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In the tennis vs. pickleball showdown, who’s winning?

Many tennis players are miffed that pickleball is taking over, well, everything. 
Illustration of a pickleball paddle and tennis racket hovering above a green court with a crack down the middle
Jacqueline Nuzzo / NBC News

When Tom Brady and LeBron James are on board, you know a trend has made it. With the decorated NFL quarterback on Wednesday joining basketball icon LeBron James and other celebrated athletes as owners of Major League Pickleball teams, it’s clear that the fastest-growing sport in America is here to stay.

This is a great moment for pickleball, and longtime players like me are celebrating. (I even wrote a book about the game’s explosion in popularity). But there are fans of another court-based sport that are greeting the news with much less enthusiasm: tennis players.

Pickleball’s addition to the pro-league pantheon has inflamed a rivalry between two different sports that’s now occurring over the courts themselves.

While most athletic undertakings foster competition between teams on the court, pickleball’s addition to the pro-league pantheon has inflamed a rivalry between two different sports that’s now occurring over the courts themselves. Many tennis players are miffed that pickleball is taking over, well, everything. 

In apartment complexes and retirement centers across the country, tennis courts are being scrapped in favor of pickleball courts. Indian Wells, the famed site for the annual tennis Masters competition, is now also home to the Pickleball National Championships. And the Tennis Channel is devoting not a small amount of airtime to covering pickleball tournaments and events

Because of pickleball’s meteoric rise, many cities and towns, ill-equipped to handle the needs of players, are using resources previously allocated to tennis (namely, courts) for pickleball instead. In some areas, tennis fans have struggled to find places to play, discovering their long-held courts suddenly transformed into pickleball havens either temporarily or permanently. It hasn’t helped that some especially avid pickleball fans proudly proclaim that their sport will soon overtake tennis and eagerly boast anti-tennis sportswear.

Since 2020,  the number of pickleball players nationwide has skyrocketed more than 35% to a whopping 5 million today, per a 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report. Despite being created back in 1965, pickleball is having a major moment, and many experts don’t expect its rise to slow down anytime soon.

Pickleball’s popularity has no doubt been fueled by the fact that it’s a highly accessible and inclusive sport, able to be enjoyed by players of all ages and athletic backgrounds. That helped it appeal to quarantining families who took to the game and aided its growth. 

A paddle sport in which players volley a ball over a net until one side hits 11 points, it not only has commonalities with tennis but also with badminton, racquetball and ping-pong. Its courts are similar to tennis courts, just smaller, so many players repurpose tennis courts with chalk or paint to lay out the pickleball dimensions. It can be picked up quickly, since it only has a few rules, and it’s relatively easy on the body, as it relies far more on accuracy than power. Its smaller playing field also means players don’t need to be able to sprint around a huge court (which isn’t to say it isn’t challenging; pickleball has led to a number of on-court injuries and can provide a serious, calorie-burning workout). 

The game is also supported by a passionate community, with a sizable number of players across skill levels forming friendships and even romantic bonds. In contrast to many ultra-intense sports, enjoyment and connection are often given priority over competition; tournaments frequently consist of weeklong parties and opportunities for hanging out. Even the most skeptical players can find themselves drawn to the game’s pleasurable back-and-forth and jovial repartee among competitors.

Yet for those in the tennis world, pickleball’s newfound popularity is a potential challenge to their own sport’s success and longevity. The strife between the two groups has grown so intense that some tennis fans have taken to distributing anti-pickleball manifestos, demanding that local officials take action and in rare cases even physically damaging the courts

But here’s the thing: While their frustrations and stress are understandable, tennis players don’t actually need to fear the rise of pickleball. There’s room in the world for both sports, and for both sets of players to coexist in peace — as long as we all exhibit a bit of patience.

Right now, pickleball is suffering from the classic problem of too much demand and not enough supply. With the number of players multiplying rapidly, there simply aren’t enough facilities to serve them all. As such, areas have no choice but to repurpose readily available tennis courts and focus far more on pickleball than on an already established sport. 

Yet dozens of new dedicated pickleball courts are being built all over America, which will soon help ease the problem of overcrowding. In 2021 alone, nearly 800 indoor and outdoor courts were added to Place2Play — an average of 66 new spots a month.

Additionally, as more attention and money gets poured into pickleball, the more resources its organizing bodies will have to create these pickleball-only spaces and separate the sport even further from tennis. Having deep-pocketed celebrities like Brady and James investing will only quicken that pace.

Pickleball is admittedly dealing with some growing pains, but once communities and organizations adjust to the increase in players, things will undoubtedly level out. Besides, it’s not like tennis is going anywhere; a 2021 study by the Tennis Industry Association found that participation in the sport increased by 22% from 2019 to 2020, with nearly 3 million new players — bringing the total number to more than 21 million Americans. Impressive as pickleball’s current numbers may be, they’re barely a drop in the bucket when compared with tennis’s enormous fandom.

So for any tennis players out there worried that pickleball will demolish your own game’s success, you can rest easy. You just might need to share for the time being — or give pickleball a whirl and see for yourself what all the hype is about.