The UK newspaper, The Guardian, recently wrote about pickleball moving away from its roots and losing the amateur, feel-good factor it once had. Here’s what they had to say.
A Simple Goal
According to Frank Pritchard, the origin of pickleball was meant to be nothing more than a fun pastime – a lot of fun, to be precise.
It all began back in the summer of 1965 when his father, Congressman Joel Pritchard, along with two friends, came up with the game while renting a house on Bainbridge Island in Washington state.
The goal was simple – to entertain a group of bored children and adults during the long, hot school summer holidays that tend to linger in our memories.
The game’s invention was an impromptu affair, using whatever was readily available – a plastic, perforated wiffle ball, homemade paddles crafted from plywood, and a badminton net. They had no idea that this casual creation would go on to become a sensation.
A Significant Milestone
Fast forward nearly 60 years, and pickleball has skyrocketed in popularity, now holding the title of the fastest-growing sport in the US with approximately 8.9 million participants. The game has even seen the rise of rival professional leagues, attempting to follow in the footsteps of major sports like the NFL or NBA.
The merging of the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) and Major League Pickleball (MLP) with the support of sports entrepreneur Tom Dundon marked a significant milestone. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had a stake in Vibe Pickleball, which joined that merger after being floated.
As the sport gained momentum, international world rankings were established, and pickleball enthusiasts could even place bets on matches. Prize money for competitions reached an impressive $5.5 million across 25 events, witnessing an 83% increase from the previous year. The league claims its professional players now earn an average of $96,000.
Furthermore, the game’s popularity drew the attention of celebrity investors and A-list aficionados, including Serena Williams, the Clooneys, and Emma Watson, among others, leading to substantial media exposure.
Concern And Disapproval
However, at the age of 71, Frank expresses his concern and disapproval over how the game has evolved into a money-making machine attracting ambitious investors like Steve Kuhn, who aim to turn those millions into billions. He believes his father, Joel, would have shared the same sentiment.
Pritchard says, “Dad would be disappointed to think it had become this huge commercial venture”.
“It was always played for fun, and you could have intense games, but there was no discord. There was no fighting; there was no yelling. None of that. This was for fun and getting people together.”
Pickleball, a paddle sport with a whimsical name, is becoming big business https://t.co/oMr3jhaewh— CNBC (@CNBC) April 30, 2022
Purity And Joy
Drawing a parallel with the recent controversy surrounding the Saudi state-backed LIV Golf deal, Frank expresses concern about the potential consequences of prioritizing profits and commercialization over the essence of the sport. He fears that the purity and joy that initially drove the creation of pickleball might be overshadowed by corporate interests and financial gains.
The Saudi LIV Golf deal likely involved a significant infusion of money from the Saudi government, raising ethical questions about the impact of such investments on the sport and its values.
Frank is wary of pickleball going down a similar path and losing its authenticity and community-driven spirit in pursuit of more significant financial rewards.
He adds, “When there’s money to be made, there’s potential for that kind of stuff and for bad behavior and trouble.”
A Complete Transformation
Steve Paranto, another member of Pritchard’s generation, shares the belief that pickleball has undergone a complete transformation. In 1976, Paranto achieved the distinction of being a double finalist at the inaugural official pickleball tournament held in Tacoma, Washington, competing in singles and men’s doubles categories.
Although he secured the runner-up position in both matches, the experience marked a significant moment in the sport’s history.
Paranto’s father, Arlen, played a crucial role in shaping pickleball’s equipment landscape. He designed, produced, and sold the composite paddle that eventually became the standard from 1984 onwards.
Pickleball Hall Of Fame
Before the composite paddles, players relied on much heavier wooden paddles. Over time, the sport’s equipment has seen significant advancements. Today, top-of-the-line paddles can cost as much as $450, with companies like Adidas offering specialized paddles promising enhanced offensive power and defensive control.
Steve’s achievements earned him a spot in the pickleball Hall of Fame in 2019, a tribute that followed his father Arlen’s recognition as an “inventor” two years earlier. At the age of 70, Paranto remains actively involved in the sport, regularly playing and teaching pickleball in Clackamas, Oregon.
He humorously suggests that he could still outperform most players of his age in the game.
However, alongside the sport’s remarkable growth in popularity, Paranto expresses concern about the gold rush mentality that has emerged within certain circles. He points to three rival leagues that existed until recently as evidence of the sport’s at times rather chaotic nature, likening it to the “wild west.”
The Pandemic And A-List Celebrities
He attributes the surge in pickleball’s popularity to two significant factors: the pandemic and the support of A-list celebrities. The pandemic offered people more leisure time, leading to increased interest in recreational activities like pickleball. Moreover, the endorsement and attention from high-profile celebrities helped propel the sport into the mainstream, contributing to its widespread appeal.
He is ambivalent about the game’s future:
“There are pluses and minuses. Its growth brings in more players; a downside is that once a game becomes professional, the sportsmanship seen at an amateur level goes away.
“Lots of people are trying to figure out how to make money in the sport that maybe don’t have a love and passion for the sport, but they have a love and passion for money.”
Paranto’s concerns extend beyond the commercialization of pickleball; he is also troubled by the implications of allowing betting on the sport. In 2021, a deal was struck between Genius Sports and the PPA to promote the sport, offering live-streamed games and the option to place bets on pickleball matches.
Paranto fears that this aspect of the sport could be exploited: “There’s going to be some issues with that when you can bribe a player for $10,000 when he doesn’t make $10,000 in a tournament. There’s going to be people susceptible to bribes.”
A Prominent Figure
Frank Pritchard’s father, Joel, was a prominent figure in Washington’s political landscape. Joel served in the state legislature and later went on to represent Washington in Congress, where he held the position for six terms after his election in 1972. He also served as the state’s lieutenant governor after his congressional tenure.
According to an obituary published in the Seattle Times after Joel Pritchard’s passing in 1997 at age 72, he was known as a politician who preferred to seek bipartisan collaboration. He was willing to work across the aisles, finding common ground with colleagues from different political backgrounds whenever possible.
This approach earned him a reputation for being open to dialogue and cooperation, even in a sometimes polarized political climate.
Bridging Divides And Fostering Unity
Joel Pritchard’s commitment to bridging divides and fostering unity in politics likely left a lasting impact on his son, who became known for his own views on the commercialization of pickleball and the importance of preserving its original spirit.
The obituary paints a slightly different picture of Joel: “He was a loyal son of the Republican party, but he butted heads with the conservative wing of the GOP over his support of Eisenhower in the 1950s,” it wrote.
It also fails to mention anything about pickleball.
The Original Pickleball Courts
Many enthusiasts are drawn to playing on one of the original pickleball courts, where its founders first created the game.
Steve Matthews says: “My wife and I traveled from Indiana to Seattle last June on Amtrak, for 3 weeks, just to visit Bainbridge Island – pickleball mecca.”
And local players at Miller Park courts near Seattle’s Capitol Hill had plenty to say about the direction the game is going in:
David Benezra, a 55-year-old engineer working at Amazon Web Services, raises an intriguing question regarding pickleball’s apparent obsession with making a profit:
“Why does everything have to make money? Can’t we enjoy it for the sport?”
However, some players in the pickleball community believe that the sport’s expansion and professional growth can positively affect the overall popularity and development of the game.
For these individuals, the increasing professional aspect may bring more attention, resources, and opportunities to the sport, benefiting players and enthusiasts alike.
Let’s give the last word to Ben Lomas and Bryn Mader, both 23 years old, who are relatively new to pickleball but have already developed a passion for it. Despite their limited experience, they consider themselves dedicated enthusiasts, eager to participate in and contribute to the sport’s ongoing growth.
Ben makes a good point: “I think it’s good what is happening. It should be in the Olympics. If other sports can have professional leagues, why not pickleball?”
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