On a cloudy evening, a man holding the hand of a small child wearing a neon backpack pauses on his walk, listening to the chatter, laughter, and whoops filling the air. It’s a Friday after work hours, but the two aren’t passing a lively bar—they’ve stopped outside the fence at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Northeast DC.
“What are you playing?”
The enthusiastic chorus comes from several players on the closest court, members of a tight-knit group called LGBTQIA2S+ Pickleballers, which plays every week. Despite rain in the forecast, all four pickleball courts are full with four players each, and more players wait on the sidelines. As the passersby continue their walk, one woman calls out: “Anyone can play, even your child!”
The interaction is typical of the pickleball community, in which players tend to jump at the chance to get family, friends, or total strangers to join a game. That enthusiasm—some might call it zealotry—helps explain why the racket sport has grown by almost 40 percent over the past two years, making it the fastest-growing sport in the US, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
“I was walking through my local YMCA in Howard County, and I heard this ‘pop pop pop,’ ” says Sonny Tannan, who now coaches pickleball for players of all levels, about his first encounter with the game in 2018. “I stuck my head in the gym, and it was a gentleman giving a pickleball lesson. After they finished, I walked up to say, ‘What is this?’ And he goes, ‘This is pickleball. Here, take a paddle.’ ”
For Tannan, it was love at first swing. These days, he heads YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s pickleball program, which he helped launch last year, and has medaled at multiple national tournaments. He describes the sport as life-changing and “super-addicting.”
The game’s straightforward rules and small court size make it possible for even first-time players to feel competent, if not competitive. “It’s an easy sport to learn, a hard sport to master,” says D Fox, a daily player who started the LGBTQ-centered pickleball group last September. Regardless of athletic ability, Fox says, players can “walk away with a sense of accomplishment.”
The game is crazy fun, and it’s easy to get hooked. In winter, pickleballers who are used to outdoor courts—you can play indoors or out—will grip paddles in mittened hands rather than skip a game. “It gets to be so cold in winter that the ball will crack,” says Laura Penn, a regular at Fox’s Friday pickleball games. Another player, Miriam Zoila Pérez, describes clearing puddles off the court with a windshield ice scraper and a towel so they could play on a rainy day.
That devotion may explain what Scott Parker, the USA Pickleball Association’s ambassador for DC, calls “meteoric” growth—both locally and internationally. There are pickleball blogs, such as Dinkheads.com. Hollywood stars including Leonardo DiCaprio have put courts in their backyards. Adherents are lobbying for pickleball to be an Olympic sport. (Not everyone is a fan: The town of Ridgewood, New Jersey, restricted the hours people can play on a set of pickleball courts after neighbors complained about the noise.)
TV personality Greta Von Susteren and her husband, lawyer John Coale, built a pickleball court in their DC home years ago, replacing an indoor pool. The couple now play about twice a week, Coale says, with family and friends sometimes joining them on the court for a game of doubles.
In DC, the Department of Parks and Recreation has seen the number of pickleball participants jump from between 70 and 100 in 2018 to 600 or 700 today, according to Andrew Acquadro, who heads the department’s tennis and pickleball programs.
DPR now hosts pickleball tournaments in the fall and spring. The first tournament, in 2018, was held indoors with about 30 players; this spring’s had at least 80, Acquadro says. The department also runs lessons and other pickleball initiatives, including an “adaptive pickleball” program for veterans with PTSD and injuries. Acquadro hopes to expand adaptive programming to serve more people, including children with disabilities.
Since starting its pickleball program in 2015, DPR has added more than 30 courts to recreation centers around the city. But places to play—especially in locations where pickleball lines have been painted onto existing tennis courts—are still in high demand. “There have been times where my group of friends who I play with have all been there, and it’s like 20 of us playing on two courts,” Penn says. “Some people do get upset about people using tennis courts for pickleball, because there’s just way more people who are trying to play than play tennis.” Fox says they chose Friday evenings because weekends at Turkey Thicket are so “packed” that they “wouldn’t even consider it.”
On a typical Friday evening, about 20 people show up to play. “For people who are queer, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, trans—we’re in the midst of a really challenging political time,” Fox says. “There’s been a lot of backlash around excluding trans people and trans youth from sports, so anytime we can come together and have queer community through sports, through play, I think it is a real act of resistance.”
Until recently, pickleball was dominated by retirees; almost a third of regular players nationally are still above age 65. But the demographics have skewed younger in recent years, both on the professional circuit and among people who play for fun. Fox’s group, for example, has had participants as young as 14 and as old as 80 in the Friday games. Most are in their thirties and forties. Being younger isn’t necessarily an advantage in a sport with a small court: In pickleball, strategy is often more important than raw speed or strength. Fox, a 48-year-old who plays nearly every day, says they’ve lost to opponents in their mid-eighties.
Parker, the USA Pickleball Association’s ambassador for DC, thinks that demographic change was caused, at least in part, by the pandemic. As many younger adults adopted more flexible work-from-home schedules, there was demand for new ways to socialize safely. Even as happy hours and nightclub crowds return, many who picked up the sport during the pandemic—including Fox, Pérez, and Penn—say they’re absolutely sticking with it, and with one another.
“It reminds me of this movie, Brown Sugar, and one of the lines is ‘How old were you when you fell in love with hip-hop?’ ” Penn says. “You could ask a similar question, because you are falling in love with pickleball—you can’t help it. But you don’t just fall in love with the sport. You fall in love with the community.”