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The fast-growing sport with the funny name is everything squash isn’t.
Where squash is often painted as elitist, pickleball is accessible to all ages and fitness levels, sociable, and fun to play from the first strike of the paddle.
Crucially, while squash courts require considerable raw materials to construct, pickleball can be played both indoors or outdoors using existing spaces such as tennis courts.
Billed as a mix of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is now played by an estimated five million people in the US alone, making it the country’s fastest growing sport. The number of UK players is thought to be much lower, at between 4,000 and 7,000, but courts are popping up everywhere you look on this side of the Atlantic. There are now ten pickleball clubs registered with Pickleball England situated within 30 miles of where I live in Essex, four of which sit within a ten-mile radius.
Invented in 1965, the odd-sounding sport has gathered steam since lockdown, just as participation in other racket sports including squash continue to decline.
Using a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net, pickleball sees two or four players hit a perforated polymer ball over a net with solid paddles.
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A direct threat to squash?
Some commentators have been quick to present pickleball as a nail in squash’s coffin.
The worry is that any fluctuation in the popularity of respective racket sports is a zero-sum game.
Often, the powerful leisure chains investing in pickleball are the very same companies pulling their money out of squash.
In an op-ed written last summer, SquashMad editor Alan Thatcher intimated that pickleball’s gains may be coming at the expense of squash. He highlighted health club chain Life Time Fitness’ pledge to quickly build 600-700 pickleball courts in the US after downgrading squash.
Life Time Fitness CEO Bahram Akradi is himself a pickleball convert, revealing that he plays the sport every day and lost 10 to 15 pounds in weight in the process.
“I love the sport because it’s the first sport I see bringing all of America together. It is accessible to everybody and easy to learn,” he said.
But correlation does not imply causation.
The declining participation in squash predates pickleball and can be chalked up to any number of issues.
Squash courts deliver relatively low returns for the space they take up, particularly when compared with gym equipment and exercise bikes; it can be hard for beginners to sustain a rally in squash, particularly if they make the mistake of playing with a double-yellow dot; it is seen by some as overly pugilistic and male dominated; and the fact it has been repeatedly overlooked by the Olympics also hasn’t helped squash’s cause.
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In fact, there is some hope that pickleball could in fact be squash’s saviour.
It’s certainly possible to envisage a scenario where racket sports such as pickleball and squash coexist happily side by side, with squash presented as the option for younger or fitter players seeking an intense one-on-one battle and to challenge themselves physically.
Even Thatcher, who has been glum about the future of squash, said he “firmly believes that squash can thrive in a well-managed commercial setting” that includes other racket sports. He revealed that he is currently talking to padel companies from Spain and Sweden about building a new style of rackets club that will include squash.
Replying to Thatcher on Twitter, US number one Amanda Sobhy suggested that squash should look to join forces with pickleball and padel rather than building standalone squash courts.
I just played pickleball with my bro tonight on some outdoor tennis courts at a park in Philly & had an absolute blast and a great run around… I totally can see how pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the US at the moment & completely dominating squash😬😬
— Amanda Sobhy (@itssobhytime) June 1, 2022
And some squash enthusiasts have a wholly positive take on pickleball’s burgeoning popularity. This includes US Squash CEO Kevin Klipstein who asserted recently that “pickleball does not compete with squash”. Instead, “it adds to the number of racquet sport enthusiasts”, he claimed.
It is, in fact, tennis that is being cannibalised by this funny-sounding game, Klipstein claimed.
Pickleball has won celebrity endorsements from the likes of Bill and Melinda, Ellen DeGeneres, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio, and is seen as being especially appealing to the over 55s.
The strangely-monikered racket sport may be easy to learn, gentle on the body and fun to play.
But nothing combines the boxing-like intensity, chess-like strategy and dynamic movements of squash.
It is not too far-fetched to imagine a world where the two sports have a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, relationship.