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Pickleball, the sport taking the U.S. by storm, explained

Maybe you played it in middle school? Perhaps you’ve seen people playing “tiny tennis” on a public court near you? Pickleball is becoming one of the fastest-growing sports phenomenons in U.S. sports, and now it’s attracting big money. You might be wondering what the heck Pickleball is, how a 57-year-old sport is now so hot, or why you should care — and we’re here to answer those questions.

Pickleball was thrust into the limelight on Wednesday, when it was announced that LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Kevin Love were teaming up to purchase a pro Pickleball team to begin competition in 2023, as part of MLP’s (Major League Pickelball) expansion to 16 teams. The trio are, without question, the most notable owners in MLP — and their involvement will undoubtably cause more people to pay attention to the sport.

What is Pickleball?

Beginning in Washington in 1965, Pickleball was initially invented as a tennis variant for children. It’s played on a court with similar markings to tennis, but at less than one-third the size, and much closer to badminton in its dimensions.

Rather than using rackets and traditional tennis balls, the sport initially used lightweight plastic or wood paddles, but now pro players are using carbon fiber paddles, and other advanced materials that balance strength and weight.

One area where the sports hasn’t changed much is the ball itself. We’re still looking at a simple, hollow, plastic ball with holes in it — very much akin to a wiffleball. The difference is significant when compared to a tennis ball, because it bounces much less due to the reduced flex. This, paired with “no volley zones” on the court, means that players have to wait for the ball to bounce, then use speed, agility, and flexibility to make shots that look much more like badminton than professional tennis.

Where is Pickleball played?

This is largely a point of contention right now. Some cities are building dedicated public Pickleball courts, but for most players they’re using already-available tennis courts. This involves either lowering the net to 34”, and using rope or tape to mark out new lines on the surface — or bringing portable nets to convert courts.

This has raised the ire of many tennis players. In early August police had to be called to public courts in Ocean Beach, California — when arguments between tennis and pickleball players escalated. Similar incidents have been reported in other parts of the country too, where players of both games have become heated at sharing the space.

Pickleball players assert that they should have free use of the courts to play their game too, especially considering it uses less space (thereby letting more people play simultaneously). Its their belief that the game causes minimal impact, especially on hard courts, and believe it’s introducing non-traditional players to racket-based sports, which will naturally lead to an increased interest in tennis too.

Tennis players are less accepting of this. Not only are their concerns about the playing surface being damaged by tape, rope or temporary nets — but there are noise concerns too. The sound of a paddle hitting a plastic ball creates a loud, and distinct noise compared to tennis. Some believe this noise is distracting, and in one case Portland residents complained that dedicated Pickleball courts were “affecting their quality of life” due to the noise.

Even proponents of Pickleball acknowledge that the noise from the game is a concern, and the game is trying to find solutions to ameliorate these issues.

What is Major League Pickleball?

There have been numerous attempts at starting a professional Pickleball league over the years, but MLP is the latest venture. Starting in 2021, MLP promised to offer players regular competition and prize money.

Teams are made up of four players, two men and two women — with rosters being organized by a snake draft. Teams will compete in singles, and doubles competition in three different events in 2022. The hopes are that if these events are successful it will be expanded further in 2023.

MLP is by no means the only current Pickleball competition. The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) began in 2019, and is currently owned by Thomas Dundon, owner of “TopGolf,” and the Carolina Hurricanes. The PPA has forbid its players from also competing in MLP, opening up a rivalry between the two leagues.

How do I watch this?

As it stands there are no broadcast rights currently owned by MLP. Events and the draft are being streamed on YouTube. There are hopes that growing interest, paired with the involvement of the NBA players as team owners, a network may pick up the rights in the future.

The next event is set to take place in Columbus, Ohio running from October 14-16.

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