MGA Faculty Q&A With Liz Riley: The Rise of Pickleball

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Monday, February 19, 2024 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Business | Pressroom | Faculty/Staff

Macon, GA

Liz Riley, second from left, shown with some MGA colleagues at the Rhythm and Rally pickleball facility at Macon Mall.

Pickleball, a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, has been gaining traction across the globe in recent years. With its easy-to-learn rules, accessibility to players of all ages and skill levels, and a vibrant community culture, pickleball has swiftly become a favorite pastime for many. In this Q&A with Liz Riley, an MGA associate professor of business and enthusiastic pickleball player, we'll delve into the history and evolution of this recreational sport and why it appeals to so many.  

Let’s start with the basics. What is pickleball and where did it come from?

Pickleball was created in the 1960s by three dads trying to entertain their kids over summer break. The origin of the name is slightly disputed. One story has it that the sport was named for the family dog, “Pickles.” Another story claims that the name is related to the “pickle boat,” which is made up of a mismatched set of oarsmen that weren’t chosen for the other boats in crew races. Either way, the name “pickleball” stuck.

Pickleball is played with a paddle and a plastic ball that is similar to a whiffle ball. It’s almost like a combination of badminton, tennis, and ping pong. The pickleball court has the same surface as a tennis court but the court is smaller, 44 feet long and 20 feet wide. The pickleball net is also a little shorter than a tennis net.

At first, it seemed like senior citizens were the only people playing pickleball but the appeal seems to have broadened to a wider demographic. What’s up with that?

The sport initially did catch on with senior citizens and I think there are several reasons why. The game is easy to learn and fun to play, even for a novice. There’s less mobility required because of the size of the court and because it’s almost always played with a partner. It’s also an inexpensive game. A pickleball paddle costs anywhere from $30 to $400 and the plastic balls are about $10 for three. In Macon, it costs between $2 - $5 to get a court to play on.  

For the same reasons that pickleball is popular with seniors, it has become popular with younger people. Younger people also like the sport because, depending on who you play with, It can be a very fast-moving game. To give you an idea of the change in popularity, in 2017 68 percent of pickleball players were over the age of 60. Now the 18–34-year-old category has the most players and the average player age is 35.

Is pickleball really the fastest-growing sport?

Yes! In 2015 it was estimated that just over 2 million people played. In 2023 the estimate was almost 9 million. There’s no doubt that it is growing, especially in Middle Georgia!

How has the growth of pickleball impacted the sports industry, including equipment manufacturers, event organizers, and facilities?

From building courts to running tournaments to selling paddles and balls - the pickleball industry is booming. With 9 million people playing, there are a lot of paddles, balls, and accessories to be sold. The pickleball equipment market was estimated to be worth $65 million in 2022 and is predicted to be worth $155 billion by 2033.

Pickleball has several official organizations. The USA Pickleball Association sets the rules, offers grants, and sanctions events. They have almost 80,000 members. The International Pickleball Federation. with members from over 73 countries, is the world governing body of pickleball. Other organizing bodies that host tournaments include the Amateur Pickleball Association (APA) and the Southern Pickleball Association.

The number of pickleball courts in Macon is amazing for this size town. We have 36 public outdoor courts and have recently added 36 indoor courts. The indoor courts are just down the road from Middle Georgia State’s Macon Campus in the old Macon Mall. That facility, known as “Rhythm and Rally”, is the world’s largest indoor pickleball facility. Several private clubs and schools around Middle Georgia also have courts.  Just recently, Middle Georgia State renovated some of the tennis courts on our Cochran Campus into pickleball courts, which are used by students and by the community, including through the Bleckley Pickleball Association.

One interesting thing about all this growth in pickleball is that it doesn’t just affect pickleball manufacturers and event organizers. It also affects tourism. Rhythm and Rally just opened on January 1st. Since then it’s held three tournaments that have brought to Macon over 1600 people from all over the U.S. That has a significant impact not just on that facility but also on money being spent on hotel rooms, food, and other tourism-related amenities. 

What opportunities do you see for further growth and development of pickleball?

The sport now has professional players who are making serious money playing. Anna Leigh Waters is 17 years old and has earned over $1.4 million from pickleball. Pickleball is now regularly shown on TV. Did you see John McEnroe and Andre Agassi playing on TV last month? I think this is just the beginning of more people becoming pros and more televised events.

Pickleball growth is also gaining momentum at the collegiate level. Over 67 colleges have pickleball clubs and scholarships are being offered by some schools and other organizations such as USA Pickleball. The pickleball community hopes that eventually pickleball will be recognized by the NCAA. There is also a campaign underway to include pickleball in the 2028 Olympic Games. 

In your opinion, is pickleball here to stay, or is it a fad destined to fade?

I think pickleball is here to stay. It has lasted almost 60 years and it just continues to grow. Every week I see people try the sport and love it and many companies have put a lot of money into the sport. Just look at the number of courts there are. In 2016 there were 4600 pickleball courts in the U.S. and now there are over 50,000 courts. Also, look at the attendance and participation in the 2023 Pickleball National Championship, 3500 players and 50,000 attendees. Over 2.6 million people tuned in to watch the National Championship on ESPN, the Tennis Channel, and Pickleball TV. I am sure at some point the growth will level off, but the sport’s attractiveness to people of all ages will help sustain it.

What attracted you to the game? Why do you play?

As a child and young adult, I played tennis and a lot of ping pong. When I saw that pickleball was played with a paddle and on a court like tennis, I thought I would give it a try. Last year, I signed up for a Pickleball 101 class. I found the sport to be easy to play and the pickleball community in Macon to be very welcoming. The laid-back attitude of pickleball players also attracted me to the sport. My childhood memories of tennis included always wearing white and keeping quiet during games. Pickleball is the opposite. No one is worried about what you wear. (I’ve seen a guy playing in a kilt). I also wouldn’t call pickleball a quiet sport since it’s not unusual for people to play music while playing.  

We now have a group of MGA faculty and staff that are playing most Friday afternoons. It’s a great time for exercising, getting to know people, and laughing a whole lot. If anyone is interested in joining us, just let me, Marina Spears, or Rod McRae know.