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Why Pickleball?

With Ajay Pant

Season 5, Episode 2 | April 26, 2022

Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America — but why? Ajay Pant shares the reasons the sport has exploded in popularity and what it is about the game that hooks players of all ages and experience levels once they give it a try.

Ajay Pant is the senior director of racquet sports at Life Time and one of 14 master tennis professionals around the globe.

In this episode, Pant shares the reasons pickleball has become so popular:

  • It appeals to the masses. The low-impact nature of the sport is why pickleball was originally seen as an activity for older adults. Yet that’s far from the case now — people of all ages are taking up the sport, with the average player age now being 43.5. Anecdotally, Pant says about 20 percent of the population playing at Life Time is under the age of 30.
  • The players are social. Pant reflects that tennis has always been considered one of the more social sports, but that pickleball players are a whole new level of friendly. He notes there are no cliques and no one cares what level you’re at; if you show up, people will want you to play with them.
  • There’s no learning curve. Even someone who is uncoordinated and has never played another racquet sport could be playing pickleball within about 10 minutes, says Pant. Compared to other racquet sports, the ball travels slower, the paddle is easier to manipulate, the playing space is smaller, and there are no specific movement patterns to learn.
  • It benefits your health. The sport is low impact, making it easier on your joints, knees, and lower back, as well as a great option for active recovery. Playing pickleball can help support low blood pressure, benefit heart health, and offers about a 40 percent greater calorie burn than walking.

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Transcript: Why Pickleball?

Season 5, Episode 2  | April 26, 2022

[MUSIC PLAYING] Hey, everyone. We’re back with Life Time Talks. I’m Jamie Martin.

And I’m David Freeman.

And we have Ajay Pant with us today. He is the senior director of Racquet Sports at Life Time, and one of 14 master tennis professionals around the globe. And we are talking about pickleball, which if you have not been hearing about pickleball, you’re going to be seeing more and more of it. I just can imagine. So Ajay, welcome to Life Time Talks. Thanks for being with us.

Thank you for having me.

All right, so tell us what is pickleball, and why is it growing in popularity?

Pickleball is a cross between badminton, ping pong, and tennis. It’s been around since the mid 70s, but it really took off during the pandemic. While other sports had a downturn, pickleball grew by 22% during the pandemic because it’s just incredibly social, it’s outdoors, and there is literally no learning curve. I mean, even if you gave us someone who was supremely uncoordinated and has never played any other sport, if you’re not playing in 10 minutes, pickleball 10 minutes by the clock, then I will be fine.

There’s an ease of learning. It is incredible fun. Tennis has been always one of the most social sports in this country. Pickleball makes tennis people look like a bunch of amateurs. They’re just that friendly. There’s no clicks, no one cares about levels. No one even asked you what your level. You just show up, and people want you to play.

And there’s incredible health benefits which obviously for lifetime. We’re a healthy way of life. You get about a 40% larger calorie burn than just walking, and you’re sweating, and you guarantee it’s a social time but it’s very low impact on the joints, knees, and lower back, which is why initially, it was targeted folks more like in the 60 plus 65 plus range but that’s completely outdated.

I should also mention that while we’re still gathering evidence, we do have some level of research about a 60% reduced chance of a heart attack, and hopefully, we can quantify that x number of years to your life. So there’s nothing not to like it. It is absolutely hands down the biggest explosion we’ve had since the mid 70s in racquet sports in this country. Tennis is what happened in the 70s. And now of course, this is just as I tell people, you’re either playing pickleball or you’re about to play pickleball. That’s the only two kind of people we have.

That’s awesome. When I hear those numbers grew by 22%, fastest growing sport in America, I saw another stat saying at least 4.2 million Americans now have at least, played at once within a year’s time frame. One thing that we’ve been able to do is add this to a lot of our facilities at Life Time.

With that being said, the one thing that you mentioned is the adoption to being able to play this sport. So easy to learn, so that’s why you probably have seen so many people participating. What makes it so easy to learn the rules? Like, can you go a little bit into detail about that?

Sure, and your question is very good. I should mention for us as a company, and this is driven by the vision of our founder, we’ve gone from about 27 clubs last January to 120 today. That includes close to 200 permanent dedicated pickleball courts, not just a gym floor. So we’re pretty proud and we’re putting our money where our mouth is to say, we support racket sports. And we should be seen as the leader because we’ve earned the right to be the leader. It’s also a responsibility.

But to your question which again, I think is germane, the reason pickleball is so easy– one, think of a glorified wiffle ball. That what the ball is. So the ball moves– it’s got multiple holes, 26 to 40 holes in it. So the ball moves incredibly slower compared to any other ball. You have a lot more reaction time. Two, a tennis court is 78 feet. So a pickleball court is 44 feet long, 20 feet wide.

So when you’re talking about a lot less– and the kitchen area that the no value zone, which is where a lot of people is played, it’s 14 feet of space. So you’re looking at an ease of the ball traveling, more reaction time. The paddle is again, I’m using some sports sign, it’s a lever, but it’s a much easier lever to manipulate than any other sport in Tennis or Squash, anything else.

So you’ve got almost like an extension of your hand. You’ve got a ball that’s super slow, you’ve got 14 feet of space to play in. There’s nothing not to like, and the movement is absolutely oversimplified. There’s no specific movement patterns. It’s just you shuffle, and you hit the ball.

So all of those, and plus, I don’t want to overlook the obvious, it is such a social sport. People don’t even mind waiting. And while they’re waiting, everyone’s having sandwiches and whatever else people come with. And afterwards, everyone’s having beer and wine. It’s just one of those that’s part of the culture. So all of that David, is why you have such a broad massive obsession with the sport.

You mentioned or we’ve done articles too, noting about how the average age of players is dropping for pickleball. It’s historically been seen as because it’s low impact, more for maybe the healthy agers in our audience, but really it’s for everybody. So tell us a little bit about that trend that we’re seeing as well.

Yeah, no, thank, you Jamie. Yeah, absolutely. The trend prior to the pandemic was we were typically looking at the quintessential aging boomers if you will, people like me, very old. But when you look at that model, 60, 65, all of that is totally changed. The average age now is 43 and 1/2. We are seeing in our clubs more and more and more.

And I don’t have the exact data, but anecdotally, at least 20% of our population now is under 30, and that they’re coming in droves. We also now have– one of the kids actually young man, he’s 11 years old, Gavin. We’ve got a couple of the kids that I know of. These are kids 11, 12, 13, and they’re all playing national level pickleball. The number one lady in the world right now is 14.

And the bigger selling point to me, most people we’ve always heard you’ve got to have some racket sports background to pick up on the racket sport. But now you’ve got these nationally ranked players, professional players under 16, under 18, they have never played any other racket sport to their entrant pickleball, and training only for pickleball and becoming incredibly good at pickleball. That’s a game changer for how you view the sport. We’re attracting now an audience which you never thought of picking a ball with that audience.

I’ve actually seen some big names playing the sport– Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney. So when I think of golf in that social atmosphere, and what that looked like over the years, do you see pickleball being like the new place to go as far as on outings with executives and family and stuff now?

We absolutely do. And you talk of golf, golf of course as you know, is one of the steepest learning curves. So you can play for fun, you know. It’s a celeb event, but you’re not going to actually be playing. Pickleball, we’ve lost track of how many– to who’s who are playing pickleball for the social dimension. So 98% of pickleball players currently do not compete in tournaments. 2% actually, the rest is going to have fun and sweat and make new friends, that’s all they want to do.

So you broke that down. You said, so that’s 98% of people pretty much do it for fun and 2% are at the professional level is what I’m hearing?

Not even professional, David. 2% are actually looking to say, I need to compete. I get a high out of competing, I need to win or I need to compete. 98 % up again, I’m from a different background with tennis. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I mean, we play because I want to beat you that’s why I play. This is a very different paradigm. And the ones who are playing professionally were hosting a bunch of tournament, lifetime along with some of the international tournament buddies.

The thing which has also caught me off guard is at that level, and again, I haven’t played at that world class level, but I’ve coached a lot in tennis, these athletes now in pickleball are training verbatim to tennis. This is very, very serious business.

And again, they’re the most approachable, you can have the world number one, number two, number three, they’ll be with the crowd mingling you know, kissing babies, and then going out there and competing. And after that, they’re hanging out with the crowd again, having a hot dog or is just a very different culture.

I got it. I’m sorry Jimmy, I have to ask, because I know that when I just mentioned golf or tennis, when it came to all right, I want to take this more serious, the cost is always that barrier of entry to get to that next level. With this being so many people playing it, is it an easier access point for individuals now to get a coach is it more cost effective? What’s your thoughts on it?

Yeah, that’s an incredibly good question. And one of the things which the industry is still coming to grips with lifetime obviously, we have a strategic vision behind this, this is not a big time coaching sport. You’re not going to have someone saying, I want a blessing, I want a league and I want two private’s a week. You don’t need to. I mean, I’m being somewhat silly obviously, if you can count to three, and you have a pulse, you’re going to be playing.

Now the reason people will take more, it’s a different format– they’re much more into a group, eight people with the pro. So you’re playing and there’s some tactics delivered. So the whole model of what we think of in terms of teaching and how much money you make, that model doesn’t even apply to pickleball.

Pickleball is all about a lot of just terrific people who want to come into the sport and play. It’s not about I need to take a lot of lessons, it’s all about playing. And you know, you’re playing it half an hour, you’re playing, keeping score. So that changes the dynamic big time.

Absolutely. What I’m hearing so much in this is that it just sounds like it’s fun and joy. And we want people– one thing we talk about is for people to move consistently but find ways to do it that are bringing them joy and fun. And it sounds like from this, it’s all of the elements that are kind of this holistic way of moving, plus it’s social, it’s physical, it’s just joyful. And to me, that’s such an amazing thing to bring to more people and that we have a place to provide it.

Maybe you summed it up rather eloquently.

Yeah, well I think I have not played pickleball. I remember playing pickleball back in high school. We had a session on pickleball back early late 90s, I would say, it was when I was playing pickleball. I haven’t been back on the court yet, but it’s on my list within the next couple of weeks here. So Ajay, anything else to add about pickleball before we sign off?

No, I think the only two things– one of course, I’m a little surprised, I thought high school for you was last year. So I’m little bit–

You’re kind.

In terms of winding up with pickleball, my single biggest message to anyone, including you or someone else who has not tried it, don’t even think twice. Just take a paddle. And obviously if you’re here or with Life Time, especially Minneapolis here, just give me a holler. When you go out this afternoon, hit for 10, 15 minutes because the level of enjoyment and the level of instantaneous gratification are actually playing.

Never mind that you folks are pretty good athletes, so you’ll probably be at a higher level. It’s so quick and you’re sweating within 15, 20 minutes, and you’re making friends, and you’re too busy laughing. I would urge you to give it a shot.

At corporate, I’ve lost track of how many people have taken 10 minutes with me or someone else. Then they play for two hours, and they play for twice a week, and they’re playing– I mean, our founder, Bahram, is playing about– and I’m being conservative here, four hours at a stretch, and sometimes, it’s twice a week. That’s a pickleball. But once you try it, you just get so addicted to it. So I would urge you for no other reason, just to go you know, this is way too much fun, give it a shot.

[INAUDIBLE], I love it. David, anything else? Any other questions for Ajay?

I do want to throw one more at you Ajay, when it comes to youth, we’re talking about youth and movement, and I like what you said earlier as far as the easy adoption to it, so is this something we are seeing schools add to programs as well?

That’s a very, very good question. The movement has started. Some States are more progressive, as Florida for one because it’s just taken over Florida, and the tennis clubs closing up, converting pickleball. Florida has– I believe there’s two of the states that they’re introducing it because it’s a no brainer. I mean, you can get paddled for 30 bucks, the ball never breaks. You can play for a couple of months of the balls. And you can play it in a parking lot, asphalt, gym, it doesn’t make any difference.

So that’s picking up. There’s some talk as well with the momentum that this could be an NCAA Sport, you know, but that’s not happening this year, but that’s in the works. There’s just too many good things. And I’d be remiss for all of us who have kids, especially for both of you with younger kids. My kids are married. Dads and moms can play this with the kids.

And the ball evens out, so I don’t care how good you are or how good you think you are, the ball evens it out. And the whole family can get out there and say you know, it’s not even like we need lessons or we need to wait for a couple of months before we can serve. You just go on the court 15, 20 minutes with anyone who’s certified. Half hour tops, you all play. So that’s a big attraction, and we’re finding more and more families upgrading because they want to play pickleball together.

It’s so fun. Well, my daughter just started tennis lessons, but I know we want to get out on those pickleball courts too, so.

Well, I will say again, if you cut my wrist, this tennis blood coming out, so I’m ecstatic to hear your daughter’s started tennis. She could also dabble in pickleball and hopefully, play both sports. Because they don’t mess with each other, and they’re just great fun.

Awesome. Well Ajay, thank you so much for coming on. I know this is a hot topic for our listeners and for Life Time members right now, so thanks for telling us a little bit more about this sport.

Thank you so much for having me. I’m very, very appreciative of your time.


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