When winter comes, New Yorkers rush to Wollman Rink, the skating rink south of Central Park, to shine on the ice amid trees and skyscrapers. These days, they go there to indulge in a new kind of hobby: pickleball.
36 million followers in 2022
A mixture of ping-pong, badminton and tennis, this activity which is practiced on a small field with a plastic ball with a hole in it is the new obsession of Americans. With more than 36 million followers in 2022, it would experience the strongest growth of all sports across the Atlantic. Its adoption by many entertainment stars (George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio…) and the investments in professional teams made by big names in sports, such as basketball legend LeBron James, have certainly helped.
For Lydia Hirt, there is no mystery: “It’s a very accessible sport, open to all levels and ages, which doesn’t require a lot of equipment”, enthuses this former employee of a large publishing house. In 2023, she became marketing manager at CityPickle, the manager of the 14 courts installed at the location of the Central Park ice rink until October.
Soon under the Eiffel Tower?
In September, the company will open the first indoor courts in the Big Apple, complete with a restaurant and bar. “There is a strong potential for development abroad too!»observes Lydia Hirt, who would see many players crossing the racket under the Eiffel Tower.
According to USA Pickleball, which governs the sport nationally, the activity originated in the 1960s, when a Washington state congressman and a businessman friend of his were looking for a way to take care of their families. With no satisfactory solutions, they traded punched balls on a badminton court using ping pong paddles. Later, with a third accomplice, they established the rules of the game and gradually refined its practice.
The hobby remained low-key until the pandemic. “People were looking for safe, socially distanced ways to exercise outside,” analyzes Julie Talerico, editor-in-chief of Pickleball Magazinea trade publication that reaches 2.1 million people. “This sport also gives the opportunity to make friends. From the start, the culture surrounding the game has been welcoming and inclusive. » In fact, the discipline, which is practiced in twos or fours, is mixed and appeals to both retirees and young athletes. Anna Leigh Waters, the youngest professional in the discipline, is 16 years old.
The noise of the bullets can disturb
New Yorker Eric Ho is among those who got into it during the pandemic. He ended up quitting his job in finance in 2022 to teach. “It has become an object of pop culturehe notes. Previously, we were pleasantly surprised to meet people who wanted to practice it. Now everyone is interested but there is not enough infrastructure to support growth. This causes friction. »
This is especially true in densely populated places like New York, where space is expensive. Due to a lack of land, some players have invested in unsuitable public spaces, causing tensions. For example, in lower Manhattan, exasperated residents have obtained the banishment of pickleball from a local playground following a petition that has collected more than 3,000 signatures. “Players would come in the morning with their nets and prevent the kids from riding their bikes. The police had to intervene! », says a local trader. The heady noise of the bullets has also given rise to legal proceedings in several American localities.
Injuries, especially among seniors
The risk of injury is also debated. Investment bank UBS estimated in June that these could cost Americans up to $377 million this year. Seniors, who represent a third of followers, are the most affected.
Retired from New York, Dominique had to stop after breaking her meniscus while playing three times a week. Much to his regret: ” I havefinally found an activity that allowed me to meet nice people and do some physical exerciseshe breathes. I miss it. “We talk a lot about injuries, retorts Eric Ho, mleast of all the individuals whose mental and physical health improves thanks to pickleball. »