The Promise and Politics of Pickleball
Its popularity is growing so fast that cities need to scramble to keep up with demand for facilities and to take advantage of its economic potential. They also will have to consider its racial and class implications.
The sport is growing so fast that public officials in cities large and small are having to yield to pressure to offer more pickleball facilities. The cities that move the fastest to embrace it, brand it as a global sport worthy of the Olympics and make the necessary investments to ensure its success will end up on top. Interestingly enough, it has been smaller cities like Macon, Ga., Opelika, Ala., and Daytona Beach, Fla., that have jumped to the front of the line, providing residents with dozens of courts and 24-hour availability. Enthusiasm for the new sport is also causing public officials in some places to have to consider racial, class and political implications, such as the tensions over possibly reprogramming a historical Black tennis facility like our neighborhood’s to one that prominently features pickleball.
About a month ago, I decided to drop in and check out pickleball for myself. That is where I met Tim Ball, affectionately known as “Pickleball Tim.” He is an ambassador and coach for the sport and, having suffered a number of tennis injuries when he was younger, the 76-year-old today offers free pickleball classes for beginners and competitive play for more advanced players throughout the city, including at Washington Park.
City officials doubted the sport would take off there because the neighborhood is transitional and predominately Black. The city was wrong; the turnout has been phenomenal.
My wife and I have played tennis for over 40 years. Growing up in our family, our kids had no choice but to play tennis. The idea that we would drop tennis as our primary sport and pick up pickleball would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But after playing it a couple times, I am not so sure now. After a brief orientation from Tim, less than an hour, I was playing doubles and holding my own against more experienced players.
The sport is a cross of tennis, Ping-Pong and badminton. But what I liked most about it is how much it fosters social interaction. Playing on my court was a 40-something white woman, a Black truck driver from Charlotte who was just traveling through and had never played the sport, an African American man who worked as a developer, and an Asian American man. We were at different skill levels and experience, but we played together competitively, had fun, and most importantly, were able to interact socially throughout the 11-point match.
From a sociological perspective, the sport has the potential to bring diverse populations together around a common goal: recreation and fitness. It has the potential of attracting a large cross-section of residents because of the relatively low costs of the equipment. (I purchased two paddles, balls and a case for under $50; tennis costs three to four times more and golf even more than that.) Beyond costs, pickleball encourages people from diverse backgrounds to communicate and interact. This is especially needed in a fragmented society where too many political leaders exploit differences rather than bring residents together around common interests.
As low as the costs are to play pickleball, the sport could someday bring in major revenues to cities like Atlanta whose officials certainly understand the economic implications of big-league sports. In addition to hosting major golf and tennis tournaments, Atlanta has hosted three Super Bowls and the Centennial Olympic Games. The Grand Slam events of tennis — the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, along with Wimbledon — demonstrate how financially successful these sports can be. This year’s U.S. Open alone generated more than $350 million in revenues in New York City. Before the 2022 Super Bowl was played in Inglewood, Calif., Bloomberg estimated its economic impact would be more than $447 million.
Although pickleball does not enjoy that level of success yet, who is to say it won’t in the future?
If pickleball in urban communities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis doesn’t grow into a major sport, it might be politics and racial attitudes that get in the way. The old, stereotyped belief that certain sports, like boxing, basketball and football, belong to certain racial groups and that ones like pickleball are “white sports” doesn’t hold water once one realizes what the sport can do to build community across race, class and gender.
It’s important for us to bear in mind that 50 years ago tennis and golf were considered white sports. Then Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods entered the games and made them popular and accessible to Black youth. There is no Tiger Woods or Serena Williams of pickleball today, but there might be one day. Cities have the time now to position themselves to take advantage of this fast-growing sport.
Pickleball Tim praised Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens as one of the few mayors who’s really committed to using recreation centers as part of a comprehensive strategy for enhancing public safety. Referring to a 23-year-old in Atlanta charged with killing a 77-year-old woman, Tim said, “I would have rather that kid had been playing midnight basketball than being free to commit such a heinous crime.”
“Or playing pickleball,” I replied.
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