Pickleball is rapidly growing in popularity across the United States, with over 36 million players as of 2022. Many are now wondering if pickleball will become a high school sport. While not yet an official high school sport, pickleball is gaining traction in some schools as a club activity or part of physical education classes.
Coaches and athletic directors are advocating to add pickleball as it provides an inclusive, affordable option compared to sports like tennis or golf. The push to make pickleball a sanctioned high school sport is also viewed as a way to grow the sport long-term by getting youth involved.
However, there are hurdles to overcome, like limited facilities and the need for sanctioning by state athletic associations. Overall, the momentum is building for pickleball in schools, but it will likely take time before pickleball becomes a widespread varsity high school sport.
Once seen as a casual pastime for retirees, pickleball has transformed into a serious competitive sport with major growth at the professional level. Nearly 5 million Americans played pickleball in 2021, up 39% from 2019 according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). With celebrities like LeBron James investing in leagues and over 13,000 indoor and outdoor pickleball courts across the U.S., the sport is going pro in a major way.
Meanwhile, pickleball is also booming among high schoolers looking for a fun extracurricular activity. Competitive teens are attracted to pickleball’s fast-paced play and the opportunity to excel both individually and as a team. As more schools add pickleball through clubs or P.E. classes, the groundswell of youth involvement could make varsity pickleball teams as common as tennis, golf or badminton within this decade.
So how did this quirky paddle sport go from retiree pastime to possible high school varsity juggernaut? And what will it take for pickleball to compete with entrenched high school sports? Let’s review the meteoric rise of pickleball and why teens, coaches and parents are rallying for pickleball to become the next high school sport sensation.
Why is Pickleball Catching Fire Among High Schoolers?
While retirees helped put pickleball on the map, America’s youth are now fueling its continued growth. In fact, the SFIA projects the highest pickleball participation rate increase will come from those aged 6 to 17, skyrocketing over 40% from 2019 to 2023.
Here are key reasons why high schoolers are flocking to pickleball in droves:
- Inclusive sport for all skill levels: Unlike highly competitive sports like football or lacrosse, pickleball has a low barrier to entry for basic play. Anyone from a star athlete to a timid freshman can have fun playing doubles or rallies in P.E. class.
- Opportunity to represent their school: Teens are drawn to the chance to compete and represent their school colors. Varsity letters and other accolades add to the appeal.
- Athleticism and reaction time: Pickleball builds hand-eye coordination and reaction time. Matches and drills improve general athletic skills transferable to many sports.
- Fast-paced competitive play: Volleys move lightning quick, keeping excitement levels high. The smaller court means more action.
- Social interaction: Like golf or tennis, pickleball provides teens opportunity to bond and mingle through friendly competition.
- College scholarship chances: Varsity sports can lead to athletic scholarship opportunities. USA Pickleball now offers both college and high school competitive grants.
- A fun change from traditional sports: For teens seeking a fresh competitive activity, pickleball offers something different from mainstream sports. Uniqueness and trendiness add to the appeal among high schoolers.
As more students are exposed to pickleball through P.E. classes and clubs, word is spreading. Teens are encouraging friends to grab a paddle and join the game.
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What Will It Take for High Schools to Adopt Pickleball?
Pickleball clubs and P.E. electives are the gateway for schools adding pickleball. But what hurdles stand in the way of pickleball becoming a full-fledged high school varsity sport like tennis or golf? Here are some key factors:
State Athletic Association Approval
For any sport to be eligible for varsity status, with benefits like letter jackets and postseason championships, it must first be sanctioned by each state’s high school athletic association.
Pickleball advocates have been lobbying state athletic boards in recent years. Currently, 12 state associations have sanctioned pickleball as an official high school sport, most recently in Texas and Florida. At least 9 more states are actively considering approval based on pickleball’s surging participation among member high schools.
As more states add their stamp of approval, momentum will continue building for nationwide adoption as an “emerging sport.”
One potential limitation is appropriate pickleball facilities. Converting unused blackstops into pickleball courts is the cheapest and easiest option. But existing tennis or badminton courts can also have pickleball lines added.
Dedicated indoor and outdoor pickleball courts may require new construction and funding at some schools. However, basic equipment like movable nets and balls are quite affordable compared to other sports. Corporate sponsors can also help fund new facilities just like they do for football stadiums or baseball diamonds.
Knowledgeable coaches are vital for offering proper instruction and building competitive teams. Some schools have tapped passionate pickleball parents or volunteers from the local community to serve as coaches. And USA Pickleball’s coaching certification program is creating an expanding talent pool.
Current tennis, badminton or ping pong coaches can also oversee pickleball teams given rules similarities. Familiarity with racquet sports translates well.
Finalizing tournament formats and a statewide competitive framework is important. This includes determining categories like singles and doubles brackets, co-ed options, appropriate divisions based on school size, etc.
Many details must still be ironed out by state athletics associations. But the basic competitive elements of pickleball lend themselves well to creating championships, rivalries and memorable performances similar to other varsity sports.
What Will Varsity Pickleball Look Like?
Though some wrinkles must be ironed out, what might varsity pickleball look like as it proliferates across high schools in the coming years? Here is a glimpse:
- Dual meets against rival high schools, with separate varsity and junior varsity matches. Mixed doubles and singles brackets.
- Conference and state championships where top squads compete for titles. Could be held indoors or outdoors depending on location.
- Letter jackets & awards for pickleball athletes like other varsity sports. MVP, Most Improved Player, and other team honors.
- Intense rivalries blossoming between cross-town high schools. Pep rallies and overflow crowds for big matchups.
- Scholarship opportunities for standout players, especially at colleges where pickleball is already accepted.
- Hero status for star players who hit dramatic match-clinching shots. Feature stories in local media.
- Coach of the Year honors for pioneering coaches who build powerhouse programs.
- Parades and celebrations for schools winning state titles. Trophies displayed proudly in school trophy cases.
The unique culture surrounding pickleball is sure to translate into energetic school spirit at varsity matches. The sounds of paddles, pop music playing during games, and rowdy student cheering sections will electrify the courts.
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What Benefits Does High School Pickleball Provide?
Beyond the fun and competition, varsity pickleball can also provide some key benefits for high school students:
- Inclusiveness: More students can participate compared to single-gender sports like football or wrestling. Anyone can play doubles.
- Lifelong health: Learning pickleball provides exercise and enjoyment of racquet sports that students can carry through adulthood.
- Eye-hand coordination: Volleying back and forth enhances reactions and hand-eye coordination critical for all sports.
- Camaraderie: Partnering in doubles play teaches teamwork. Lasting friendships can form through the shared experience.
- Stress relief: The exercise and social bonding pickleball provides are proven ways to combat high school academic and social stress.
- College opportunities: Varsity and club experience can open doors to play pickleball collegiately and earn scholarships.
- Minimal barriers: Since equipment is inexpensive and basics are easy to grasp, pickleball can engage all academic and economic groups.
- Youth development: Coaches become mentors imparting lessons of discipline, perseverance and good sportsmanship.
School administrators are realizing these benefits make pickleball a valuable addition. And the clamor from students and parents eager to add programs is hard to ignore.
Will Pickleball Soon Amass Critical Mass in High Schools?
Pickleball seems primed for rapid high school adoption, but challenges remain compared to entrenched sports like basketball, volleyball and tennis. Those sports have decades of tradition, established facilities, fan followings, fundraising and alumni support.
Yet many believe pickleball could gain varsity status on par with golf or lacrosse within 5-10 years. USA Pickleball’s goal is for pickleball to become a high school sport in 25+ states while also expanding colleges’ embrace of varsity programs by 2030.
States like Michigan, Ohio and Colorado where fledgling high school leagues have already emerged will pave the way. If even bigger states like California, Texas and Florida onboard, the floodgates could open.
As Generation Z spearheads pickleball’s growth at the youth level, they will soon be the parents and decision makers driving its integration into high schools. And pickleball-mad communities will continue advocating and even funding new school facilities.
The pieces seem in motion for pickleball to reach the critical mass needed at the high school level. Tipping points often happen faster than expected once momentum shifts. For pickleball, the surge in interest has happened so suddenly that high school adoption already appears imminent.
The day may soon arrive when students suit up in pickleball uniforms representing their schools, cheered on by spirited peers and parents. When that varsity scene becomes reality, it will signal pickleball planting firm roots as more than just a fleeting fad. As an inclusive, lifelong sport embraced across generations, the future looks bright for pickleball becoming a staple of the American high school experience.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What are the key benefits of pickleball for high school students?
Pickleball provides high school students great exercise, enhances hand-eye coordination useful for all sports, and teaches teamwork through doubles play. It is also an inclusive sport accessible to all academic and athletic abilities. The opportunity to represent their school, bond socially with classmates, and relieve academic stress are also attractive benefits for teens.
How does pickleball differ from tennis which is already a high school sport?
While both racquet sports share similarities, pickleball is played on a smaller court with a lower net using a perforated plastic ball and smaller paddles. Games typically go faster with more volleying. Rules are simpler overall, allowing new players to pick up the game faster. And pickleball can more easily accommodate multiple skill levels playing together.
What will it take for more states to sanction high school varsity pickleball?
State athletic associations must approve pickleball for it to become an official varsity sport with postseasons and accolades. That requires a groundswell of interest from member schools fielding teams or clubs. As facilities are added to accommodate student demand, statewide leagues can develop and work with state boards to finalize competition frameworks.
How much does basic pickleball equipment cost for a new school team?
Pickleball paddles start as low as $20 each. Balls cost around $2 apiece. Nets run $100-$150. So a full class set of equipment can be purchased affordably. Many schools tape lines on blacktop or existing tennis courts to create cheap pickleball space. Total startup costs can be under $1,000.
Will pickleball provide athletic scholarship opportunities like other varsity sports?
As pickleball popularity swells on high school and college campuses, athletic scholarship opportunities are expanding. USA Pickleball and other associations now offer scholarships for youth standouts. And the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics recently adopted pickleball as an “emerging sport” to spur varsity expansion and possible scholarships.
Pickleball has surged from quirky origins 50+ years ago to the fast-growing paddle sport sweeping the nation today. Its accessible and welcoming vibe has made pickleball an intergenerational phenomenon. But the sport’s bright future may now rest on teenagers rushing to grab paddles.
Their grassroots enthusiasm for pickleball is fueling its expansion into high school P.E. classes and clubs. That interest has sparked a movement by coaches, administrators and parents to push for varsity status. Sanctioning by state athletic associations, along with added facilities, will likely make high school pickleball teams commonplace within this decade.
The stage is set for pickleball to follow an ascent seen by sports like lacrosse or competitive cheer. Young superstars could emerge, college scholarships may await, and intense school rivalries will form. Pickleball’s integration into high schools will signal its firm standing as more than just a passing trend.
Teen passion, social connection, friendly competition and sheer fun are at the heart of pickleball’s appeal and rapid growth. As today’s students become tomorrow’s fans, perhaps the sight of a fired-up pickleball crowd cheering a high stakes match under the lights will become a celebrated slice of the American school experience.