As pickleball continues to gain popularity among people aged 18-24, it was only a matter of time before the sport would reach college campuses.
That reality has gained traction recently as universities are installing pickleball courts and even full venues dedicated to the sport. This fall, University of the Pacific is scheduled to open a new complex featuring eight pickleball courts and four padel courts.
Its state-of-the-art design will feature lights and video cameras for live-streaming. Students and staff will have free access to the courts during specific hours and can reserve at other times at discounted prices.
Pacific, considered the oldest university in California, formed a partnership with Taktika Padel, a San Diego-based company, to build the complex. It will be located just north of the college’s Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center, considered one of the best tennis facilities in the West Coast Athletic Conference.
The university will receive a portion of the revenue from the courts, which will go toward the men’s and women’s tennis programs. School officials also hope to form a pickleball club once the venue is open.
Upon completion, the complex will continue a growing trend of similar facilities that offer pickleball on American college campuses. Recently, Drury University announced the addition of pickleball courts to a new outdoor facility, also scheduled to open in the fall.
A Popular Attraction
Lindenwood University, a college in St. Charles, Missouri, recently renovated tennis courts on its campus to create a 12-court pickleball facility. The renovation, spearheaded by Lindenwood President John Porter, has become a popular attraction among students and local residents. The school also hopes to establish pickleball as a club sport in the future.
“We’re really trying to push (pickleball) as hard as we can,” Porter, a 22-year pickleball player, told BestColleges.
These developments are hardly surprising. According to the State of Pickleball Report recently released by the Sports and Fitness Industry of America, the 18-24-year-old age group has seen the second-highest growth among pickleball participants, right behind the 25-34 demographic. Participation among kids 6-17 grew 50% from 2019-21.
Over the past two years, Major League Pickleball has begun organizing a number of regional college events through its Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating (DUPR), the official rating algorithm for players. A total of 12 regional tournaments will be held throughout the country in 2023, along with an individual championship tournament and team national championship.
Both individual champions and teams receive “scholarship money” that supports players and schools. DUPR also provides funding for team travel and is investing around $500,000 this year to help grow the sport on college campuses.
“It’s our goal to be the governing body of collegiate pickleball and run this scene and help it grow.”Jacob Smith, DUPR College Program Coordinator, as told to BestColleges
According to Smith, 100 colleges offer some form of pickleball on campus. Of those, about 20 have begun offering it as an official club sport. These figures are somewhat difficult to verify. U.S. Collegiate Pickleball, a site run by Gary Stocker, a teaching professional in St. Louis, lists 27 such clubs. Colleges With Intercollegiate Pickleball Clubs claims there are 31.
No Signs Of Pickleball Slowing Down
Still, the data confirms that pickleball shows no signs of slowing down on college campuses. This leads to an important question: Will it become an NCAA sport?
According to Stocker, university presidents and athletic directors will want a piece of the action as the sport continues to gain traction on campus.
“When a college’s competitors have pickleball, college athletic directors and presidents are going to want it as well,” Stocker told BestColleges.
In turn, it won’t be long before schools will offer scholarships to entice students to play pickleball. Lindenwood University and Utah Tech are two schools examining the possibility. The cherry on top would be official recognition by the NCAA as an intercollegiate sport.
According to NCAA requirements, 40 colleges must sponsor a sport before what it terms ‘championship’ consideration. While that rule falls within the NCAA’s Emerging Sports for Women efforts, things get a bit muddy when it comes to men’s or co-ed sports. Under MLP rules, which DUPR follows in its college tournaments, schools field four-player teams who compete in men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles. However, the NCAA doesn’t currently allow co-ed competition.
These obstacles shouldn’t be a deterring factor in pickleball eventually becoming a part of major intercollegiate athletics. The college sports landscape is changing rapidly with the implementation of name, image and likeness (NIL), conference realignment and the enhanced student-athlete transfer portal.
The NCAA, long known for its stiff-necked approach to change, has had no choice over the past several years. So it’s not inconceivable that pickleball will break through the roadblocks and join the ranks of numerous other full-fledged collegiate sports in the future.
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