Due to its rising popularity at Southern Adventist University, pickleball will be taught as a class next semester, according to Darin Bissel, facilities manager for the Hulsey Wellness Center. Southern’s online course catalog shows that the class is already full, with a waitlist of four students as of Monday, Nov. 6.
The trend is not just happening on campus. Pickleball has been America’s fastest growing sport for the past three years, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) Topline Participation Report. In the United States, pickleball now has 8.9 million players over the age of six, the report states.
Troy Walker, professor in the School of Health and Kinesiology and director of intramurals, said he has seen pickleball’s popularity continue to grow during his tenure at Southern.
“Every year it seems to be more popular than the last,” he said.
Walker teaches the basic tennis class at Southern, and when rain forces the class off the outdoor courts, he teaches his students pickleball in the gym.
“After one class period of learning how to play pickleball, they were loving it,” Walker said. “They’d be like, ‘Walker can you make this an intramural sport?’”
Pickleball was added to the intramural program in 2021 and has been a hit ever since, according to Walker.
Bissell said a key indicator of pickleball’s popularity on campus is the activity on Southern’s courts.
“I mean, you just go out onto the courts in the evenings, especially evenings when the weather’s nice, [and] they’re hopping,” he said.
According to Bissell, even Southern’s upper courts, which are reserved for tennis and don’t have pickleball lines, sometimes accommodate pickleball players who need a place to play.
Pickleball is often played on modified tennis courts, although the net height for the sport is shorter than the net height for tennis. Pickleball also requires smaller court dimensions so tennis court lines cannot be used.
According to Walker and Bissell, court space at Southern’s tennis and pickleball courts has been affected by pickleball’s popularity. Walker said Southern’s tennis intramural players have had difficulty at times finding court space.
“We have to kind of battle for space sometimes with the pickleball players,” Walker said.
However, tennis continues to grow in popularity at Southern alongside pickleball. According to Walker, more tennis doubles teams signed up for intramurals this semester than ever before.
“It’s not like pickleball is taking over tennis, thankfully,” he said. “ … There is still an active desire to have tennis tournaments and leagues and so forth.”
Pickleball’s popularity in the local, off-campus community has also limited court space for students at Southern. Although there are signs on the courts saying students have priority, it is difficult for students to tell this to community members using the courts, Walker said.
“These courts are here first and foremost for the students,” Walker said, “but we don’t mind being open to the community. We just need to serve the students first. The community use of [the courts] has caused even more of an issue [to] where we really need to build pickleball courts.”
According to Walker and Bissell, although there is no timeline or confirmation that Southern will be building pickleball courts, the idea has been discussed.
“That conversation is going on now between our department and Plant Services and administration,” Walker said.
“We’ve been talking with a number of people, … and it’s just a matter of funding and nailing down a location and stuff like that,” Bissell said.
When asked if he thinks pickleball will maintain its popularity, Bissel said: “It’s hard to say. Certain sports come and they die, [and] it’s really hard to tell on some of those. But you’ve got celebrities sponsoring teams these days, so it kind of looks like it’s gonna stick around.”
Walker, on the other hand, is confident pickleball will have staying power and continue growing alongside tennis.
“Honestly, when it first started booming, I thought, ‘This could be a fad,’” he said. “I don’t think so anymore. I really think it’s here to stay; it’s only gonna keep going. And I won’t stop pushing tennis either. I feel like there’s a place for both.”