Kyle Whatnall represents the quintessential young pickleball player the sport is hoping to continue to attract if it wants to continue to be the leader in the competitive racquet and paddle space.
The 23-year-old Southern California resident Whatnall played soccer in college and upon graduation two years ago settled into a full-time job with a national sports public relations firm. Seeking a competitive outlet, Whatnall quickly became a self-admitted pickleball junkie after trying the sport at the venerable Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle Club in Encinitas, named after the tennis Hall of Famer.
“I was looking for a sport that would keep me active, and I could jump right into and compete at a high level,” said Whatnall, who had played tennis recreationally as a junior, but found it more challenging to find players his age and skill range to compete with the past few years. “I’ve gotten better quickly and have played in some local tournaments. Once I joined a club the buzz was all about pickleball, and it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Whatnall said that the Bobby Riggs Club has become a place where the sport of pickleball has exploded in popularity over the last few years and has taken over as the No. 1 racket and paddle sport at the club with 14 dedicated pickleball courts, compared to just three tennis courts.
Steve and Jennifer Dawson run the Bobby Riggs Club, and the two former national champion tennis players are now ambassadors and cheerleaders for the game of pickleball. The couple tried the game just a few weeks after they purchased the club several years ago and have helped increase the rise in popularity of the sport through online teaching videos, events and hosting tournaments.
Steve is the founder of Boost pickleball camps offered through Pickleball Central, as well as a founding partner of Picklepalooza pickleball festivals, and partner and developer of Pro Kennex pickleball paddles.
One of the allures of pickleball is it’s easy to pick up and beginners can improve at a faster rate than they can playing tennis. Pickleball combines elements of badminton, table tennis, and tennis and is played with solid paddles and a hollow ball with holes, much like a Wiffle ball, on a court the same size as a badminton court. Invented in the mid-1960s, pickleball has its own dedicated Pickleball Channel, the US Open of Pickleball Championships as well as numerous international championships and money tournaments.
During a five-year span from 2016 to 2020, pickleball participation in the United States nearly doubled from 2.5 million to 4.2 million while Americans’ overall activity level stayed flat, according to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association. Membership at the sports’ governing body USA Pickleball has exploded by more than 1,000% over the same span.
Because the sport has sky-rocketed in popularity, many wonder how big can pickleball get? How popular can it become?
Communities across the United States like in St. George, Utah, are seeing pickleball dominate the local sporting and activity landscape. The Little Valley Pickleball Complex has 24 courts dedicated solely to pickleball and played host to the 2017 Huntsman World Games.
According to the popular paddle website: www.Selkirk.com, a surging professional game and increase in television contracts and professional endorsements is a big reason many feel pickleball is not just a fad that will someday fade away.
There are larger prize purses and incentive pools and more opportunities for local parks and recreation entities to build facilities, and pro shops. Many country clubs and tennis clubs see pickleball as an essential source of revenue, something that is sorely needed coming off the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pickleball teaching certifications are at an all-time high and conducted by the United States Professional Tennis Association after the group agreed in 2019 to enter into a three-year partnership with the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association (IPTPA.) Under the terms of the agreement, the USPTA will work collaboratively with the recognized world leader in pickleball teacher certification to certify USPTA professionals in pickleball.
“We realize that our members have been asked about pickleball and many are being encouraged to start a pickleball program at their facilities,” USPTA CEO John Embree was quoted as saying on the USTPA website. “With that in mind, our board of directors has recognized that USPTA members should have education about pickleball. The IPTPA has proven to be a well-respected and outstanding organization providing opportunities to improve teaching skills through continuing education programs.”
There is no doubt about it, pickleball is red-hot and continues to grow with players getting younger and younger. There is no predicting just how big pickleball can become, but one thing is certain: It’s not going away anytime soon.