What is pickleball and why are so many celebrities playing it? The Kardashians and Bill and Melinda Gates are fans, with Harry Potter’s Emma Watson joining Stephen Colbert’s Pickled tournament on CBS

Pickled by CBS, hosted by Stephen Colbert and featuring Daniel Dae Kim and Emma Watson playing pickleball. Photo: CBS

If you were wondering what Stephen Colbert is doing with CBS by hosting “Pickled” today on November 17, chances are you might also have questions about that new, weird racket sport that is taking Hollywood and social media by storm.

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the US, with 4.8 million players in the country as of last year, growing 11.5 per cent on average over the last five years. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of racket sports as it’s played in a tennis-like fashion on a badminton court with paddles and a plastic, perforated whiffle ball.

Pickleball is a hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis played on a court a quarter the size of a tennis court, with hard rackets and a variety of whiffle ball. Photo: AP

The game comes with its own terminology and quirky slang (“dink”, “falafel” and “flapjack” are worth their own Google searches) but essentially, players take turns serving and scoring, the sport can be played in a singles or doubles format, and there are rules to prevent excessively fast play – only underhand serves are permitted and the “kitchen” is a zone near the net that players are not allowed to volley from.

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Particularly in the last two years as people searched for outdoor activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, A-listers and professional athletes playing the sport have only increased the mania around it.

This is all coming to a head as Colbert hosts his celebrity doubles pickleball tournament, which features duos involving Emma Watson, Daniel Dae Kim, Luis Guzmán and Sugar Ray Leonard. And these aren’t even close to the biggest names to support the odd sport.

What started out as a suburban pastime invented by kids in Bainbridge Island, gradually began to hit its stride in the mid-2010s when the US Pickleball National Championships relocated to Palm Springs, California and the US Open Pickleball Championships were first held in Naples, Florida in 2016.

Pickleball started getting more popular in the mid-2010s. Photo: AP
Celebrities thereafter turned to the sport as a pastime as Bill and Melinda Gates (who have played since childhood), Leonardo DiCaprio, George and Amal Clooney, the Kardashians, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Ellen DeGeneres revealed their obsession with the sport in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic also helped the sport along as people sought alternatives to indoor activities in the spacious US.

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Athletes close to or past retirement have also picked up the sport. NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Eli Manning, former tennis world No 1 Andre Agassi and Olympic Men’s swimming gold medal repository Michael Phelps are just some of the mainstays in pro-am and celebrity exhibition matches, usually in the doubles format.

But why is the sport so attractive as a pastime?

The USA Pickleball Association’s 2021 fact sheet reflects that the relaxed pace of the sport is preferred by older folks. The average age for casual players is 33.6 years old, the average age of core players (those who play more than eight times a year) is 47.5 years old, with the bulk of core players being older than 65 years old, making up 33.7 per cent of the core player population.

However, that has not stopped pickleball from going from casual hobby to cash cow. Established in 2021, Major League Pickleball is expected to expand its roster of teams from 12 to 16, and to award up to US$2 million in cash prizes. NBA superstars LeBron James, Draymond Green, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant have joined Brady and former women’s tennis world No 1 Kim Clijsters as owners of professional pickleball clubs too.

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Kevin Durant is the latest NBA star to buy into professional pickleball. Photo: TNS

But whether you’re trying to go pro in the US, or if you’re just trying to see what Leo and the Kardashians are making such a fuss about, the sport has plenty of appeal as it gives racket-sport-lovers the mobility and singles/doubles formats of tennis with the light racket work of badminton, and the high-speed volleys from ping pong. It’s playable on a badminton court with a low net, and only needs two to four paddles and a plastic perforated ball.

With all the A-list support and investment to boot, we would not be caught by surprise if this wacky game made it all the way to a future summer Olympics.

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  • With 4.8 million players in the US as of 2021, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the country with athletes like Tom Brady, Andre Agassi and Michael Phelps picking it up
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, George and Amal Clooney, the Kardashians, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Ellen DeGeneres have all taken it on as a pandemic pastime too – so why is it so popular?