Karine Marino played pickleball from 8 until midnight on a recent Monday night, drove 11 minutes home to Bedford, took a quick shower, set her alarm for 5 a.m., and drove back to the same indoor courts for her 6:30 a.m. game.
“But I just do that once or twice a week,” Marino, 58, said. “It’s not all the time.”
No, no, of course not. She usually plays a mere three hours a day, unless she’s in a tournament, or she’s coaching a friend from her club, Life Time in Burlington, or ...
Pickleball, as you may have heard, and heard and heard and heard, has become the “fastest growing” sport in the United States, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
But it’s one thing to read that nearly 5 million people played last year — an increase of nearly 40 percent over 2020, according to the sports association — and another to watch a loved one get sucked into the game’s gravitational pull. Flying to pickleball camps, joining multiple pickleball leagues, eying a $145 designer pickleball dress, and playing through the pain of pickleball elbow.
Angela Hayden, 49, an attorney, recently figured out that her boyfriend was graciously giving her son a ride to school — under the guise of being helpful — in part because it is next to pickleball courts.
“He has a whole new social life with retired ladies,” she said.
Pickleball was invented in the summer of 1965 by some dads on Washington’s Bainbridge Island who were looking for family-friendly entertainment. From there it famously jumped to retirement communities, and periodically word would come out of Florida or Arizona about some goofy-sounding game that grandparents were super into. If people talked of it at all, it was mainly to mock.
But in a makeover even people who eat plant-based diets (nee vegans) might envy, pickleball has come so far that not only is there such a thing as Major League Pickleball, investing in a team has become the hottest financial move since crypto, though ideally with fewer crashes and indictments.
“Naomi Osaka and Patrick Mahomes Join Wave of Celebrities Investing in Pickleball,” Forbes reported in December. “LeBron James is a pickleball fan,” a 2022 CNBC headline read, “and now he’s buying a team.”
Pickleball has a reputation for being a friendly sport, and that’s accurate — unless you try to get between a pickleballer and their lifeblood, aka more pickleball courts.
“You are always hunting,” said Erin McHugh, a woman who sees empty parking lots as potential courts and author of “Pickleball is life: The Complete Guide to Feeding Your Obsession.”
There are an estimated 35,000 courts in the United States, more than double the number from five years ago, according to the sports and fitness association. But it’s not enough.
At PKL, a South Boston indoor pickleball parlor, where courts rent for as much as $100 per hour, aspiring players need to act fast. Those who don’t grab a slot within seconds after the online sign-ups begin are unlikely to get a court at the time they want, said owner Brian Weller. “It’s like trying to get Taylor Swift tickets.”
As the sport grows so does the drama. Pickleballers are battling both tennis players for court space and court-side neighbors who are fed up with the loud thwack-thwack-thwack of the hard plastic ball hitting the paddle (and also the boisterous and sometimes drunken chatter from spectators).
Tension flared In Marblehead recently when pickleballers complained about the winter closure of pickleball courts, according to the Marblehead Current, “There’s a balloon flying over the Carolinas, but we’re worried about pickleball nets,” a member of the Recreation and Parks Commission said. “I’m at my wit’s end with pickleball chatter.”
(The member later apologized, the paper reported, and the commission compromised by agreeing to reopen six courts for players who can bring their own nets.)
Why is pickleball so seductive? Its relatively small court means there’s less ground to cover than in tennis. You could spend a lifetime working on your game, but you can also have fun right away. You can socialize and exercise at the same time, usually outside, and for that reason it became a pandemic darling.
But a sport doesn’t get this big without a sprinkling of magic. Perhaps Marino, a retired engineer and aspiring pickleball “evangelist,” captured it best.
“The majority of people say it takes them back to their childhood,” she said. “To that carelessness. You play in a way that you are disconnected from your reality.”
As with alien abductions, there’s a similarity to the stories told by the captured. A common version involves a snob who considered pickleball beneath them, but then played once.
“We made fun of my uncle because he moved to Florida and got into pickleball,” said Kristen Hackney, 42, a serious distance runner and an insurance company employee from Woburn.
But then her dad got into the game and asked her to play. “OK, boomer,” she snorted, but then she found herself enjoying it, and now prefers pickleball tournaments to marathons. Recently, she sweet-talked her way into pickleball group for retirees.
“I’ve become more crafty as my habit has grown,” she said.
Who can blame her? As Janice Cutler, a freelance graphic designer from Wilmington — whose parents in Naples. Fla., have already lined up games for her when she visits — observed: “I haven’t met anyone who is just playing casually.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.