Pickleball Gaining Popularity on College Campuses
Share this Article
- Once considered an older person's game, pickleball is becoming increasingly popular among Generation Z.
- Numerous pickleball clubs have cropped up on campuses nationwide.
- A new organization is sponsoring college championships complete with prize money.
- Official recognition by the NCAA could be on the near horizon.
America's fastest-growing sport is gaining a foothold on college campuses.
Yes, we're talking about pickleball — the noisy game that looks like an amalgam of tennis and Ping-Pong played with plastic paddles and a hard Wiffle ball. What was once considered a recreational sport for the senior set has emerged as a Gen Z obsession, and college students nationwide are now competing in tournaments for prize money.
Some say it's only a matter of time before the NCAA recognizes pickleball as an intercollegiate sport.
If pickleball isn't popular on your campus just yet, it probably will be soon.
The Explosive Growth of Pickleball
Pickleball may seem like a relatively new sport, but it actually traces its origins to 1965, when three men on Bainbridge Island, Washington, concocted the game to stave off boredom. The name derives from "pickle boat," a haphazardly assembled rowing crew that metaphorically resembles pickleball's eclectic blend of other racquet sports.
The sport gained in popularity throughout the 1970s and '80s. And by 1990, it was being played in all 50 states. Still, it remained a fringe activity enjoyed largely by older folks unwilling or unable to withstand the physical rigors of tennis but not yet ready for the shuffleboard scene.
Actor Jeff Daniels called it "half-court basketball for elderly people."
This stereotype is somewhat valid given that 17% of pickleball players are 65 and older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. At the same time, one-third are under 25.
"That old stigma of pickleball not being cool is going away," said Rob Barnes, co-CEO of equipment maker Selkirk Sport.
In fact, participation among kids ages 6-17 grew by 50% from 2019-2021, the association notes. During that span, the sport experienced a 40% spike in growth thanks in part to the pandemic forcing people to find safe recreational activities. Today, some 36.5 million people play pickleball.
For some of them, it's serious business. The Major League Pickleball (MLP) organization formed two years ago and has attracted a slew of celebrity investors from sports and entertainment who own partial stakes in the league's 24 professional teams.
Pickleball Takes Hold on College Campuses
The founders of MLP own the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating, or DUPR (rhymes with "super"). DUPR is known throughout the sport as the official rating system for players.
It also organizes regional college events and hosts the "only recognized national championship tournament," Ben Van Hout, DUPR's director of operations, told BestColleges.
Now in its second year, DUPR is holding 12 regional tournaments throughout the country in 2023, along with an individual championship tournament in April and a team national championship in November.
Winning individuals and teams receive "scholarship money" that supports both the players and the schools. The national championship team takes home $10,000.
In addition, DUPR provides teams with travel funds and is investing upwards of $500,000 this year to help cultivate the sport on college campuses, Van Hout said.
"We're really pioneering what this landscape looks like," Jacob Smith, DUPR's college program coordinator, told BestColleges. … "It's our goal to be the governing body of collegiate pickleball and run this scene and help it grow."
Smith said he's aware of 100 colleges that have some form of pickleball on campus. Of those, about 20 offer it as an official club sport and not just a student organization.
Yet it's difficult to pin an exact number on this activity. Gary Stocker, a self-proclaimed "pickleball ambassador" and teaching professional in St. Louis, runs a website called "U.S. Collegiate Pickleball" that lists 27 college clubs. Another site names 31.
What's not in question is pickleball's growth trajectory. Hana Papaco, manager of recreational programs at USA Pickleball, an organization dedicated to the sport's development, said college pickleball has been catching on rapidly over the last year and a half. Its website lists 41 college programs.
"We have collegiate clubs adding their names to our registry almost every week now," Papaco said in an email to BestColleges.
Stocker believes the sport is still in its infancy stage and is primed to explode.
"When a college's competitors have pickleball, college athletic directors and presidents are going to want it as well," he told BestColleges.
Stocker's playing partner, John Porter, president of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, has been a pickler for 22 years. Lindenwood recently renovated tennis courts on campus to create a 12-court pickleball facility that's become wildly popular among students and area residents.
"We're really trying to push [pickleball] as hard as we can," Porter told BestColleges.
Lindenwood hasn't yet established pickleball as a club sport, but that's likely on the horizon. Porter mentioned he'd even be willing to offer pickleball scholarships to drive interest and participation.
"I would absolutely jump in and provide some scholarship incentives to get students to come play on the team and compete against others in the region," he said. "We would definitely be open to that."
College Pickleball Clubs See Major Growth
Porter said he's not aware of any colleges that currently offer pickleball scholarships. But that's possibly about to change: Utah Tech University plans to begin offering pickleball scholarships later this year.
"We don't have the fine details, but Utah Tech should be the first school to offer scholarships to pickleball players," Dylan Ciampini, a first-year sports management major at the school, told BestColleges. "We're about 80% sure it's going to happen."
Ciampini is one of about 600 students in Utah Tech's pickleball club, the largest on campus, she said. In only a short time, Utah Tech has emerged as a pickleball powerhouse and entered last year's DUPR tournament as the top seed before losing in the finals to the University of North Carolina.
"We didn't get any money," Ciampini lamented. "We got towels."
But that certainly didn't dampen spirits. Word of the team's success spread quickly, and every Tuesday about 80-120 students show up to play at The Picklr, an indoor facility near campus.
"People are respecting it more as a Gen Z sport," Ciampini said.
At The Ohio State University, some 400 students are involved in pickleball. The school doesn't offer it as an official club sport, though Brady Terrell, a junior finance major who's president of the Buckeye Pickleball Club, told BestColleges they're pursuing that status.
When Terrell first arrived on campus two years ago, the organization had only 10 students. Like Ciampini, he anticipates the sport's continued growth.
"All of the professional leagues are gaining a lot of traction," he said, "and I think the same thing can happen with the college sport."
Smith, of DUPR, agrees and believes the sport is just now realizing its potential growth curve.
"Pickleball, as a whole, definitely grew because of COVID," he said. "It was almost like the perfect pandemic sport. But unfortunately for colleges, no one was on campus during the pandemic, so we're probably a couple of years behind."
Envisioning a Future With NCAA Recognition
During Smith's student days at North Carolina State University, pickleball participation doubled, the 2022 graduate said. And it's still growing, said Jordan Gonzaga, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering at the school.
Gonzaga told BestColleges the NC State club has around 60 members. He believes the sport can continue its current growth trajectory.
"It's really hard to tell how big it can be, but … it could possibly become a mainstream sport," he said.
One sure sign it's become mainstream would be official recognition from the NCAA as an intercollegiate sport. The NCAA requires that 40 colleges "sponsor a sport before 'championship' consideration," Massillon Myers, assistant director of communications, told BestColleges in an email.
That rule falls within the NCAA's "emerging sports for women" efforts, though it's unclear how it pertains to men's or co-ed sports such as pickleball. The NCAA didn't clarify its stance on the issue.
Under Major League Pickleball rules, which DUPR follows in organizing its college tournaments, schools field teams of four players who compete in men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles. As things currently stand, the NCAA doesn't allow for co-ed competition.
So if pickleball were to become an NCAA sport, either competitions would be gender-segregated or the sport would receive special dispensation from the NCAA, which seems unlikely.
Smith, of DUPR, said gender segregation would diminish pickleball competitions.
"Mixed doubles is a huge part of the sport," he said, "and what people like to watch and play."
Still, college pickleball aficionados foresee a day when the NCAA finally embraces it.
"I've heard in the background that maybe someday it could be an NCAA sport," said Porter, Lindenwood's president. "I haven't heard it directly from the NCAA itself, but we're hearing rumors out there. I think the more popular it gets, the more it's going to be on their agenda."
Smith predicts it will happen within five years.
"Maybe it'll even be an Olympic sport," he added.
Meanwhile, today's college players are doing their part to promote and legitimize pickleball on their campuses and beyond.
"What Utah Tech and a lot of colleges are doing right now is setting the pathway for future college players," Ciampini said. "We're the first to experiment with all of it, and I think it's only going to get bigger."