Awareness of pickleball in the U.S. has increased by 33 percent since May 2022, and 17 percent of U.S. adults have reported trying pickleball, according to the latest polling data from CivicScience; however, the research firm found that what appeared to be a COVID-related boom in popularity seems to have faltered as consumers experience the sport and decide if it is right or not for them.

Among those familiar with pickleball, the percentage who said they have played and enjoyed pickleball has decreased by four percentage points. Also, roughly the same number of Americans as last year intend to try pickleball despite increasing awareness.

Among age groups, intent to play pickleball saw a minor increase among younger Millennials, but playing the game with enjoyment decreased from 24 percent to 16 percent for the demographic. The percentage of Millennials who said they had played pickleball but did not like it increased from 12 percent to 16 percent. 

Among older groups, playing with enjoyment and overall intent to play the game has decreased since last year’s report produced by Civic Science. The company said interest and overall awareness are still highly concentrated among younger generations (those under 35 years old and, in particular, Gen Z adults.)

Pickleball Grows As A Spectator Sport
Today, pickleball’s popularity has slightly more to do with watching the sport than playing it, according to CivicScience. Nearly one-quarter, 23 percent, of U.S. adults familiar with the game said they are interested as an observer of the sport. Those interested in watching outnumber the percentage of people who have played the game for the first time this year. At the same time, those interested in watching the game are also more likely to have played it or plan to play it soon.

Pickleball Attracts Non-Sports Fans
While CivicScience’s latest data shows that some who have tried pickleball have not continued to play as a hobby, the company noted that the sport had attracted non-sports fans. CivicScience wrote, “The approachable nature of pickleball attracted a massive number of people who claim to be not into sports.”

More than one-quarter, 26 percent, of Americans with no interest in sports have played pickleball and liked it at a much greater rate than moderate and extreme sports fans. Only 9 percent of passionate sports fans, those playing and watching, have tried playing pickleball. Nonetheless, 29 percent of serious sports fans showed interest in watching the game while just 6 percent of non-sports fans were interested in watching pickleball.

CivicScience concluded, “The pickleball upswing is still in motion but could start to wind down as more novice players dabble in the sport. Young people are still leading the pickleball surge with force, and perhaps warmer weather can sustain enjoyment across age groups. At the same time, interest in watching pickleball shows promise.”

The findings generally contradict highly-positive reviews around the sport’s momentum, although participation figures varied across sources.

Pickleball Ranks As America’s Fastest-Growing Sport Three-Years Running
SFIA’s Topline Participation SFIA’s 2023 Topline Participation Report found pickleball the U.S.’s fastest-growing sport for the third consecutive year. According to the Association, total pickleball participation grew 85.7 percent in 2022 to 8.95 million and advanced 40.6 percent on a three-year average. At the casual level player, playing one to seven times a year, participation grew 92.5 percent year-over-year to 6.6 million and was up 47.6 percent on a three-year average. At the core level, for players who played eight or more times a year, participation increased 68.6 percent year-over-year to 2.3 million and gained 25.8 percent on a three-year basis.

During its recent webinar, Tom Cove, president and CEO of SFIA, said pickleball had benefited from some of the “glitz” as pro athletes, including Tom Brady, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, bought teams to raise awareness of the sport.

“There’s so much happening,” said Cove about pickleball.” There’s going to be some real shakeout. Issues such as not having enough places to play and the ball making a lot of noise create tension around the sport. But we think it’s different from other activities, such as in-line skates and paintball, that have blown up and come down. There are a lot of fundamentals that are much more sustaining than most things that have had this kind of meteoric rise.”

APP’s Inaugural Participation Report Finds 14 Percent Of U.S. Adults Played Pickleball
The Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) ‘s inaugural Pickleball Participation Report produced in January 2023 provided data that 14 percent of U.S. adults, 36.5 million, had played pickleball at least once in the 12 months from August 2021 to August 2022. An estimated 8.5 million people played pickleball eight times or more in the same period.

The study found that 45 percent of the 36.5 million respondents said they plan to play pickleball more in the next six months than in the previous six-month period. APP’s findings are based on a YouGov survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. adults.

“The first of what will be our annual APP Participation Report clearly shows that pickleball is not only America’s fastest-growing sport, it is growing much faster than anyone thought. Now, pickleball has to be viewed as one of America’s favorite sports,” said Tom Webb, chief marketing officer. APP, at the time. “In 2020, a pandemic year, previous reports stated that over four million people picked up a paddle to play pickleball, with that number reportedly growing to over five million in 2021. Those numbers appear to have been conservative, but what the APP’s report shows is that the popularity of pickleball has exploded. Pickleball courts continue to be built and installed nationwide, and people from coast to coast are trying the sport for the first time and immediately falling in love with pickleball.”

USA Pickleball Membership Expands 29.4 Percent
USA Pickleball, the national governing body for pickleball, saw its membership grow by nearly 30 percent to 69,000 in 2022 compared to 53,110 in 2021. According to Association, the sport established 44,094 courts comprising all facilities in 2022, compared to 38,140 in 2021, a 15.6 percent increase. USA Pickleball-sanctioned events totaled 237 compared to 153 in 2021, including USA Pickleball’s Indoor National Championships, National Championships and the first Diamond Amateur Championship.

Economist/YouGov Survey Finds 10 Percent Of Americans Tried Pickleball
An Economist/YouGov survey conducted in October 2022 found that one in 10 Americans tried pickleball. The survey found participants tended to be younger, with one in five 18- to 29-year-olds, 20 percent, saying they played the game, compared with 4 percent of Americans 65 and older.

Of the respondents, 6 percent knew “a lot” about pickleball, while 31 percent knew “a little”. Twenty-seven percent knew about LeBron James and several other NBA players buying professional pickleball teams.

Pickleball University Study Shows Pickleball Attracts Older Americans
Based on a survey of 3,000 Americans who played pickleball, the 2022 Pickleball University Participation Study found that while the sport trends younger percentage-wise, the older demographic of 55 years and older in absolute numbers continues to be the core demographic of the sport and is forecasted to continue to be for the foreseeable future.

The survey found that 42 percent of players are over 65 and 30 percent between the ages of 55 to 64. Of the respondents, two-thirds have played pickleball for less than two years, and 80 percent play the game multiple times each week. Sixty percent of pickleball players are men, versus 40 percent are female.

For 42 percent of respondents, fun is the primary reason they play the game. Pickleball University wrote in its study, “It isn’t hard to get people motivated to play pickleball like it may be to get someone to run three miles or swim laps in the pool. This fun aspect reduces the barrier to entry for new players to join the game, while enabling the other drivers like socialization, competition, and socialization to be fully experienced.”

Exercise ranked second as the primary reason people play pickleball, cited by 30 percent of respondents, followed by competition, 17 percent, and socialization, 8 percent. While fun was found to be pickleball’s primary appeal across age groups, older Americans valued the benefit of exercise, while younger players favored the competition.

Photo courtesy USA Pickleball