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The pandemic sparked a growing interest in the game of pickleball, from people wanting to socialize to investors hoping to find the next big game.
On a small court in Newport Beach, California, a young athlete is building what could be an empire.
Ben Johns is the best in the world at what he does there — a sport few had heard of just two years ago, but now one in which some of the biggest sports franchises, leagues and names are investing millions.
"There's no going back, and you just got to accept it," Johns said. "It's a sport with a funny name, but you just got to go with it."
"It's like playing table tennis on a full sized court, and that's pickleball," said Sean Bollettieri Abdali, a tennis and pickleball club owner.
Bollettieri Abdali is among the power players pivoting to pickleball. The owner of a traditionally-tennis club on the Pacific Coast is now playing host to a 1,300 player pickleball tournament.
But what ignited the craze?
"No doubt the pandemic really made people think more about how they can socialize, how they can recreate, and this game kind of gave them both at the same time," Bollettieri Abdali said. "In tennis, you're about 80 feet away from each other, and tennis is also a very difficult sport. It takes a lot more skill to play it. Where in this sport, you and I can just get up on the court with our kids and wife if they had never played pickleball before and have a nice game."
Across the U.S., pickleball now has about 5 million players, according to USA Pickleball — one of the national organizations fighting for dominance over the sport. That's a roughly 35% increase from 2017.
It's the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., and NBA greats including LeBron James are now buying into major league pickleball. All of it indicates a bigger, brighter future for pickleball.
"I think it could be a little bit more of a niche offering than a widespread for grand slams throughout the globe, but again, I've never seen anything like this in my 30 years of racket sports. So for me to put any limitations on this sport I think would be shortcoming," said Jonathan Fralick, national director of racquet sports at country club group Invited Clubs.
The game is like a big version of ping pong. It's on a smaller court with a lower net and faster volleys. It makes for a quicker game, and one that just might be more accessible to the masses.
"Men can play directly against women without men having a gigantic advantage like they do in lots of sports, where size and strength give you a huge advantage," said Victor Matheson, sports economics professor at College of the Holy Cross. "It doesn't take a lot of space, so this is really nice from an urban standpoint."
But as the game gets more mainstream attention and more money, players and fans wonder if that accessibility will drift away.
"There are paddles that probably costs $15 in China that are being sold for $2-300," Bollettieri Abdali said. "Private lessons and pickleball that used to cost $30, $40 at a public park today costs over $100, so it's changed quite a bit."
Others question if the sport will really takeoff.
"Where my concerns are is from an investment perspective: If there is going to be a media deal and if people are going to watch it on TV, I just have some concerns," said Keith Bank, a sports investor. "I'm not saying it won't translate to TV, but I have some concerns about whether it will translate to TV."
"The scoring of pickleball is almost as bad as tennis," Bollettieri Abdali said. "It's almost like an area code every time. You want to turn on your channel, or turn on the TV and know exactly who's winning and who's losing."
So, there may be room for improvement, but almost anyone who has picked up a paddle recently will still explain why the sport has taken off and why it's even starting to make stars out of the likes of Johns.
"Literally everyone and anyone can play, and they can have a lot of fun on the first day," Johns said. "I think that's super important. Pickleball has done an incredible job of going on a natural course and being really well, so I would not want to halt what is natural for it."
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