The diversification of the racquet sports market is continuing on an international scale, with the game of pickleball now being rated as one of the fastest-growing sports. While tennis participation is stabilizing or dwindling in many countries, less elitist and competitive games such as padel or pickleball, which originated in the U.S., are becoming more popular now in Europe.

Pickleball - the racquet

Source: Joan Azeka - Unsplash

Described as a sport that combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton, pickleball features two or four players who hit a perforated polymer ball with a wooden or composite paddle over a low-hanging net. They play on a court that has about the same size as a badminton court. In some cases, the players borrow an existing tennis court to make out four pickleball courts, marked with different colors, after installing a portable net that costs less than €200.

Pickleball and padel

There are parallels to padel, but the sport of pickleball is even easier, softer and more recreational. Following the boom in the U.S, pickleball is quickly developing in the U.K. and other parts of Europe as well as in Asia. After reaching about the same level of participation as tennis in Spain, the sport of padel has developed as a simpler alternative to tennis in other countries including France and Italy as well. With the backing of well-known testimonials, it is picking up strongly in Sweden, where the number of players has become comparable to the number of golfers.

Pickleball has its origin in the U.S.

In the U.S., where it started as a backyard game, pickleball is now played heavily in community centers, public parks and retirement communities. It has become part of the physical education program at many schools. The country has about 10,000 places to play, according to USA Pickleball’s count, but that continues to grow by several dozen every month. Even a casual U.S. restaurant and sports bar chain, Chicken N Pickle, has created indoor or outdoor pickleball courts in various cities as part of its amenities.

It can take less than 20 minutes for a tennis, ping-pong or badminton player to learn the game of pickleball. The game started in the U.S. in 1965 but became mainstream only in the early 2010s. It has been continuously growing since then. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport gained even more popularity as it established itself as a viable outdoor alternative to the banned indoor activities. The number of players went up by an estimated 21.3 percent to 4.2 million in the U.S. in 2020. The growth continued to 4.8 million in 2022, a rise of 650 percent over the past six years, making the country the place where pickleball is most popular in the world. In March 2022, pickleball was even designated the official sport of the state of Washington.

In the U.S., professional pickleball games are attracting more and more spectators as well. The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour was founded as the first professional tournament in 2018. USA Pickleball sanctioned a second pro tour by the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) that launched in 2019. In January 2022, PPA was acquired by billionaire Tom Dundon, the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes National Hockey League team.

Gamma - pickleball

Pickleball is easy to learn and relatively inexpensive

One reason for the quick adoption of pickleball is its accessibility. The beginner version of the paddle used in the game costs less than $40. The high-end version made in the U.S. by Gamma Sports, which claims to be the global leader in the sector, carries a price tag of $150, but according to David Kuklesky, who has been running Gamma’s international sales operations for more than 25 years, the “sweetspot” lies around $65 to $70. Another reason for the popularity of pickleball is that the rules are simple and easy to understand.

Here are the 5 most important rules for pickleball:

  1. Serving must be done at the baseline by hitting the ball underhand.
  2. Don’t serve into the No Volley Zone a.k.a. “The Kitchen”
  3. Respect the Double bounce rule (The serve and the service return must be allowed to bounce before striking the ball).
  4. Keep the ball inbounds.
  5. Games normally end at 11 points (or 15 or 21 in pickleball tournaments).

Skill levels have increased, leading to more and more tournaments being played everywhere, and the average age of the players has been shifting over the years from 60-65 down to 30-40, says Kuklesky, with some children starting to play from the age of 8.

Paddles, balls, and nets: Only Gamma offers the whole range of pickleball products

While most of Gamma’s annual revenues come from the sale of stringing machines, pickleball paddles, balls and nets have come to represent more than 20 percent of its turnover. The number of its portable nets sold annually in Europe rose from around 200 in 2019 to 250 in 2020. Kuklesky, who traveled to 13 countries in 2019 to promote the game among its foreign distributors, says that Gamma’s European sales would have risen more than they actually did if there had been no Covid pandemic.

In addition to Gamma, there are other specialized firms that are offering pickleball products, but no other brand has the whole range of pickleball products. Big tennis brands like Babolat, Head, Wilson and Prince have started vending some pickleball products, mainly in the U.S. In Europe, Decathlon also sells them as part of its own racquet sports range, Artengo.

Pickleball products are available at racquet sports specialists and generalist sports retailers

Gamma’s biggest retail client in the U.S. is Amazon, but aside from the specialist trade, it is also working now with a big generalist retailer, Dick’s Sporting Goods, partly perhaps because it is based like Gamma in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both of them have been among the sponsors of the Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, founded in 2016 and scheduled to take place in Naples, Florida, in April each year. Its organizers claim that the event at the aptly named “pickleball capital of the world” is the biggest international pickleball tournament in the world. The CBS Sport Network broadcasts the finals.

It’s getting easier for pickleball players to get products for the game in Europe, where some racquet sports specialists and generalist sports retailers offer them. In the U.K., they have been available since 2016 from an online retailer, the UK Pickleball Shop, which also offers a few sets for shipment to the E.U. and other parts of Europe, including a complete starter pack for doubles at £170 (€197-$238). Many European customers buy products directly from American tennis web stores or from the suppliers’ own websites, like for instance Gamma Europe, which is based in Gifhorn, Lower Saxony, Germany. As Gamma already has a global distribution network in place for its tennis products, it feels that it is well positioned to introduce its pickleball range to new emerging international markets.

Two International Federations of Pickleball: IPF and WPF

Pickleball is growing everywhere because it “is easy to learn, fun to play and your skill can grow over time as you learn the strategy side of the game,” says Karen Mitchell, who sits on the boards of Pickleball England and the World Pickleball Federation (WPF) which was founded in 2018. “It is a sport for all ages and all abilities, and it is an easy way for people to exercise without realizing that they are exercising,” she adds. It is also a very social game.

Like the slightly older International Federation of Pickleball (IFP), which was officially established in 2010 with Pickleball capitals USA, Canada, Spain, and India coming on board in 2012, WPF is working hard to promote the sport internationally, with the ultimate goal of getting pickleball admitted as an Olympic sport. To mount a successful Olympic bid though, pickleball needs competitive players in at least 75 countries.

IFP claims to be the world´s governing body for the sport, and it boasts more than 60 member countries – 20 of them in Europe – including a recently formed Asian federation. But the IFP lost 9 of its most important members, 10 directors, and the vast majority of the world’s registered players in March 2022, when the federations of 9 countries notified the IFP that they had officially withdrawn their participation from the IFP.

These are the 9 former IFP countries representing 95 percent of the world’s registered players:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • England
  • France
  • Mexico
  • Philippines
  • Spain
  • United States

These nine federations declared they are now actively exploring and evaluating the options available going forward, which include joining the WPF, introducing a new international federation and merging the WPF into it, or introducing an independent, new international federation.

Many countries play pickleball

Founded by American pickleball enthusiast Seymour Rifkind, the WPF claims to be less U.S.-centric and more international-oriented than the IFP, but both organizations have a presence in all the continents. WPF has national associations in 28 countries, 14 of them in Europe. Most of the national federations in Europe first belonged to both the IFP and the WPF to assess the merits of both before they decided with whom they would work in the future.

To promote the sport with the help of Gamma and other suppliers, the WPF organized the first World Pickleball Day on Oct. 10, 2020, inviting the international pickleball clubs to open up to the public to show how the game works. The sponsors donated products worth a total of $100,000 to help enlist new members in 26 countries. The event is due to be repeated each year on Oct. 10. WPS also organized a Summit in 2020 to share best practices on how to set up and expand a national federation.

While the U.S. federation, as opposed to Canada, is not yet a member of the organization, the WPF is planning to stage the first World Pickleball Games in Austin, Texas, in 2023, after it had to cancel the event planned for May 2022, due to COVID restrictions. Its 71-year-old founder, Seymour Rifkind, cycled 3,000 miles across the U.S. in 2021 to raise funds for the Pickleball Hall of Fame, which he had created in 2017.

On the rise: Pickleball in Europe

The first pickleball clubs outside the U.S. were formed around 2011. The European chapter of WPF, the European Pickleball Federation, was created in June 2020. It plans to hold the first-ever European Open Pickleball Championship in Rota, Cádiz, Spain, from July 06 to 10, 2022, with a prize purse of $15,000.

This important new event is only the logical consequence of a long development. The analysts at Fact.MR, who projected the pickleball equipment market to rise at a CAGR of 9 percent in terms of value over the 2020-2030 period, stated that “Europe is seen as the most lucrative region with the highest pickleball equipment market share, backed by strong growth of pickleball sports in the U.K. and Spain. In particular, the U.K. market is poised to expand at a CAGR of 9.5 percent and create an absolute $ opportunity of US$ 110 Mn over the forecast period.”

The increase of tournaments across Europe helps to spread the sport. Spain has hosted a national Pickleball tournament since 2015 and Italy announced its 4th Italian Open Pickleball Championships from September 9 to 11, 2022. The Pickleball Germany association will hold its third national championship from July 22, to 24, 2022. England held its first national Pickleball tournament in Bolton in August 2021 with the second edition following from June 29 to July 3, 2022.

Still, figures in Europe can’t yet be compared to the huge U.S. market. Daniel Hernando of the Spanish “Asociacion Española de Pickleball” claimed in April 2022 that “we are close to 1,000 players” in Spain. Pickleball England reports there are over 4,000 estimated players and 120 places to play pickleball in the UK. Pickleball France, which was founded in 2018, estimates there are more than 500 players in the country, with a progression of more than 30 percent each year. And according to the German Pickleball Association, there are now 55 clubs where to play pickleball in Germany.

Europe is also heavily involved in the first intercontinental pickleball team event in the history of the sport, the Bainbridge Cup. The format consists of competition among pickleball teams representing North America and Europe. The inaugural Bainbridge Cup took place in Madrid, Spain, in 2017 before it moved to Montesilvano, Italy, in 2018, and Essen, Germany, in 2019. In April 2021, it made its first visit to the United States when the tournament was held at Pictona, a new $6 million facility in Holly Hill, Florida, with 24 lighted courts, 8 covered courts, championship courts, a club house, and an onsite restaurant – probably the finest pickleball facility in the world.

Pickleball World Map

Pickleball world map

A set of annual “Pickleball World Maps” compiled by Mitchell for the WPF estimates that the number of players in Europe grew from around 10,000 in 2019 to at least 12,000 in 2020. The number of players in China grew to around 20,000 from 16,000 in 2019 and remained stable at around 20,000 in the rest of Asia, with India leading the pack.

For Europe, WPF’s world map also gives data for the number of clubs and players in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Scotland, England, Ireland, and Poland. With more than 1,000 players, Spain leads the ranking. Fewer clubs are operational in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, and Lithuania. According to Mitchell, participation in pickleball started also in Portugal and Norway.

The U.K. is probably the hotspot for pickleball right now in Europe with dedicated associations for England and Wales, Scotland, and the two parts of Ireland. Affiliated with WPF as well as IFP, Pickleball England had about 1,500 members in 2020, half of them women, and it hopes to qualify for recognition and funding by a very active government agency, Sport England. Pickleball England was born in 2018, at the same time as Pickleball Scotland and shortly after the all-Ireland association, replacing two federations affiliated with IFP, the UK Pickleball Federation and GB Pickleball, founded in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Overall, there were around 4,000 players in England and Wales in 2020, 1,000 more than in 2019, and they don’t have to be affiliated with a club to participate in a tournament. Pickleball England organized the first English Open tournament in 2019, involving 320 players. Some 800 had registered for the second English Open, which was due to take place in July 2020, but it was canceled due to Covid-19.

Photos: Gamma Pickleball; Joan Azeka, Unsplash.