Three people play pickleball, one child between two adults with rackets
Members of the Clifton Park Pickleball club play the sport. Photo from Clifton Park Pickleball club's Instagram page.

While hardly a new sport, there’s newfound enthusiasm for pickleball, spurred by the imposed isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sport may call to mind the image of suburban retirees playing in private clubs in the mostly sunnier climes, but pickleball’s fastest-growing age group is the 18-24 year range, and cities like Baltimore are seeing tremendous demand for courts.

According to CNBC, more than 36.5 million people played pickleball from August 2021 to August 2022. From January to August 2021 the number was closer to five million players.

Pickleball has been around since 1965, but it’s only recently become mainstream, with a new demographic finding the sport.

“The 18-24-year-old age group is the fastest growing group, growing at over twice the rate of the 55+-year-old age group,” said Brandon Mackie, creator of the Pickleheads website.

He added, “It may become the number one sport if it continues on this trajectory.”

Pickleheads calls itself “the largest pickleball court directory out there,” having reviewed over 12,800 courts in more than 5,000 cities in the United States and Canada. The site connects players with teams, helps them find open courts, and teaches people about the game all over the country.

Mackie sees densely populated areas like Baltimore and Atlanta becoming the “pickleball meccas of tomorrow.”

The biggest challenge to pickleball’s growth, Mackie said, is keeping up with the demand for courts.

“By the time courts are built, it’s already not enough. If we build four, we hear that we should have built ten,” he said.

While infrastructure constraints prevent simply dropping acres of pickleball courts into the middle of cities, Mackie said he’s seeing malls retrofitted to become places to play, and hotels installing pickleball courts on their rooftops. It can garner a resort more revenue than weddings, and hotels are building entire entertainment concepts centered around the sport.

Lynn Coburn, who coaches pickleball at the Coppermine fitness club in Pikesville, said “Baltimore is just getting started” on the pickleball wave.

“Everyone wants to teach all of their friends,” she said. “People are teaching each other how to play.” The sport lends itself to this because it’s “easy to learn, but difficult to master” — a phrase nearly every enthusiast repeats to explain its popularity.

Coburn is a retired physical education teacher, and she taught pickleball in her curriculum more than 30 years ago.

“It’s easier to teach than tennis and badminton,” she said, adding that she kept it as part of her curriculum throughout her entire teaching career.

Coburn said she was beginning to see it being taught in schools again during the pandemic.

“It’s spaced the right way, ideally the perfect thing to teach,” she said. “Some private schools are putting in permanent courts.”

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three friends: Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington State; Bill Bell, a businessman; and Barney McCallum, on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Mackie noted that the first place they sought to introduce the sport was to physical education teachers in schools.

Maryland native Ben Johns (left) with his Seattle Pioneers pickleball teammates Meghan Dizon, Marietta Wright, and Tyler Loong at the Major League Pickleball Super Final. Photo courtesy of Ben Johns/Instagram.
Maryland native Ben Johns (left) with his Seattle Pioneers pickleball teammates Meghan Dizon, Marietta Wright, and Tyler Loong at the Major League Pickleball Super Final. Photo courtesy of Ben Johns/Instagram.

So, it’s not surprising that though the initial renewed popularity occurred in the 55+ age group, there are now high schools making it a sanctioned sport, and colleges creating club and NCAA-level teams. Ben Johns, the 24-year-old who is the #1-ranked pickleball player in the world, is from Montgomery County, Maryland and graduated from University of Maryland with his degree in materials science and engineering.

Kathryn Gallagher moved to Baltimore City from Queens, New York, and initially drove out to Coppermine in Pikesville to play because her options in Baltimore City were so limited.

The Clifton Park Pickleball (CPP) group existed, but there was not much availability for open play. Now, she’s a member of CPP, because with the permission of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, members taped lines to make pickleball courts, creating more opportunities for play.

Gallagher points to growth in other parts of Baltimore City, like groups in Latrobe Park and Patterson Park. The website VOLO reflects growth of the sport into Canton, Locust Point, and Federal Hill.

Gallagher loves the sport because of its intergenerational appeal and how it builds community.

“I want to make sure the city is not left behind,” Gallagher said.

Michelle Thimesch moved to Baltimore from Oakland, California, during the pandemic and said, “I was determined to do something other than work!”

She also took lessons from Coburn at Coppermine, calling her a great steward of the game.

Thimesch said pickleball could serve as an opportunity to engage more youth, including Baltimore squeegee workers.

When she sees squeegee workers being entrepreneurial, solving their own problems, she said she thinks, “Let’s reward them! Young people are so good at this sport. They’re fast and strong…. The game is wide open for success and going pro.”

Thimesch sees this as another reason to make sure Baltimore City embraces the sport for the entirety of its citizens.

“Games are a good way to be in community with people,” she said.

Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) is working hard to keep up with demand.

“One day no one is talking about it, the next day everyone is talking about it,” said Jenny Morgan, BCRP’s legislative affairs liaison.

BCRP held a meeting in March with the Druid Park and Clifton Park pickleball leagues, and they’re trying to make up ground quickly by painting tennis courts to convert them into use for both sports. There are nine designated pickleball courts now, with another in the works, for a soon-to-be total of 10.

Morgan admitted that building new courts, rather than converting tennis courts is ideal, and they’re working to do a combination of both. She noted that the Baltimore Tennis Club, a historic Black tennis club founded in the 1890s is covering the cost of one tennis court resurfacing for conversion to pickleball.

There will be a brand new facility with new courts as part of the larger “comprehensive plan” for Druid Hill Park, but she doesn’t have a timeline yet for when that will be completed. Morgan said, “That plan wraps up in December and will be available. It will be soup to nuts.”

Morgan pointed out that one of the main pillars of BCRP’s mission is equity, saying their goal is to make sure “everyone in the city, no matter where they live, can have access to what’s offered.”

Leslie Yancey, program manager for the Senior Division of BCRP, oversees programming for people 50 and older. She told Fishbowl that BCRP has held four free teaching clinics at four separate sites, each of which reached capacity sign-up. They’re in the process of hiring two instructors they hope will teach at four to five of BCRP rec centers in the fall.

Geoff Meehle, the health and physical education coordinator for Baltimore City Public Schools, told Fishbowl in an email that Baltimore City students start learning how to hit an object with a paddle as early as kindergarten.

“While we don’t call this unit of instruction ‘Pickleball,’ we do see it as the entry point to begin learning the essential skills necessary to competently and confidently participate in pickleball later,” he said.

Meehle explained there is a “Pickleminton” module designed for teachers to use with grades three through five to prepare students for net/wall games like pickleball and badminton.

“In middle and high school, you fill find a more traditional pickleball unit in which students get to engage in singles and doubles play and tournaments,” Meehle said.

Recently, the United States Tennis Assocition (USTA) delivered professional learning sessions for Baltimore City Public School teachers, who Meehle said were interested in hearing how they might modify their spaces to implement net/wall activities.

“Those that don’t have access to traditional courts were especially curious,” Meehle said.

Meehle said some Baltimore schools are offering pickleball as a club and/or intramural sport. Tonisha Mongtomery, the school system’s athletics coordinator, however, said in an email that she was not aware of any schools adding the sport as a Junior Varsity or Varsity sport.

Coburn notes, though, that she’s seeing the sport on mainstream TV stations, like ESPN and the Tennis Channel, and that colleges are offering intramurals and NCAA teams. With the game’s popularity exploding among young people and in cities like Baltimore, it may not be long before high schools will be adding pickleball to their repertoire.