In a Pittsburgh suburb this June, a sizable crowd gathered to watch four individuals duking it out in a fiery doubles match. The MVP of the showdown? Sixty-four-year-old attorney Meg Burkardt, who didn’t realize that the three men she “whooped” that day were used to a different sport: They were Pittsburgh Steelers T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
What brought this unlikely combination of athletes to North Park on a lazy Saturday evening? The fast-growing phenomenon of pickleball.
A “sneaky-fast amalgam of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong,” pickleball was created in 1965, but its popularity has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, perhaps in part because of the coronavirus pandemic’s spiking demand for socially distanced outdoor activities. The game is enthralling everyone from youngsters to seniors, everywhere from Texas community centers to California country clubs. It’s now the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with almost 5 million “picklers” and counting — a population that has nearly doubled since 2014.
It’s easy to dismiss pickleball as a silly fad; it is, after all, called pickleball. But with so many people of different backgrounds coming together to play it, at a time when such camaraderie feels increasingly rare, there might be lessons to be gleaned from the sport’s sudden ubiquity.
New Yorker magazine writer Sarah Larson understands this, posing a question I never thought I’d ask: “Can pickleball save America?” While that headline might be tongue-in-cheek — much as I wish it could, pickleball alone won’t rescue our crumbling democracy — any phenomenon that can foster community on this scale is worth checking out. After all, getting Americans out of the house, moving and talking to one another is harder than ever. In recent decades, social isolation and polarization have been on the rise, while overall physical activity has declined. All these trends have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
According to political scientist Robert Putnam, author of the seminal 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” the United States has been struggling for some time with declining “social capital.” A community’s level of social capital is determined by the strength of the relationships forged within that social network. When we fail to meaningfully connect with one another, we can’t reap the benefits of trust, reciprocity and cooperation.
And we’re paying the price. Studies have found that societies with low social capital suffer higher rates of crime, lower quality of government and worse physical health than those with deeper connections. Sure enough: Americans today have fewer friends than ever. And when we participate in public discussions, it’s often through social media platforms engineered to profit off our divisions. By many measures, we live in a lonely, cloistered, exceptionally detached nation.
Enter pickleball. (Bear with me.)
The captivating charm of the sport is its ability to connect strangers from all walks of life. It’s easy to play, affordable, casual and relatively free of age or fitness limitations. It’s the thread uniting a group of 13 women in West Hartford, Conn., who call themselves the “Bad-Ass Babes” at their nearly daily games; it’s the wedding theme for couples who fell in love on the courts. And even if your pickleball partner doesn’t become your life partner, you might walk away from a match with a new friend.
Such relationships uplift everyone involved. New research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty picks up on the conversation about social capital, finding that at the community level, cross-class connections and friendships are the greatest booster of economic mobility. In other words, society benefits when we “play ball” (literally or figuratively) with people from different backgrounds — and develop meaningful relationships with them.
But achieving this vision isn’t without its challenges; even pickleball isn’t immune to NIMBY politics. Homeowners associations and tennis loyalists alike have taken legal action against pickleballers, complaining that the games are noisy and infringe upon the sanctity of tennis courts. These sorts of conflicts might seem small-ball, but they speak to a broader truth: For public social activities such as pickleball to thrive, they need real support.
Cities from Redondo Beach, Calif., to Lincoln, Neb., are investing in public pickleball courts —and it’s vital that local governments take this sort of initiative. After all, pickleball is a “low profit per square foot” activity (as are many of life’s greatest joys), which makes it unlikely that private developers will take the lead in creating space for it. But community initiatives that center connectedness and well-being at the local level bring returns of a different kind. Publicly financing community spaces — from pickleball courts to public parks, from adult learning centers to community gardens — can go a long way toward getting people to engage with one another.
We’ve spent a great deal of our energy and resources treating the symptoms of a polarized, disconnected, burnt-out nation. But meaningful solutions can start with real connection on a local scale — whether it’s a conversation with your neighbor or a pickup game of pickleball. Pickleball might not save America, but it’s certainly worth taking a swing at.