Pickleball has only taken off in China relatively recently. In a situation similar to the U.S., interest in outdoor activities skyrocketed during the pandemic and remained after the government lifted most COVID restrictions late last year.
From Boring to Buzzing: Pickleball’s Rise Among The Younger Generation
News channel The China Project recently wrote a great feature story detailing how pickleball has finally taken off in this huge country (population: 1.4 billion – U.S.A.: 332 million).
Previously, cycling, camping, and Ultimate Frisbee all had their moments. This summer, pickleball is standing out as a seasonal sensation embraced by trend-hoppers.
“A few months back at friend gatherings, I used to just absent-mindedly bore everybody by talking about pickleball,” Jessica Yu, who went to college in the U.S. and returned to Chongqing last year, told The China Project.
“But now, you mention that, and most people would tell me they’ve heard of it. Some would even ask me to recommend teachers and venues,” the 23-year-old data analyst added.
Zoe Qin, a 29-year-old user experience designer in Hangzhou, used to start her Saturdays around noon at a local board game café and stay until midnight, playing rounds of script-based murder mystery games while ordering takeouts and melting into the couch like — she half-joked — “a total loser.”
Since April, however, she has spent her weekends differently. She hardly goes to the café anymore and now follows a healthy diet. “Part of my life changed dramatically,” she told The China Project.
The reason for this drastic shift? About six months ago, a colleague invited Qin along to a beginner pickleball class at a tennis center. Qin hadn’t participated in athletic activities “for an embarrassingly long period of time” but always enjoyed watching racket sports like tennis and ping-pong.
She thought she’d give it a go. Soon after the first session, Qin was going to the tennis center three or four times a week. Before she knew it, pickleball had become something she was “completely obsessed with,” Qin said.
“It’s not only the physical aspect of it. Hearing the sound of the ball going back and forth hitting paddles is inexplicably soothing and satisfying,” she explained. “I also love how it brings people together.”
The Social Media Boost: From Niche to Mainstream
Beyond word-of-mouth among friends, pickleball — like many niche-turned-mainstream sports before it — found most Chinese fans on social media through glowing reviews from lifestyle influencers and sleekly designed campaigns by sports clubs.
On Xiaohongshu, the preferred destination for young Chinese looking for product recommendations and activity ideas, a search for pickleball’s Chinese name, pǐkèqiú 匹克球, now yields thousands of posts.
Many of them are uploaded in response to a month-long campaign launched by the app in April, where Xiaohongshu users were incentivized to share their pickleball experience in exchange for content amplification and other tangible rewards. So far, “Let’s play pickleball together” (#一起匹克球#), the official hashtag of the campaign, has racked up over 5 million views.
Some of the guys can play a bit too! Check out 23-year-old Chen-Wei “Willy” Chung, the #1 player in Taiwan.
This video is awesome for two reasons.— The Kitchen Pickleball (@TheKitchenPB) June 25, 2023
1) The guy in it, 23-year-old Chen-Wei “Willy” Chung, is the #1 player in Taiwan, plays some amazing ball. He recently won the Asia Open, where these clips are from.
2) Willy represents the fact that pickleball is indeed going global.… pic.twitter.com/SONCHaecbm
While pickleball is an inclusive sport that welcomes everyone, regardless of age, gender, or skill level, in China, it appears to hold a particular allure for young women.
Having dabbled in “virtually every trendy sport that every young individual in China is trying nowadays,” Yu noticed that the pickleball games she played saw the highest female participation.
“Maybe it’s because some adult men think pickleball is not challenging enough,” she said, recalling that a male friend once referred to pickleball as “tennis for the old” and said it’s not “a real sport.”
Teenagers And Young Adults
The impression is not entirely wrong, but it’s not entirely right, either. Mildly paced and low stakes, pickleball has traditionally had a reputation for being a pastime that American seniors take up after retirement.
While that is true, the demographic partaking in the sport has expanded to include young players since the pandemic-fueled boom. In China, the age ratios of amateur paddlers appear to be skewed heavily toward teenagers and young adults, according to Yu.
“I’ve actually seen kids a lot on the court, which makes sense to me. Compared with tennis, pickleball is easier on the body and is more of a family activity,” she said.
“But it’s rare to see senior players, probably because they are not active social media users, and that’s where people learn about pickleball.” And it’s definitely a “real” — or, in other words, competitive — sport.
Although the sport is played mostly for recreational purposes in China at the moment, Yu mentioned that matches could get pretty intense among pickleball fanatics. “Some people take it very seriously, almost too seriously,” she said. “It’s not my style.
When I play, I just want to get a modest workout out of it.”
For Qin, pickleball’s appeal goes beyond exercising her body. Unlike regular gyms or more established sports, Qin thinks that because of pickleball’s low barrier to entry, it has a strong social element, attracting people from all walks of life and opening up opportunities for her to mingle with strangers outside her typical social circle.
Playing pickleball also provides the additional perk of getting to dress stylishly while breaking a sweat, according to Qin. As tennis’s more inclusive cousin, pickleball shares a specific aesthetic that has become known in the fashion crowd as “tenniscore.”
Characterized by pleated mini skirts, cropped polos, and sport-friendly dresses, the style — a marriage between modern athleisure and the retro country club vibe — is in line with fashion’s current throwback obsession.
Yu, who calls herself a “fashion girlie,” agreed. “This might sound superficial, especially to people who love bashing female influencers for getting into sports just to show off their styles and figures,” Yu said. She was referring to the pushback over influencers flocking to Ultimate Frisbee in droves last year, turning a once-niche but serious sport into a prop for social media posts.
“There’s this negative stereotype on the Chinese internet that young women into sports all have exterior motives. And that is the exact antithesis of what pickleball stands for, which is an inclusive and welcoming environment,” Yu said. “I don’t care what people think. When I play pickleball, I get to wear cute clothes and make some friends along the way.
What’s not to love about that?”
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Let us improve this post!
Tell us how we can improve this post?