From 2018 to 2023, the number of people participating in pickleball doubled, making it the fastest-growing sport in the country. With devotees in 70 countries, pickleball has become a global phenomenon. The year 2021 saw the establishment of Major League Pickleball in the United States, and there is talk of it becoming an Olympic event. NCAA pickleball seems like the next logical step.
What Would It Mean To Recognize NCAA Pickleball?
With the momentum that pickleball has, there is certainly a case for formally recognizing it as an intercollegiate sport. Nevertheless, there are some obstacles that players and proponents have to overcome first.
What Is Pickleball?
Pickleball is a racquet sport that combines elements of badminton, ping-pong, and tennis:
- Played on a badminton-sized court
- Uses paddles as in ping-pong
- Has a net similar to a tennis net, though lower in the middle
As with the sports it is modeled on, pickleball has singles, doubles, and mixed doubles competitions.
Dating back to 1965, pickleball was the invention of three neighbors trying to come up with a way to entertain their bored children one summer. The inventors of pickleball made use of whatever materials they had handy, particularly a whiffle ball and some ping-pong paddles. Once the inventors established scoring and rules, pickleball took off quickly:
- 1967: Construction of the first permanent pickleball court
- 1972: Formation of a corporation to protect pickleball creation
- 1984: Governance by the official USA Pickleball Association
The home of pickleball is a community north of Seattle, and today pickleball is the official sport of Washington state.
Though originally invented to entertain children, pickleball soon became popular with adults. Older adults appreciated it as a way to stay active without putting significant stress on their bodies. Two-thirds of pickleball players are over 25 years old, and the average age of players is about 43. However, many players report first learning about the sport and picking it up in college, which supports the argument for NCAA pickleball.
What Is the NCAA?
The NCAA began as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1906. Four years later, it changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. At the time, schools were talking about abolishing football completely because of the dangers it posed to student-athletes, so the NCAA’s initial purpose was to set new safety standards and regulations for college football.
Today, the NCAA governs many different intercollegiate athletics, not just football. It regulates intercollegiate competitions and sets eligibility standards for students who participate to protect them from exploitative practices and keep a focus on academics. A nonprofit organization, the NCAA generates huge revenues with television contracts, ticket sales, and endorsements, which it then allocates to scholarships and other forms of financial support for member colleges as well as individual athletes.
What Is the Current Status of Pickleball on College Campuses?
As of now, there is no such thing as NCAA pickleball. Because schools do not actively organize tournaments or games, it has no official recognition as a collegiate sport.
Nevertheless, pickleball is gaining popularity on college campuses just as it is across the rest of the country. Some students have fond memories of playing pickleball with family members when they were younger and want to keep up with the hobby. Others hear about pickleball for the first time in college and want to find out what the sport with the funny name is all about. Student organizations often include pickleball clubs in which members get together to compete against each other in games or tournaments.
The first intercollegiate pickleball tournament took place in 2017 between Southern Utah University and a school now known as Utah Tech University. Today, intercollegiate pickleball takes place on a small scale. Five U.S. schools have clubs that are official members of USA Pickleball:
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri
- North Carolina State University in Raleigh
- ERAU in Daytona Beach, Florida
- Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado
There are many more schools that, while not officially a part of USA Pickleball, take part in national tournaments. These include Western Michigan University, the University of Iowa, and Texas A&M University. Clubs such as these could be laying the groundwork for NCAA pickleball in the future.
College pickleball clubs are even innovating the sport by introducing their own rules. For example, an ordinary pickleball game is played to 11 points; in college pickleball clubs, games are going to 15. Other innovations by college pickleball teams include:
- Simplified system for skill rating
- Cumulative team scoring (i.e., the match is won by the team that scores the most points over three games)
- Matches consisting of the best of five games to win (as opposed to the best of three)
What Are the General Benefits of Playing Pickleball for College Students?
Whether formally as part of a club or informally on their own, playing pickleball can benefit college students in many ways.
The “freshman 15” describes the phenomenon of new college students putting on weight (supposedly 15 lbs) during their first semester. There are many factors that may contribute to this, such as a more sedentary lifestyle spent studying and sitting in class, unhealthy cafeteria food with lots of fats and sugars, and a lapse in healthy habits due to living independently for what is often the first time in many students’ lives.
Whatever the cause, being overweight can contribute to chronic health problems, such as diabetes. Pickleball provides a fun way for students to stay active throughout college and beyond.
Socializing and making friends can sometimes be a challenge for students, especially those who are shy or introverted. Other students end up socializing in ways that are unhealthy, such as going to parties and using drugs or alcohol illegally. Pickleball can be a fun, healthy way for college students to spend time with friends and socialize. It can also be a way for students to meet people who have similar interests and make new friends in the process. As people who enjoy pickleball often play it for years, the friends they make in the process may become lifelong companions and confidantes.
Many new college students struggle to find a niche where they belong within the campus community. Learning to play pickleball can give them a sense of identity and purpose. It can introduce them to a group of people with which they belong. Eventually, success in NCAA pickleball, if it ever gains this recognition, could give players the confidence they need to excel in their studies.
The rigors of academic life can exert tremendous pressure on students, especially during finals. Unfortunately, the body always deals with stress in the same way, whether faced with a predator or a final examination. When the body experiences stress, it produces a hormone called cortisol. The purpose of cortisol is to help the person deal with a life-threatening situation by either fighting or running away. Like an alarm system, it triggers the areas of the brain that control emotions such as fear. It also suppresses systems that are not helpful in a life-threatening emergency, such as the growth processes, the reproductive system, and the nervous system.
Constant stress can keep the body alert at all times, which can contribute to a number of problems:
- Concentration and memory impairment
- Sleep disruptions
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
- Depression or anxiety
High cortisol levels can also strain the cardiovascular system. This can lead to chronic high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack.
Pickleball can give students an excuse to take a break from studying and do something that relaxes them. Research shows that taking purposeful breaks from studying can actually help to improve focus and increase productivity. According to the research, a break lasting anywhere from five minutes to 60 minutes can be beneficial. An hour’s break may provide enough time to play an entire pickleball match, as each game usually lasts around 20 minutes.
Moreover, engaging in physical activity such as pickleball can decrease the levels of cortisol in the body as students channel their heightened stress into a constructive outlet. Exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins, neurotransmitters that promote calm and relaxation.
What Are the Potential Benefits of NCAA Pickleball for Students?
If the NCAA were to officially recognize pickleball as a collegiate sport, students could enjoy the same benefits of playing that they do now, but there could also be other advantages.
With NCAA support, colleges could offer scholarships to promising players in exchange for their agreeing to play for the university. Elite pickleball collegiate athletes could also potentially earn money of their own through endorsements, thanks to a recent NCAA rule change that allows college athletes to receive payments for the use of their names, images, and likenesses.
Lower Chances of Injury Than Other NCAA Sports
Basketball, football, and tennis are examples of sports for which the NCAA and member universities can award significant scholarships. Unfortunately, however, they are also sports that carry a high risk of injury. Recovery from sports injuries can take a long time. High school athletes who suffer injuries sometimes have to stop playing and lose the chance at a scholarship, and perhaps the chance of obtaining a college education at all.
Common basketball injuries include:
- Achilles tears
- Ankle sprains
- Knee injuries, e.g. sprains or tears of the anterior cruciate ligament
Despite early efforts starting with the proto-NCAA, the risk of injuries from football remains even more significant. Football can cause shoulder dislocations; strains of the groin, hamstring, and quadriceps muscles; and collarbone sprainst. Worse yet, football can cause concussions. Over time, multiple concussions can decrease brain function.
While pickleball is similar to tennis, it is much lower impact. As a result, it is easier on joints such as the knees and hips. Pickleball can cause injuries similar to those that result from tennis, such as lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow. However, because a pickleball is perforated and hollow, it is easier to hit than a solid tennis ball. Therefore, the risk of developing lateral epicondylitis may be lower.
The risk of injuries while playing pickleball is low. The rules are simple, and the game is easy to pick up in a short amount of time, especially for people already familiar with tennis. The recognition of NCAA pickleball could offer an alternative to students who have to give up their primary sports because of injury. Learning pickleball could give them another chance at an athletic scholarship and higher education. (Of course, this presumes that injured students have recovered sufficiently to attempt a different sport, a determination for a doctor to make.)
What Are the Potential Benefits of NCAA Pickleball for College Administrators?
Students are not the only ones who stand to gain from the recognition of intercollegiate pickleball. Institutions of higher learning and their administrators could benefit as well.
Because of the sport’s popularity, some students may look specifically for schools that offer pickleball programs, using it as a criterion to determine which college they ultimately attend. As a result, schools that offer pickleball programs may be able to attract more students and see their admission numbers increase.
In addition to whatever financial support a university could gain from the NCAA for a pickleball program, the sport could be lucrative in other ways. Professional pickleball has become popular as a spectator sport, drawing crowds of thousands. Hosting NCAA pickleball competitions could theoretically earn colleges thousands of dollars in revenue through sales of tickets, concessions, branded merchandise, and more.
Part of the appeal of pickleball is that the equipment is relatively inexpensive to purchase. For example, quality paddles can still cost less than $30, an important consideration for schools that bear the responsibility for providing the necessary equipment. A pickleball program could be far more affordable than some other college athletics, such as football, which requires a lot of safety equipment.
The largest expense involved in starting a collegiate pickleball program would probably be constructing the courts. However, since it is possible to play pickleball on tennis courts, schools could potentially defer that expense until enough time has passed to gauge the viability of a pickleball program on a particular campus. In fact, colleges that have tennis courts that no longer see much use could be able to save money by converting them to pickleball courts.
While pickleball is popular with all ages, many of its most enthusiastic participants are older adults. University administrators may be able to gain support, financial and otherwise, for a nascent collegiate pickleball program by appealing to alumni. Many university graduates may have taken up pickleball either during college or since graduating. They may regret the lack of organized pickleball during their own college days and want to help make it a reality for current students.
What Are the Challenges Involved in Establishing NCAA Pickleball, and How To Overcome Them?
Despite the advantages of intercollegiate pickleball to students and universities as a whole, there are still obstacles to the official recognition of the sport. The various groups who would like to see pickleball officially recognized and could potentially benefit from it may be able to work together to overcome those challenges.
Insufficient Pool of Players
While there are approximately 5 million pickleball players in the United States, only about one-third are under the age of 25. Because pickleball is relatively new and has generally skewed older, many students may come to college having never even heard of it, let alone have experience in playing it.
Recruiting on college campuses may help increase the pool of players, but that is not enough to gain recognition from the NCAA. Increasing awareness of and interest in pickleball requires introducing it in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Pickleball can integrate easily into any K-12 physical education program because the rules are easy, the gameplay is fun, and the equipment is cheap. In addition to eventually increasing the pool of players in the interest of recognizing NCAA pickleball, this could benefit K-12 students as well.
Many students of all ages may want to play sports but lack athletic prowess. Pickleball is accessible to anyone, even those who have yet to develop much experience with sports. Giving kids an activity in which they can succeed can help to increase their self-confidence, increasing their chances of success in college as well as later in life.
Along with the facilities and infrastructure needed to play pickleball, resources can also apply to faculty advisors and coaching staff. If a school has an existing tennis or badminton program, it may be easier to create a pickleball program alongside it rather than starting completely from scratch. It is not uncommon for tennis players to take up pickleball. A tennis coach who also knows pickleball may appreciate the challenge of building a new program from the ground up. It could potentially be a great career opportunity.
What Can Interested Parties Do To Promote Pickleball on College Campuses?
Interested parties, such as college faculty, alumni, and current students, all have particular roles they can play in meeting the challenges and working toward NCAA pickleball recognition. Here are supportive tasks for each group to focus on.
Former students who like to play pickleball can encourage it on campus by organizing events in which they teach current students how to play pickleball. This could be a fun activity during homecoming week to get more alumni involved.
Alumni who have the means can make a significant donation to their respective alma maters with the stipulation that it goes to create or improve a pickleball program on campus. The donated money could go to build pickleball courts, buy equipment, or offer scholarships to students who show promise in both academic and athletic pursuits.
Faculty and Administrators
Administrators and faculty can gauge interest in pickleball among students and find ways to encourage it where they find it. For example, many colleges and universities host special events to kick off a new school year. One of these could be a pickleball tournament, possibly pitting students against faculty.
Faculty who know how to play can offer to be the advisor for campus pickleball clubs. Administrators can apply for grants with which to finance new programs and petition for NCAA pickleball.
Current and Prospective Students
Prospective students can make it clear during the admissions process that the opportunity to play pickleball is a contributing factor as to which school they will ultimately choose to attend. Once they choose a school, they can bring pickleball equipment with them and set up impromptu games with friends or roommates on campus lawns.
Students may be able to start a new pickleball club or intramural league if the campus does not already have one. They may invite a faculty member to be an academic advisor for the club or league if the professor has a known interest in the sport. While the word “intramural” means “between walls,” it actually means that only students at a particular school participate, as opposed to an intercollegiate club sport. A pickleball league can still be intramural even if played outdoors.
If required to do some sort of project to benefit the community as part of their major, students can propose a program to teach pickleball in schools to K-12 students to help increase the future pool of players and keep the sport’s momentum going into the next generation.
Local Businesses and Corporations
Local gyms or sports clubs can offer discounts to students interested in playing pickleball. Companies that already have a presence on campus, such as sponsors of sports or other activities, can issue corporate challenges in which people who work at the company compete against students, faculty, alumni, or any combination thereof.
Get Ready: NCAA Pickleball Could Be Closer Than You Think
It can take time for a sport to gain recognition but, based on its growth and popularity, NCAA pickleball could become a reality in the foreseeable future. If you’re serious about playing pickleball in college, find the equipment you need and read up on pickleball strategy and tips.