With Wimbledon just finishing, I found myself comparing the pickleball boom with the great tennis boom. I was in the catbird’s seat of the tennis boom in the early ’70s when Wilson Sporting Goods enjoyed incredible market share in both tennis rackets and tennis balls, and the sales were extraordinary.
Wilson was a very active participant in driving that growth and had a department known simply as the Wilson Tennis Promotion Department. It was organized by Olen Parks, the road manager and partner of the famous Jack Kramer tennis barnstorming tour that had taken tennis around America. Jack and Olen knew everyone in tennis as a result of the tour, and the surge of tennis, like a developing wave, followed their road tour over the next decade.
Right time, right place. I was fortunate to be hired to work in the Tennis Promotion Department. One day I was giving Salisbury’s Frank Perdue a tennis lesson, and two weeks later was attending, as a member of the Tennis Promotion Department, a Virginia Slims press conference with Billie Jean King in San Francisco. Billie was just one of the greats, including Kramer, Chris Evert, Stan Smith and Jimmy Connors, to endorse Wilson.
Tennis was so popular then that masked gunmen robbed the Los Angeles office of Wilson by gunpoint and took an entire tractor-trailer load of tennis balls because of a national shortage. (The smalltime hoods were soon arrested, when they drove up to a big-box retailer in the tractor-trailer when the news was abuzz about the heist. Dah!)
Celebrity tennis television shows populated TV Guide. Movie stars and television celebrities called regularly for their free rackets. High-end tennis camps grew like mushrooms. Newspaper articles appeared monthly about the shortage of tennis balls, tennis rackets and the 34 million tennis players. Events like Wimbledon had an estimated billion viewers around the globe.
But many of those people in the great tennis boom played tennis only once or twice, and many just wanted to buy a racket, or an expensive Fila Training Suit, and be part of the popularity.
My responsibilities at Wilson focused on subtly influencing the choice of product of the much smaller percentage of those 34 million who were heavy users. I called them “tennis players,” not “people playing tennis.”
It is that small percentage of tennis participants who share a comparison to pickleball. They played two to three times a week, for two to three hours per session. Like pickleball, what were absolute “How to Play” rules of tennis before the tennis boom also kept changing, and then the oversized tennis racket absolutely changed the face of tennis from who played and how it was played.
Like tennis, pickleball growth has also been explosive — so explosive there are only very rough estimates as to how many players there are. It is currently reported on the USAPA website that there were in 2016 an estimated 2.5 million pickleball players and 37 percent of them were playing a minimum eight times a year. I have read other estimates that these numbers are supposed to quickly double and then double again.
When we announce clinics locally, we typically have five to 10 times more participants show up than those pre-registered. My experience is that pickleballers play at least twice a week, sometimes four times a week, for two- to three-hour sessions.
Both are great sports, both have enjoyed participation explosions, but the big growth of tennis was tied to televised tennis, and that was buttressed by celebrity tennis. In fact, one of the pivotal televised matches took place just 30 miles from here, in 1966, in the old Salisbury (Md.) Civic Center on canvas stretched across a wooden floor.
Chuck McKinley beat his Davis Cup teammate Dennis Ralston in five long sets. The New Yorker wrote a feature article about the tennis tournament attended by 3,500 people in a town with a population of just 16,000.
The promoter, Bill Riordan — the manager of world-class sensation Jimmy Connors and a Salisbury resident — was a circus-style tennis promoter who shocked the patrician country-club tennis establishment. The duo played a significant role bringing tennis to the masses.
In comparison, pickleball is driven by folks sharing their pickleball experience with friends and neighbors, which explains the much higher participation rate. There has been little television coverage to expand the sport, although YouTube provides much information.
My most interesting observation about the similarities and differences between these hardcore tennis players and pickleballers is noise. If someone is looking for some new tennis court location, they might have to ask directions before they see their courts, but if they are looking for pickleball courts, they can hear the laughter long before seeing the courts.
Boom vs boom. It would be but an educated guess, but the number of very active pickleballers might soon exceed hardcore tennis players. The good fellowship and aerobic benefits from both sports serve our racket-sports community well. Whether pickleball, tennis or any racket sport, take a stroll over to your local court. You will soon pull on your belt cinches and pull that bad boy in — maybe several inches.
Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.