Anyone for pickleball? Resorts embrace booming sport

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The Palmetto Dunes resort in South Carolina offers a variety of pickleball programming, including clinics with pickleball pro Sarah Ansboury, pictured.
The Palmetto Dunes resort in South Carolina offers a variety of pickleball programming, including clinics with pickleball pro Sarah Ansboury, pictured.

Pickleball, a hybrid sport that combines aspects of badminton, tennis and ping pong, has emerged as one of the fastest-growing recreational sports in the U.S., and hotels and resorts are increasingly adding it to their amenity offerings.

"It's definitely a newer sport, but we now have more people lined up to play pickleball than we ever expected," said Brad Marra, vice president of resort operations at golf and beach resort Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. "We hold a round-robin [tournament] every morning that can accommodate 72 players, and it's sold out every day." 

Palmetto Dunes offers 16 pickleball courts and an array of classes and clinics. 

Club Med, which features pickleball at its Club Med Sandpiper Bay, Club Med La Caravelle, Club Med Punta Cana and Club Med Ixtapa Pacific properties, has seen a similar spike in demand for the sport.

Club Med’s tennis courts can be converted for pickleball to accommodate group bookings. A recent group at Club Med Sandpiper Bay making use of 20 pickleball courts.
Club Med’s tennis courts can be converted for pickleball to accommodate group bookings. A recent group at Club Med Sandpiper Bay making use of 20 pickleball courts.

Michelle Lardizabal, Club Med's vice president of sales for the U.S., said, "Within the past three years, pickleball group bookings have generated a seven-figure revenue boost to our resorts." 

She said some pickleball group bookings have comprised as many as 200 to 300 guests, adding, "We already have plans to continue to extend our pickleball offering and are currently setting up new courts within our resorts this year."

In Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the all-inclusive resort Velas Vallarta recently commemorated its new courts with a pickleball-inspired cocktail. Dubbed the Pickle Boost, the drink is made with pickle juice, gin, peppermint leaves, simple syrup and lemon juice and topped with Boost energy drink. 

Pickleball players on one of the new courts at the Velas Vallarta resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Pickleball players on one of the new courts at the Velas Vallarta resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Although pickleball appears to have popped up practically overnight, the sport has been around for more than 50 years. Three dads from Washington state — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — are credited with developing the game in 1965 in an effort to fend off their families' summer boredom.

Using an old badminton court and a hodgepodge of sporting goods, including pingpong paddles and a perforated plastic ball, the men pulled inspiration from badminton to craft a hybrid racquet sport. 

The origin of the game's unusual name, however, remains fuzzy. According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the sport's national governing body, the name either alludes to the idea of a pickle boat, a crew term that refers to a boat filled with oarsmen chosen from the leftovers of other boats, or the Pritchard family's dog, Pickles. 

Regardless, the funny-sounding moniker hasn't put a damper on the sport's fast growth. According to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the number of pickleball players nationwide was up more than 10% in 2018, to 3.1 million participants, while the USAPA has reported a membership increase of 650% since 2013.

In contrast, the Tennis Industry Association reported that the number of U.S. tennis players rose by just 0.9% in 2018, to 17.8 million. Badminton participation was down 1.5%, to 6.3 million players; racquetball was down 1.3%, to 3.5 million; and squash was down 13.9%, to 1.3 million.

And while pickleball's core player population has traditionally skewed older, the sport is starting to attract a broader demographic.

"Ten years ago, 55-plus communities, RV resorts and senior centers were the first to recognize the wellness attributes of the sport and begin adding pickleball courts," said Justin Maloof, executive director of the USAPA. "This created a participation boom."

Maloof said the game's smaller court size helps facilitate more social interaction. 

"Today, the boom continues, but we're seeing more and more facilities and venues making pickleball accessible to youth and adult players," he said.

Last year, the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, Calif., converted two of its tennis courts to pickleball courts, and the game has proven to be a hit there across all age groups.

"It's a faster-paced game, and it's not as difficult as tennis, so we're seeing a lot of families playing pickleball," said Lisa Luna, Omni Rancho's senior marketing manager. "It actually has become so popular that we recently had to add two additional pickleball courts."

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman promotes pickleball as a family-friendly activity.
The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman promotes pickleball as a family-friendly activity. Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman has similarly positioned its pickleball courts as a family-friendly amenity, with Ivan Lee, the resort's director of recreation, calling it a sport "anyone can play." The property unveiled two newbuild pickleball courts late last year, and it also offers private pickleball sessions for $155. 

Jo Johnson, owner of ACE Travel Pros and a tennis travel specialist, pointed out that pickleball's relative affordability also plays a major role in its growing mass appeal. 

"Pickleball has really become one of the least expensive sports to play," said Johnson, who recently added pickleball vacations to her offerings. "People can travel with their everyday clothes. They can bring a pair of court shoes and a little racket, which is also easy to travel with, and that's all they need." 

The Plaza Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas bet big on pickleball in 2016 when it added 12 dedicated pickleball courts in a renovation of its pool deck.
The Plaza Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas bet big on pickleball in 2016 when it added 12 dedicated pickleball courts in a renovation of its pool deck.

In addition to gaining traction as a leisure sport, pickleball is also evolving quickly at the competitive level, and properties like the Plaza Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas have carved out a niche among more experienced players. 

As part of a 2016 pool deck renovation project, the Plaza decided to bet big on pickleball: It created 12 dedicated courts and a tennis court that can be transformed into four more pickleball courts. 

The move appears to have paid off, with the Plaza hosting more than 400 players as part of last September's inaugural Las Vegas Pickleball Open, which featured both an amateur tournament and a professional tournament with $25,000 in prize money. In September, the property will host the second Las Vegas Pickleball Open, which is expected to draw between 600 and 700 players. 

Grant Garcia, the Plaza's pickleball director, added that the Plaza's poolside courts draw plenty of interest from guests who have never even heard of the game.

"Pickleball has a very distinct sound when the whiffle ball hits the paddle, which really attracts attention," Garcia said. "When people are at the pool, they hear people playing and ask, 'Hey, what's going on? What is that?' And quickly, they become interested in learning how to play.

"So we're definitely seeing a huge increase in people just wanting to try pickleball for the first time too."

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