Pickleball vs BJJ: Fighting for mainstream popularity

How has pickleball gotten so darn popular and what can grappling learn from it?

By: William Watts | 1 month ago

According to apparently all sources spanning ESPN to NPR, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the country. What started as a way for all ages of the family to pass time without blowing out their knees and ankles is now a phenomenon. I’m left struggling to understand why.

I get why it’s fun and that’s obviously why so many people flock to it. What I can’t figure out is why so many people want to watch it.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Jul 11, 2023; New Albany, Ohio, USA; Paddles are available for anyone who wants to learn to play pickleball during the grand opening of the New Albany Pickleball Complex in Bevelhymer Park. , EDITORIAL USE ONLY PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY Copyright: xAdamxCairns ColumbusxDispatchx 21031553
Pickleball players in New Albany, OH. – Adam Cairns IMAGO/ USA TODAY Network

In the words of the twittersphere (xperience?), “How is this geriatric hobby on regular ESPN.” Selfishly I’m wondering how this lame stand-in for ping pong seems to get more mainstream coverage than high-velocity sports like wrestling, judo, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

In 2013 I moved to Austin, Texas to finish college. Half-naked cowboys roamed 6th Street, some of my neighbors routinely rode their horses with Jordans, and parts of the city were rapidly starting to change. Coffee Shops, Breweries, Vintage Pop-ups, and the 4th Horseman of the gentrification apocalypse, pickleball courts, have run rampant through the city in recent years. No joke, across the street from the projects I used to ride my bike through there are now pickleball courts. If that doesn’t tie a neat little bow around 21st-century Americana I don’t know what will.

To this day I’ve never played pickleball. I don’t have anything against the sport, I just don’t really have the drive or time to add another physical activity that isn’t going to directly improve my grappling.

While I’m not a participant in the sport I am fascinated with it. Namely, how did an activity that is so mellow, with participants routinely getting dunked on, get so popular seemingly overnight? To that point, if pickleball can get so popular so fast, why is Brazilian jiu-jitsu stuck in strip malls of the 90’s?

Why the fuck is pickleball on ESPN when ADCC can’t break into the mainstream consciousness? I tried to do a deep dive on pickleball so hopefully us knuckle dragging grapplers can learn a thing or two and get some more people on our side.

Pickleball’s Easy Growth

Before starting my pickleball vision quest I started where every pretend data scientist does, Google Trends. Doesn’t take a genius to read this chart.

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Looking at Google Trends can be helpful for a broad overview but if we wanted to get specific I’d probably point to the following. According to USA Pickleball Association’s citation of the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report, “pickleball participation almost doubled in 2022, increasing by 85.7 percent year-over-year and by an astonishing 158.6 percent over three years.”

If you read the articles in the New Yorker and Washington Post they come to a relatively similar conclusion for why pickleball is growing the way it is. Pickleball creates a physically active community. This is no surprise and still confusing.

Community and camaraderie is one of main aspects of a sport that retains everyone in the one they choose. That’s why people join running groups and let their friends choke them unconscious in jiu-jitsu gyms. You show up, enjoy the activity, and, seemingly, everyone there enjoys the activity like you do so they’re likely to have a few more similar interests to you. If this is true for Brazilian jiu-jitsu and pickleball, why is pickleball on ESPN? Their coverage of the sport comments on why the competitive circuit is growing off the backs of many tennis players trading in their rackets for paddles. The answer is pretty straightforward, money.

While the prizes aren’t too lucrative, yet, some athletes are able to attract mainstream sponsors in addition to the pickleball equipment sponsors. Companies like Skechers are giving athletes money to live, travel, and play the game. Now the picture is a bit more clear.

Pickleball was fun enough to regularly attract and retain players. As the sport grew, so did the competitive field. Eventually athletes migrated to the sport as a means of scratching their competitive itch, and an opportunity to dominate the winnings of an unsaturated sport. As athletes took the footsteps of professionalizing the sport, brands saw them as fresh billboards to advertise on and more money fell into pickleball.

Once money became a possibility, more athletes saw pickleball as a viable, not necessarily lucrative, opportunity to make money competing and coaching in this new sport. At that point pickleball became the land grab it is today with VC firms and celebrity investors alike pouring money into the sport so they can own the courts, sponsor events, and make money off this new venture.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Submission Grappling’s Path

I tried to compare these numbers above to the growth of Brazilian jiu-jitsu but the best I could find was, Sports Destinations reporting, “Martial arts, MMA, boxing and wrestling all posted participation gains in 2022, according to the SFIA Topline Participation Report 2023.” The number was vague and I wasn’t really interested in paying $350 for the full report.

Anecdotally, MMA, and, to some extent, BJJ, has been the fastest growing sport in the world for like 20 years according to Dana White, but neither BJJ nor MMA was ever openly received by so many and so quickly. As someone that teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu I desperately want to know why.

Imitation is the finest form of flattery and I’m happy to flatter, imitate, and do whatever else I can so Brazilian-jiu-jitsu can attract and retain the people and dollars that pickleball is. Grappling already does so much for people and is objectively more useful than Pickleball and many other sports.

Grappling has camaraderie to combat social isolation. Grappling is physically demanding, offsetting a sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Grappling literally teaches self-defense, one of the most useful skill sets you could hope for.

Grappling has all this and more so what gives? Why is pickleball exploding past us the way it is?

To understand the root of the problem I had to start at the beginning and figure out where the pickle first fell out of the jar.

Pickleball’s Saving Grace and What Grappling Can Learn

To be frank, pickleball is more popular and rising faster than sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu because it’s easier. That sounds like it’s a dig but it’s not.

When reading about the creation of pickleball in the New Yorker I found out the following:

Pickleball was invented in 1965, on Bainbridge Island, Washington, by three dads—Joel Pritchard, a Republican state representative and later a U.S. congressman; Bill Bell, a businessman; and Barney McCallum, a printing-company owner. The men and their families, who lived in nearby Seattle, summered on Bainbridge, and they wanted to amuse their bored kids after returning from a game of golf.

The Pritchards’ house had a badminton court, but there wasn’t enough functional equipment to yield a game, so the dads used paddles and a Wiffle ball, and lowered the net to three feet. They wanted the game to be equally playable by kids and adults; the area close to the net was restricted, to deter smashes. “We had it pretty much worked out in four or five days,’’ Pritchard told a reporter in 1990.

“What makes it such a great game is that the serve isn’t so dominant, like it is in tennis.” The court was small—about a quarter the size of a tennis court—and the rules further minimized the unfairness of height and strength disparities. “We got pretty fussy about the rules,’’ Pritchard said. (Emphasis mine)

Pickleball was literally engineered to be an easy way to entertain bored children. Eventually it got popular because snowbirds brought it home from Florida and spread it across the country. It’s easy to get started, easy to have fun with, and hard to hurt yourself. You show up, grab a racket, hit the ball, and have fun; low stakes and high rewards.

Starting Brazilian jiu-jitsu involves showing up to a gross room where people sweat on you while beating you up. If you’re lucky they tell you the overall goals of the sport outside of the technique you’re doing that day, let alone teach you how to break fall and tap out.

With that in mind Brazilian jiu-jitsu could learn a thing or two from pickleball. Casual observers and new participants don’t give a fuck if the class is focused on submission only, IBJJF rules, or ADCC scoring. They care if it’s easy to start, stick with, and feel safe. Everything after that is personal opinion and that’s out of your control anyway so why would you care? Some people are going to prefer basketball or pickleball to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and that’s fine. Just don’t give them such a shitty experience that they take to reddit to tell everyone how terrible our sport is.

I am not advocating for making Brazilian jiu-jitsu or martial arts easier in any way. The saving grace of grappling sports is the sparring aspect that puts people squarely back into reality. I am saying that we need dedicated on ramp programs to take 42 year old accountants safely through their first few weeks so they can find the beauty in the sport without finding themselves in the hospital.

Every gym should offer fundamentals classes and onramp programs so people can join the sport and get up to speed safely. This isn’t purely a matter of teaching and training either.

Earlier this year a multi-year lawsuit was settled in the submission grappling world. A jiu-jitsu student had permanent damage done to their central nervous system on the mat and they were awarded $46 million in damages. It is a matter of practical responsibility that every gym introduces as many safety measures as possible to prevent more injuries from happening while showing our litigious world that they have introduced as many precautions as possible.

The cult of Crossfit became a joke because so many people got hurt doing the sport. Inexperienced coaches and practitioners let reckless assholes throw 225 on the bar for snatches and then wondered why they destroyed their shoulders. People leave Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms when they show up to learn and get forced to roll with the 250 pound purple belt mat enforcer that needs to show them why they’re tough. It’s dumb, dangerous, and it’s only going to stunt the progress of the sport.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling are potentially on the cusp of something huge. ADCC is literally renting out the T Mobile Arena to put on the biggest event in the sport’s history. The IBJJF has a full year of competitions for amateur events and they’re adding more professional events as time goes on. Mark Zuckerberg takes every moment he has to remind people that he needs this activity in his life.

The money is showing up, professionalism is appearing, and no one except us grapplers care. If we want the money to continue coming in to expand Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA we need more people to be able to safely join the sport. The alternative is getting stuck in the back of the class next to slap fighting.

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About the author
William Watts
William Watts

BJJ black belt coaching in Austin and writing online. Get better at BJJ & MMA faster by reading my work at https://www.opennotegrappling.com/

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