
Along with the girlfriends she made, Henry also formed a subgroup within her pickleball club that she calls “Chickleball.” The group has about 15 women who meet twice a month to play non-competitive pickleball games, have lunch and have fun.
With the girlfriends she made, Beth Henry formed a subgroup within her pickleball club that she calls “Chickleball.”
Courtesy of Beth Henry
Another of his pickleball groups travel together and went on a pickleball cruise. Thanks to sport, Henry finds himself faced with a good problem: “I have so many new friends that I can’t hire any more.”
Ryo Shinagawa played tennis for decades before switching to pickleball in 2016. His journey to pickleball began when a local newspaper in his town of Corona, California, featured a beginner’s pickleball clinic at a senior center nearby.
“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s go over there and check it out,'” Shinagawa told CNBC Make It. He didn’t need to bring any materials to attend the 9 a.m. session, so he decided to go the same day.
“I just arrived, the gentleman put a paddle in my hand and I played until noon. (I) really loved it! And I drove to a sporting goods and bought a paddle. (I’ve) been playing pickleball ever since.”
Ryo Shinagawa played tennis for decades before switching to pickleball in 2016.
Courtesy of Ryo Shinagawa
Shinagawa started playing pickleball three to four times a week, about two to three hours a day. After playing a game, he mentally feels “fantastic” because of the endorphins he gets from accomplishing something.
Although he admits that sometimes he feels “physically exhausted”, he always recovers and his love for the sport keeps him coming back.
As a USA Pickleball Ambassador and certified pickleball instructor, Shinagawa says one of the things he loves most about pickleball is the social aspect.
I have made more friends and acquaintances through pickleball in the last six to seven years than I have in my entire life.
72-year-old pickleball player
“My children are all grown up, they live in the neighboring county and I see them,” he notes. “But I tell everyone that I’ve made more friends and acquaintances through pickleball in the last six to seven years than I have in my entire life.”
While playing pickleball, Shinagawa was able to make a half-dozen close friends and connect with more than 150 acquaintances.
“Pickleball is what brings us together, and then we start to discover the common personal experiences in our lives that unite us,” he says.
“It brings out good people. They may come at first just for the game, but all of a sudden they start to realize it’s more than just playing a game.”
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