Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, pickleball is now the sport. Facilities are popping up seemingly everywhere. Both Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal have written about pickleball. Heck, Stephen Colbert even created a televised celebrity pickleball tournament last year, and Tom Brady and LeBron James have invested in Major League Pickleball.
And now, pickleball travel has replaced golf travel as the hippest way for enthusiasts to spend their discretionary dollars. Several websites — including Pickleball Getaways, Pickleball Trips and Straightaway Travel — offer trips for casual and serious players to places as diverse as Bigfork, Mont.; Zagreb, Croatia; Australia’s Gold Coast; and the Caribbean Islands. Other sites, like education-centric Pickleball University, profile top pickleball vacation destinations in the United States. They include Charleston, South Carolina; La Quinta, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Denver.
Pickleball enthusiasts are also traveling to tournaments, sometimes to compete and sometimes as spectators (and sometimes as both). The Minto US OPEN Pickleball Championships powered by Margaritaville in Naples, Florida, has struck the party on the inside/competition on the court balance, and now routinely sells out. Its lottery-based system registration for competition fills up quickly, as do seats in its covered championship court, with visitors traveling in from as far away as Australia to be a part of the festivities.
This travel trend is likely to continue, as pickleball shows no signs of losing its bounce.
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball continues its “incredible rise” and is now the fastest-growing sport in the United States. Participation climbed almost 40% between 2019 and 2021. What’s more, the Association of Pickleball Professionals claims more than 36.5 million people played the sport between August 2021 and August 2022, compared to about 5 million only a few years ago.
Tennis resorts that “entice racket-enraptured guests with everything from weekend clinics and make-your-own tournaments to private lessons and ball machines” have added pickleball to their offerings, The Wall Street Journal reported in December. “Other lures: handsome settings, muscle-melting spas and other sporty diversions like snorkeling, horseback riding and golf.”
But pickleball players on the move don’t need to book specialty vacations to find new places and new competition. Pickleball websites and social media platforms can do the trick, too, as can USA Pickleball’s Places2Play website.
“The beauty of pickleball is you can find drop-in times, show up and you don’t have to know anybody,” Karen Hawkes, 58, recently told The New York Times. She is a postsecondary education counselor and consultant who also serves as a co-ambassador at the public pickleball courts in Aspen, Colo., which organizes drop-in sessions. “We embrace people who drop in here. It’s inclusive and we try to promote that.”
Some pickleball insiders point to the pandemic as the impetus for the sport’s explosion in popularity.
“It’s something everybody can do,” Matt Manasse, a Los Angeles-based instructor who has coached such celebrities as Matthew Perry and Larry David, told The Times. “During the pandemic, it got people out and they could be socially distanced and competitive.”
The paper went on to note that “the travel industry has enthusiastically piled on the pickleball bandwagon, installing new courts or programs at hotels and resorts and on cruise ships and tours. As one hotel publicist put it, ‘Pickleball is the latest must-have amenity.’” The article cites rooftop pickleballs courts on hotels in both Grand Rapids, Mich., and Las Vegas.
The sport has even become the center of destination events, according to The Times: “Novelty — including glow-in-the-dark pickleball at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. — abounds. For a wedding party at High Hamptons resort in Cashiers, N.C., the staff organized a pickleball tournament with 16 teams on its four courts.”
Royal Caribbean International’s new Odyssey of the Seas ship offers a pickleball-themed cruise that includes “clinics, drills and fun times with our own certified pickleball professional,” according to advertising materials. But the Holland America Line has taken the idea even further, becoming the Official Cruise Line of the Professional Pickleball Association, according to Forbes.com.
“While select ships on various other cruise lines — including Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Princess Cruises — have sports courts that can sometimes be adapted for pickleball, Holland America Line is going all in with dedicated pickleball courts on every ship,” the site reported in December. “By February 2023, every ship in the Holland America Line fleet will feature pickleball courts with top-deck views. By April 2023, every ship will offer complimentary beginner lessons from instructors who will teach the rules and basics of playing pickleball, including where the ‘kitchen’ is and what it means to hit a ‘dink’ shot. In addition to live instruction, ‘How to Play Pickleball’ tutorial videos will be featured on in-stateroom TV programming.”
Another line, Norwegian, recently hosted a cruise on the Norwegian Pearl that took enthusiasts of the Internet trick-shot cult favorite bro-group Dude Perfect on a long weekend getaway that included cutthroat pickleball competition featuring pros from the Selkirk pickleball line, as well as learn-to-play sessions.
Meanwhile, back on land, the sport is hitting the airwaves harder than ever. “The Association of Pickleball Professionals announced TV deals with CBS and ESPN for APP Tour,” Front Office Sports reported in late January. “Terms were not disclosed, but APP stated the twin deals guarantee a combined 20 hours of TV coverage for its tour events this year across CBS Sports Network and ESPN2.” The ESPN deal also includes more than 200 hours of live streaming coverage on ESPN+ and APP TV.