A group of senators from both parties have picked up paddles and joined the fastest growing sport in America – pickleball. Once a week, the bipartisan group sets aside politics to play pickleball together. For Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), those moments of human connection help build relationships and make it harder to treat people poorly.
“It’s kind of hard to treat people in an untoward way if you’ve been out on pickleball court, on a mountain bike trail, spent time with them,” Tillis told NPR. “We need more of that.”
The game combines ping pong, badminton and tennis. It has spread from high school gym classes and retirement communities to a multimillion-dollar professional league. Teams are owned by celebrities like LeBron James, Chris Evert, Tom Brady and Drake.
Building Relationships on the Court
West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) took up pickleball during the pandemic as a way to spend time outdoors with family. She co-chairs the new Senate pickleball caucus with Tillis and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R).
Nodding to fights over federal spending, Capito said, “All of the cares, or all of the worries are in front of us, and we’ll deal with those, but not this morning.”
Capito believes sports help build relationships, regardless of party. “It’s a way to sit down after the game and talk about your family or the game. It’s a way to connect in a different way, more relaxed.”
Having a court near the office makes it convenient to play. “There are no excuses,” said Tillis. “You can play before a committee meeting, then shower and be at work.”
Tillis plays with staff and says they don’t go easy on him. “They trash talk me, humiliate me, we have fun,” he said.
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Fastest Growing Sport Looks to Expand
Pickleball has exploded with 48 million Americans now playing regularly, according to Steve Kuhn, founder of Major League Pickleball. Kuhn joined the senators on the court to give tips from the pros. He also lobbied for federal money to expand pickleball into more urban areas and make it available to all ages.
“In every community in America I think the cost of creating pickleball courts is relatively low compared to the amount of impact that it has,” Kuhn said.
Ten years ago, most pickleball players were in their 50s. Now the average age is in the 30s. “This sport is the Benjamin Button of sports. It gets younger every year,” Kuhn said.
He brought members of the DC pro pickleball team who played college tennis to give a clinic. Kuhn said prize money in the pro league grew from $1 million to $5 million in just a year. Investment in teams started at $100,000 and some teams now sell for $10 million, with celebrities investing.
Bringing House and Senate Together
Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (D-CA), 34, says some House members are starting their own pickleball caucus. Unlike the Senate, they don’t have their own court and need a senator’s invitation to use the Dirksen court.
Jacobs, usually a tennis player, was invited by Capito after her parents started playing during COVID. “It’s a really fun way to have intergenerational camaraderie,” Jacobs said.
Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) joked that her laidback Wyoming style clashed with the aggressive style of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). But Lummis plans to keep playing. “Anybody can play at any age and everybody can play together,” she said.
Gillibrand negotiated court time around Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) basketball games. She wanted to try pickleball and get tips from the DC pros. Like Capito, she believes pickleball can build relationships like the women’s softball team does. “I think pickleball can do the same thing. Pickleball is also co-ed so we can bring our male colleagues into this,” Gillibrand said.
The lawmakers finished their games and headed back to work. Kuhn passed out hats saying “Pickleball will save America.” Maybe it won’t do that, but Capito said the caucus will keep meeting weekly and leave politics off the court, even if just for a few hours.