Last September in Beijing, a few hundred Chinese officials and dignitaries gathered at the Beijing National Aquatics Center—known colloquially as the Water Cube but better known worldwide for hosting the Olympic swimming events back in 2008.
10,000 Courts And 100 Million Players!
However, this time the dignitaries were not watching an individual medley or the high dive but attending a pickleball exhibition. As we reported a few weeks ago, our favorite sport is on the rise, with a report stating that the global pickleball equipment market is scheduled to reach nearly $1 billion by 2028. And it’s easy to see why with the numbers China is proposing.
“The top sports officials in China have pledged to me that within five years, they expect to have 10,000 courts and 100 million players.” Seymour Rifkind, the Chicago-based pickleball ambassador familiar to regular readers, told Front Office Sports.
“I visited South China Agricultural University [in Guangzhou, population 16 million] just before the pandemic,” he says. “A professor took me on a tour at night. The lights were on in the all-purpose gym. On the tennis courts. On the badminton courts. Everyone was playing pickleball.”
A 5.0 player himself (on a scale of 1 to 6), Rifkind says he inquired how many students attended the university. He was told 50,000. And how many play pickleball? “25,000,” the professor replied.
How do these numbers compare to the US? Well, according to the 2023 State of Pickleball: Participation & Infrastructure Report, 8.9 million Americans played pickleball at some point in 2022, with trends that suggest we should have surpassed 10 million players in 2023.
Will we be able to meet China’s projected 100 million players in five years? Probably not – though a large part of that has to do with comparing the US’s population of 300 million to China’s monstrous population of 1.4 billion.
“China Wants To Lead The World In Pickleball”
Rifkind is well-known in pickleballing circles. He is the founder of the World Pickleball Federation (WPF) and has been a regular visitor to the Far East since 2017, monitoring and promoting the growth of the game there.
“China wants to lead the world in pickleball,” says Rifkind, “and they have the means to do it.”
To learn more about Rifkin’s influence and impact on the world of pickleball, check out our article about his Pickleball Hall of Fame induction here.
Rifkind also made a stop in Bhutan last summer, giving pickleball demonstrations and handing out free nets and paddles. He also awarded some certifications as he is the founder of the International Pickleball Teaching Professionals Association (IPTPA), a registry that provides pickleball teaching credentials.
While in Bhutan, he received a call from Allen Zeng, the WPF’s director of global development, who was born in China and splits his time between Beijing and Seattle.
“The Chinese wanted us to come immediately and give exhibitions ahead of the Asian Games,” says Rifkind. “So I dropped everything, gathered seven pros [mostly from Australia and New Zealand], and we headed to Beijing.”
4.8 Million Views
Rifkind’s “pickleball posse” put on clinics in three northern Chinese cities: Dong Ying, Beijing, and Hebei, and Rifkind reports that the last event attracted 4.8 million views over multiple online platforms. To put that into some kind of context, the most-watched pickleball event in the U.S. was last November’s USA Pickleball National Championships, which attracted 2.6 million. The World Series averaged 9.1 million, down nearly 3 million from last year and the lowest figure since 1968.
“Everywhere we went, it was a Super Bowl-like atmosphere,” said Rifkind. “Along the route to the arena, there were banners that read: WELCOME, WPF. The arenas were packed, and the scoreboard read: WELCOME, CHAIRMAN SEYMOUR RIFKIND. When I entered, everyone bowed to me. It’s just unbelievable what the Chinese did.”
The possibility of Olympic inclusion is another reason China is keen to expand its pickleball infrastructure. We’ve seen countless examples of how voracious they are when it comes to achieving gold medal success in almost every facet of Olympic competition.
“The Chinese leadership embraces pickleball for two primary reasons,” says Rifkind. “First, it sees it as a healthy use of leisure time for its people. Second, it sees it as the latest means, via sport, to demonstrate that its form of government is the best in the world. Look what China has done in badminton, in table tennis, in gymnastics.”
However, Global Pickleball Federation (GPF) Vice-President Steve Sidwell takes a cautionary approach. “We are aware of it, and we are discussing it,” he says of China’s growing influence on the sport.
The GPF, like the World Pickleball Federation, believes that each nation should have an equal vote regarding leadership regardless of its GDP or the number of players within its borders. This would allow all countries equal power in the governing of the sport, which will be key if pickleball hopes to become more internationally recognized.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Let us improve this post!
Tell us how we can improve this post?