America’s fastest-growing sport proves popular in Newport Beach.
By Newport Beach Magazine Staff
What do seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, comedian Will Ferrell and millions of Americans have in common? The answer is a passion for pickleball.
The nation’s fasting growing sport—and possibly the fastest growing exercise activity on the entire planet—has raced across the U.S. during the past few years, consuming underused tennis courts (you can fit two pickleball courts onto a single tennis frame) and drawing attention from a host of high-profile athletes, entertainers and corporate sponsors.
It was started back in summer 1965 by Joel Pritchard to entertain his family; he later became a politician, serving as a Congressman and as Washington state’s lieutenant governor. The Pritchards’ property had an old badminton court and they were going to play, but couldn’t find enough rackets, so he improvised, grabbing some table tennis paddles and a whiffle ball. And, thus, a brand-new racket sport was born by accident.
It wasn’t until recent years that the pastime really took off. The sport’s growth is truly astounding. According to various sources, the number of Americans playing the game has spiked from around 5 million in 2021 to more than 36 million today.
One of the nation’s top facilities is The Tennis and Pickleball Club at Newport Beach, which added pickleball to its name in 2022 and hosts tournaments, private and group lessons, specialty camps and a wide variety of charity-driven events in addition to casual play on 31 dedicated pickleball courts; the club also has 15 tennis courts.
Here, club owner and founder Sean Bollettieri-Abdali shares his love of the sport.
Why do you like to play pickleball?
Sean Bollettieri-Abdali: I love playing pickleball because I can play with my young kids, my wife, clients and anyone willing to pick up a paddle. It is a great time for all levels of individual skill. I have to add, tennis is my life passion, but it’s a game that takes many years to become good enough to even rally compared to pickleball.
How did it go from a tennis club to having so many pickleball courts and players?
SBA: I’m proud to report we are the nation’s largest private pickleball club with the largest pickleball community in the country. However, our tennis club is also very successful. In fact, we have a long waiting list of one year for tennis membership. Today, we not only host some of the most important professional and amateur pickleball tournaments, but we are also the world’s largest tennis tournament venue with over 30 UTR—[Universal Tennis Rating]—$25,000 purse tourneys per year. Tennis and pickleball complement each other and are best when they co-exist. That being said, many will disagree.
Was there much pushback from tennis players when courts were converted for pickleball?
SBA: Yes, being first at anything, you will get your share of pushback. That being said, I had many conversations surrounding which courts to allocate, when to put courts in and how to get the game [to] be accepted in a private club setting with membership. I worked with my now passed father, Nick Bollettieri, and Steve Shulla from IMG [Academy] along with pickleball ambassadors and my first appointed pickleball director to launch.
Why do you think pickleball has become so popular in recent years?
SBA: The pandemic created a huge demand for the sport and was undoubtedly a huge factor in the game’s rise in popularity. During the pandemic, people where desperate to recreate and find a social channel, activity, community and healthy lifestyle. Pickleball offered a game that was played outdoors, [was] relatively easy to learn, unlike tennis, and offered safe social distancing. It was … easy to become completely addicted. It is truly the peoples’ sport—[whether you are] athletic or not.
What kind of a workout do you get from playing pickleball?
SBA: Surprisingly, although the court is [a] quarter [of the] size of a tennis court, you get more cardio in an average 25-minute game compared to a 90-minute tennis match. You have to always be ready to react and you get to hit many more balls in pickleball.