From the backyard to the Olympics? – DW – 26/10/2022

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It sounds like a game invented in the later stages of a rowdy party, but pickleball has Olympic aspirations and is growing rapidly both at home, in the US and in Germany.

The sport is played on something resembling a badminton court with a much lower net and involves two or four players playing a tennis-like game but using oversized table tennis bats and a hard polymer ball that doesn’t bounce much. The volley is not allowed in the front part of the court.

It’s been around since the mid-1960s, when two dads invented it to keep their bored kids busy, but it’s suddenly caught the public eye in recent years.

A 2022 study by the non-profit Sports and Fitness Industry Association in the United States found that between 2019 and 2021, the number of male and female gamers increased by 39% to 4.8 million, making it the “fastest growing sport in America”. for the second year in a row.”

Germany gets into pickleball

“It’s really crazy,” Andreas Kopkau, president of the German Pickleball Association, told SID of the development in the United States, before adding that “it’s also clearly accelerating in Germany.”

While the United States is the heart of the sport (it even recently became Washington State sport), Kopkau’s claim is based on the fact that since 2017 the number of German clubs has grown from three to over 60.

But a sports landscape where football dominates and handball, tennis, ice hockey, basketball and winter sports are also popular, makes things difficult.

“The many sports in Germany and the limited hall time slow us down,” says Kopkau. “It’s hard to meet the demand.”

Another difficulty is finding suitable courts. Many German tennis courts, a natural place to adapt, are clay and therefore impossible to play pickleball. “I need a smooth floor for the hard plastic ball, otherwise it will bounce,” Kopkau explains.

Nonetheless, the 52-year-old says there is “a definite push” among a number of European countries to make the case for Olympic status. “A lot of people are looking at it, there are efforts to make the sport Olympic,” Kopkau said. “But we are still relatively far away.”

Major sports stars on board

One aspect that could bring sport closer to the Games is the growing endorsement of celebrity athletes.

German basketball great Dirk Nowitzki recently retired after scoring 31,560 points for the Dallas Mavericks. But he recently took to the pickleball court with a number of other sports players, including tennis pro John Isner and golfer Jordan Speith.

Nowitzki’s basketball player LeBron James, former tennis player Kim Clijsters and American football star Tom Brady are among those who have invested in ‘Major League Pickleball’ in a bid to translate growing interest into financial value growing.

The organization’s website boasts of a $100,000 prize for an upcoming event and the “40 by 30 Project”, which they describe as “an initiative to harness the incredible momentum of pickleball to bring the joy of pickleball to forty million people by the year 2030.”

Easy to learn

Part of the reason for the sport’s growth is that it has a relatively shallow learning curve and power is less important than tactics and subtlety. Such a mix makes learning easier for beginners and for those who are older or have mobility issues.

As an example, Kopkau cites his 72-year-old father. He is apparently capable of playing with his club’s youngest player, aged 11. “I don’t know in how many sports such a constellation is feasible,” he said.

While German pickleball players face a few challenges in terms of access and competition, the game’s popularity in the United States shows no signs of slowing down, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

“Pickleball has grown in popularity over the past five years and hasn’t missed a beat during the pandemic. Pickleball’s growth trajectory gives every indication that it will be an important part of the American sports landscape for the foreseeable future. “, said Tom Cove, director of the organization. President and CEO.

From a backyard game to 63 registered national associations and millions of active players. Is the Olympic podium next?

Edited by Matt Ford


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