Pickelball Is the Fastest Growing Sport for People Over 50

Joe Modjeska fields a forehand as he plays Pickleball at the SYS facility in Southampton. Michael Heller photos

According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the cultish sport of pickleball acquired its name in a fit of circumstance. The sport was founded in 1965 on Washington’s Bainbridge Island, the creation of Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum. Joel Pritchard’s cocker spaniel, Pickles, had a tendency to chase the ball, and run off with it. “Pickles, bring that ball back” parlayed itself into a sport name. And so, pickleball was born.

Retired Southampton High School football coach and math teacher Vinny Mangano has been playing pickleball for the past three years. “It’s the fastest growing sport for adults over 50 in the United States,” he said. “People assume that it’s tennis on a miniature court with a plastic ball. But that’s not what it is.” Played both indoors and out on a badminton-sized court, the sport embraces elements of tennis, squash and racquetball. Players use a wide, square paddle, along with a plastic ball with holes, similar to a wiffle ball. The game can be played in singles or pairs.

Because serves are executed underhand, the smaller court requires less running, and the ball is allowed to bounce twice (as opposed to in tennis, where it is permitted to bounce only once), pickleball is a gentler sport on the body. The sport is also more inclusive, offsetting the gender gap in tennis, where the overhead serve favors men. The USAPA estimates that there are over 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States.

Coach Vinny Mangano fields a forehand.

The pickleball fad has long since been popular in places like Florida, where the weather is more accommodating. These days, however, it’s equally popular on the East End. At Southampton’s SYS Recreation Center, a steady roster of roughly 100 people show up, week after week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, to play pickleball. “We’ve been doing this for about five years now,” SYS Program Director Molly Lambert Tuzil said. “It literally was a couple people just coming to us and saying that they play down in Florida.” SYS converted badminton courts to pickleball, and a Southampton sport was born. With two courts at first, the courts have expanded in accordance with demand. To start, only five to 10 people showed up to play, Lambert Tuzil said. The resulting feedback has been positive.

The stream of players includes a diverse population, much of it older. For 76-year-old Bob Gershin, pickleball is “just perfect for guys like us.” He has been playing for three years, four to five times a week. What drew Gershin to the sport — like so many others — was its age-friendliness. “I was looking for a game that was suitable for someone my age,” he said. “Ninety percent of the people I play used to play tennis. [Pickleball is] not a power game. The result is a slower game. And it’s excellent for older people.” Gershin, who grew up in New York City, was accustomed to paddleball, which is played against a wall. He appreciates the egalitarian nature of pickleball, he said. “Everybody is welcome.”

Vinny Mangano, who is 63, arrived at pickleball after facing injuries in squash. “I was pulling my muscles all the time,” he said. “Because you’re not doing a lot overhand [in pickleball], you don’t have as much of a problem with your shoulder.” In pickleball, the majority of the shots are what Magnano refers to as “soft shots,” which, in the parlance of pickleball, are referred to as “dinks.” The game is one of strategy and finesse. Although there are competitive levels—one through five, with five being the most competitive — the pickleball at SYS is open pickleball. No one is designated a specific level, and players rotate. When a player wins, he or she remains in to play another round. People of all ages and genders can play in this rotation, presenting an interestingly level playing field.

Joe Modjeska, 70, found pickleball as a way to stay active. “I’m not too good at basketball,” he said. “I’m not tall, and I can’t dribble the ball well. This was a game that I could play and do well at.” For the past three years, he has played nearly every day of the week, weather-permitting. The game, as he sees it, is less about competition and more about recreation and socializing. Among the pickleball regulars, Joe has a dual reputation. “My specialty is the soft lob shot,” he said. “Down in Florida, I got the nickname ‘The Lobster’ because of my lob shot.” The Lobster, however, is equally renowned for his home-baked brownies, which he brings in to share with his pickleball friends.

Pamela Lund fields a backhand.

“I wasn’t particularly good at any sport,” Pamela Lund, 74, conceded. “I would say that I started without any sort of talent.” Lund began playing pickleball at SYS, when it was introduced. Now, she plays three days a week. “I like playing a sport,” she said of her new interest in pickleball. “I never particularly had one. From the point of view of someone who has never been a sports player, it’s a very easy game to get into.” This is part of the attraction of pickleball, of course. Although many of the players once played tennis, some of them never played a sport at all. The hunt to stay active and socially engaged has engendered a community of players, as well as friendships.

“It’s a great mix of society there,” Howard Reisman said. Reisman, who is in his 80s, has played at SYS for a few years now. “At first, I was anxious about introducing myself,” he said. “But then I saw that I could be competitive and capable. They invited novices to learn the game.” Reisman had no tennis or racquetball background, but he doesn’t feel that mattered much in terms of his burgeoning skill. The nature of pickleball is one of inclusivity, and that is, in great part, why it’s so popular. “It’s an easy game,” he said. “Any idiot can learn to play it and do it well, and I’m proof of that.”

“I think it’s so big here because it’s a community,” Molly Lambert Tuzil offered. “You really don’t need to be amazing to pick up the sport.” Indeed, to play pickleball, all you need is the desire to play.