On paper, the sport of pickleball should have ended up one of those odd little quasi-sports they air on ESPN 8, like belt-sander racing or Quidditch. A little bit tennis, a little bit ping pong, a little bit badminton, but not quite enough of any to take itself seriously, pickleball was born when three friends on vacation in Seattle dreamt it up in the 1960s. (It being the ’60s, we’ll leave it to you to decide where they drew their inspiration from).
And yet, pickleball has risen from the ranks of odd sports to become – according to Pickleheads.com – the fastest-growing sport in America, roughly 4.8 million players strong and growing at an astonishing rate.
“Pickleball’s popularity exploded during the pandemic, when many Americans were looking for responsible ways to socialize and stay active,” said Brandon Mackie, co-founder of Pickleheads. “But that was only the beginning – pickleball’s growth has continued even as lockdowns have ended and normal life has resumed.”
That popularity’s nationwide explosion has definitely been felt here in the Lowcountry. According to data from Picklehead.com, Bluffton is the 11th most popular city in South Carolina, which itself has the 23rd most pickleball courts in the United States.
Picklehead.com lists five courts for the Bluffton area: Belfair, Hampton Lake and The Haven at New Riverside, which have two courts each; Rose Hill’s Colleton Point Racket Club, which has four; and Sun City, which has 19 courts between its north and south courts.
Rose Hill and Sun City’s courts topped the site’s list of the top courts in the greater Bluffton area, which includes three on Hilton Head: South Beach Racquet & Pickleball, Palmetto Dunes Tennis & Pickleball Center, and Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort.
It makes sense that the relatively older population of Southern Beaufort County would make it a hotbed for the sport. Less physically demanding than tennis but definitely enough of a workout to get your pulse racing, pickleball is ideal for those of us who probably wouldn’t make the cut for Wimbledon.
“Pickleball is a sport for all ages. Anyone from age 5 to 95 can play and have fun,” said Mackie.
And because the sport demands a more nuanced approach – a soft drop shot into the kitchen is usually all you need to dominate – it tends to present a more level playing field. Local musician Jevon Daly found that out when he first took to the court in 2016.
“I was getting beat up on by people who were 20, sometimes 30, years older than me,” he said. “Until you play someone who’s 75 and can beat the (stuffing) out of you, you won’t understand.”
Despite getting thoroughly demolished by his elders, Daly caught the bug just like pretty much everyone who picks up the paddle. And along the way, he discovered what might just be the most enticing aspect of the sport: the camaraderie.
“People don’t talk politics out there. They don’t talk religion. There’s a lot of trash talking, but all in all it’s a fun game,” he said. “Everyone knows each other out there… It’s an interesting little community of people.”
So, if you’re looking to find your own community in Bluffton, all you need is a paddle.
Barry Kaufman lives in Bluffton and prefers his sports on the Nintendo.