Pickleball may be taking over tennis courts, but the sport won’t paddle past its much older cousin.
Not according to an old local tennis coach and former college player.
The new facility at The Ridge Club in Acton includes nine pickleball courts, which surround a mostly empty tennis court. Many days – and evenings – the sound of volleyed plastic balls is constant, while the softer cacophony of tennis is less often heard.
Kevin Curley has his racket/paddle in both worlds.
The Hudson High School graduate was a high-ranking junior tennis player who took his game to UMass-Amherst for four years. He has coached the Acton-Boxborough boys’ team for 19 years and owns tennis clubs in Westford and Lancaster. Curley also directed Nike Tennis Camps in the summer for nearly twenty years.
He coaches pickleball and tennis at The Ridge and built the pickleball facility there that replaced four tennis courts. But he doesn’t expect pickleball to overshadow tennis’s popularity when it comes to individual players.
“I don’t think anyone will leave tennis for pickleball or anyone will leave pickleball for tennis,” he said. “I think they will enjoy the difference in the two games.”
While Washington state, where pickleball was born in 1965, may have named pickleball as its official sport this year, tennis remains popular across the country.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, nearly 5 million people played pickleball at least once in 2021. The growth of the sport has led to a huge demand for paddles, balls, nets and complete game sets.
“We expect continued growth for pickleball as the sport continues to grow in popularity not just in the US, but in many other parts of the world,” said Karen Thomas, director of marketing and communications at equipment dealer website, Pickleball Central, who went online in 2006 in Kent, Washington. “As the sport has grown, so have we. We have added more employees, we moved to a much larger warehouse a few months ago to house our growing inventory and shipping operations, we added more product categories (such as apparel) and we are partnering with an increasing number of paddle manufacturers and other pickleball equipment companies.
“We are not surprised to see pickleball’s popularity increasing as we have seen the sport and industry grow steadily year after year since well before the pandemic.”
However, tennis participation in the US reached 21.64 million in 2020, according to the Physical Activity Council Participation Report, prepared by Sports Marketing Surveys.
Pickleball’s rising popularity is reminiscent of snowboarding’s leap into the mainstream in the 1990s, where skiers weren’t the only ones riding lifts. But even at snowboarding’s peak in 2010-11 — 8.2 million riders, according to The New York Times — there were twice as many skiers.
The most current data shows a similar ratio: 15 million skiers; 7.5 million snowboarders.
But because pickleball courts are smaller (44 by 20 feet, compared to 78 by 36 for tennis), the numbers of that sport will continue to grow.
“A full-size tennis court accommodates four pickleball courts,” Curley said. “You could literally take a public space where two or four people can sit for two hours, but now 16 people for two hours.”
But according to Curley, the explosive growth of pickleball should not reduce the number of tennis players in large quantities.
“As the sport grows,” he said of pickleball, “it’s not as niche a sport as racquetball was in the 70s and 80s. My sense of pickleball, because you already have existing tennis courts, is that from a volume perspective, the tennis will catch up – you lose some tennis courts to pickleball by default – but they will be synergy between the two sports, where people who like tennis will enjoy pickleball and vice versa.”
Follow Tim Dumas on Twitter: @TimDumas.