Celebrities betting big on sports teams is hardly new: Ryan Reynolds co-owns Wrexham Association Football Club, Eva Longoria has stakes in Necaxa soccer club, and Will Ferrell is an investor in the Los Angeles FC soccer team. But if you had to guess what sport NBA player LeBron James would trust with his fortune, you may not have initially thought of pickleball (even if it is the fastest growing sport in America).
This week, Major League Pickleball (MLP) announced that James is among its latest group of investors. The Lakers star will own the team along with business partner Maverick Carter, as well as Draymond Green and Kevin Love (two other NBA players). According to MLP, the group’s enjoyed the game together for several years and sees tremendous potential in the growth of the sport.
“When I started playing pickleball, I immediately connected with the sport’s community and its capacity to be both fun and competitive,” said Carter in a CNBC interview. “To see the sport growing in communities all over is really exciting, and we’re looking forward to bringing our expertise together to try and build a championship team.”
While the group hasn’t landed on a name for their team just yet, Steve Kuhn, MLP’s founder, said that investments like James’ will help the sport accumulate about 40 million pickleball players by 2030. So if you’re pickleball curious, it’s the right time to get in on America’s new favorite pastime. Below, David Dutrieuille, national pickleball director for Life Time, shares the history of the sport, its basic rules, and other need-to-know fast facts.
So, what is pickleball?
Here’s the deal: A pickleball court is the size of a badminton court (20 feet by 44 feet), so it’s easier, but not easy, to move around within it. “If you can picture tennis, then you can figure out pickleball,” says Dutrieuille.
Like tennis, pickleball starts with a serve. “The ball is served diagonally (starting with the right-hand service-square), and points can only be scored by the side that serves—similar to tennis,” says Dutrieuille. “Players on each side must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed, and there is a seven-foot no-volley zone called the kitchen on each side of the net, to prevent ‘spiking.’”
The server continues to serve, alternating sides of the court (left and right), until he or she faults (doesn’t make the service or violates the rules in any way). The first team to make it to 11 with at least a two-point lead wins. If this seems a little convoluted in writing, don’t worry—this is one of those sports that you’ll pick up quickly IRL.
Who invented pickleball?
Many sports have an iconic origin story—and pickleball’s story is cuter than most. “On a summer afternoon in 1965, at a family cabin on Bainbridge Island, Washington, Frank Pritchard and his young friends were bored,” says Dutrieuille. “So, Frank’s father—the late U.S. Congressman, Joel Pritchard—and a couple of his buddies invented a new game for the kids to play. They lowered the net on an asphalt badminton court, grabbed two wooden paddles and a neighbor’s plastic Wiffle ball, made up a few rules on the fly, and created a game that was fast and fun, but easy for adults and kids of all ages to play.”
Two years later, Joel Pritchard constructed the first permanent pickleball court in a neighbor’s backyard, and shortly thereafter, the game was becoming popularized across the Pacific Northwest.
The health benefits of pickleball
In pickleball, you’ll be moving side to side (laterally) as well as forward and backward at a quick clip. This type of diverse movement is called multiplanar training, and it’s great for preventing injuries because you’re basically teaching your body to move in all different ways. “Research has revealed that multi-directional movement improves the body’s connection between the brain and the muscles, enhancing the nervous system over time, improving firing patterns, and allowing for greater and more powerful muscle contractions,” Juniper Sykes, certified personal trainer and founder of FitForceFX previously told Well+Good.
And that’s not all: According to Dutrieuille, pickleball has even more to offer:
Pickleball is great for your heart: “Studies show pickleball can lead to improved blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness. It offers aerobic exercise, giving players the chance to move around on the court at any level of intensity,” says Dutrieuille.
Pickleball is relatively low-impact: “Since pickleball moves at a slower pace than tennis, it’s easier on the joints, while also improving balance, coordination, and agility,” says Dutrieuille. “This makes it a wonderful choice for those who have had injuries in the past, or former tennis players looking for a gentler alternative.”
Pickleball can help you build community: “More than anything, pickleball is a social game…and it’s no secret that strong social connections improve the quality of our life and can extend our life expectancy,” says Dutrieuille.
Why has pickleball become such a thing in the last few years?
Dutrieuille attributes the rising interest in pickleball to a few key factors—the first of which is the pandemic. “The pandemic, in many ways, spurred pickleball’s growth when everything was closed and people were concerned about social distancing,” he says. “In fact, pickleball participation grew more than 21 percent in 2020, according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association.”
The nature of the game has also contributed to its popularity: It’s fun, the rules are simple, and it gives folks a chance to be competitive. “Pickleball can be a sport you keep improving on and can quickly play in leagues and tournaments,” says Dutrieuille. “We’re seeing this explode within our clubs and have started our own too. There are pro pickleball players now who just started playing a year ago. It’s neat to see.”
What to know before your first game of pickleball
So you’re curious about the fastest-growing sport in America? Dutrieuille says to give it a shot. “The name itself should set your mind at ease—this is a fun sport from the start,” he says. “And, given it’s an easy sport to learn, you’ll have fun the moment you step on the court.”