This past fall, Ed Pluskota introduced pickleball to his gym class at North Fayette Elementary School, in Georgia. The kids had never heard of it. “Is it tennis?” they asked. “Or is it ping-pong?” Pluskota had to sell them on the idea. “It’s the perfect mixture of both,” he told them.
It’s no wonder his students were unfamiliar with pickleball. The game’s popularity has caught many people by surprise. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports that the number of people playing pickleball in the United States has jumped by almost 40% since 2019. It’s now around 5 million. That makes pickleball the fastest-growing sport in the country.
Before long, Pluskota’s kids were disappointed when they weren’t playing pickleball. “You don’t get that full-out excitement with everything you teach,” Pluskota told TIME for Kids.
The excitement goes beyond sports. Many people say pickleball has helped them make friends. “It affects my relationship with my classmates,” says Elizabeth Pavon, 11. “It helps us get more together.”
Pickleball is a mixture of sports. According to Pickleball Magazine, it was named after the pickle boat. That’s a racing boat with a crew left over from other boats.
The game is easy to pick up. “Someone could learn in 30 minutes or less,” Jim Berger says. He’s a regional director for U.S.A. Pickleball, the national governing organization for the sport. “Within a couple of weeks, they’re playing at a moderate level. And they’re having fun.”
The sport’s growth is being driven by younger players. In 2018, the Professional Pickleball Association was founded and soon began holding national tournaments. The current women’s champion, Anna Leigh Waters, is 15.
Now another pro league, Major League Pickleball, is growing fast. Basketball star LeBron James is an investor. Many people expect the sport to become an Olympic event.
Olivia Sutton first picked up a pickleball paddle when she was 6. But her interest was renewed several years later. During the pandemic, she went to the local park, in Crystal City, Missouri. “I started playing with some of the older people there,” she says. “They put me under their wing.”
In 2020, at 13, Olivia played in her first official tournament. This past year, she took part in more than 35 competitions. She plans to go pro. “It’s so much different than any other community that I’ve ever been a part of,” she says. “People are encouraging and kind.”
That points to a bright future for the sport. “I feel like everybody who plays falls in love with it,” Olivia says. “That first hit on the paddle, it sounds like a pop. It’s like magic.”
On the Ball
From a distance, a pickleball might look like a tennis ball. Its color is similar. But a pickleball is bigger and less bouncy. It’s about the size of a Wiffle Ball. And it’s made of a similar hard plastic. Its holes are spaced evenly, to ensure that the ball flies straight.
During pickleball volleys , that plastic ball can zip. “The more power you put on the ball, the more power is coming back at you,” Olivia Sutton says.