Pickleball is a game in which two or four players hit a wiffle ball over a net. Imagine table tennis but on a badminton court. The rules of the game are straightforward, equipment is minimal, and there’s little running involved, making it accessible to players of all ages and skill levels.
Although pickleball has been around since 1965, it only entered the mainstream recently as people sought new ways to stay active during the pandemic while socially distancing themselves.
Now, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the US, with participation surging 158.6 percent over the last three years to reach 8.9 million players in 2022, according to the Sports & Fitness Association.
As the racket sport spreads in China, here’s what brands need to know to swing into action.
First, there’s the fashion linked to pickleball, described by Chinese netizens as an extension of Urbancore — an outdoor style that is seen as more casual than the utility-heavy Gorpcore — or a play on the sporty American Retrocore look. According to research firm Technavio, the global pickleball apparel market is expected to grow by $680.3 million by 2026.
Anna Sui Active, a premium activewear brand by New York designer Anna Sui, teamed up with Shanghai-based sports club InLoveSport to show how its latest collection is both fashionable and functional for playing pickleball. Other sportswear brands like Adidas and Fila have launched pickleball sections on their global sites, though they have yet to promote them in China.
Olivier Verot, founder of Gentlemen Marketing Agency, suggests that brands look to China’s frisbee trend, which saw brands like Marni, Prada, Chanel and Supreme create flying discs that became a hit on social media.
There are also opportunities to sponsor games and athletes, as with any other sport. Skechers dominates this arena; not only does the brand hold pickleball-related events across China, including an exhibit at Poizon Con 2023 in Chengdu, but it’s also the official footwear sponsor of the US Open Pickleball Championships.
Although pickleball is still niche compared to other paddle sports in China, brands can get the ball rolling by starting to increase consumer awareness of the sport, which in turn drives the need for equipment, apparel, competitions, and so on.
China picks up the paddle
Pickleball is gaining recognition in China thanks to social media platforms and KOLs. From April 8 to May 8, lifestyle sharing platform Xiaohongshu launched a campaign called “Pickleball together” (#一起匹克求) to promote the sport and recruit members for its own Pickleball League.
Users that posted about pickleball using the official hashtag could receive traffic support, free paddles, and other rewards from the platform. Xiaohongshu also teamed up with pickleball clubs in Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Ninbgo to host pop-up events. The campaign has received 4 million views to date, with influencers sharing their outfits, equipment, and experiences playing the game.
“It hasn’t been long since I played pickleball, but I can really feel the comfort and leisure of this sport,” Denzel Wan, the founder of pickleball club PickBoom!, wrote on Xiaohongshu. “It’s good for your health. It’s inclusive. There’s no sexism, body anxiety, or clothing discrimination. I just hope that everyone can become a better version of themselves.”
Collaborations between shopping malls and local clubs have also played a big role in helping pickleball gain awareness. In April this year, Chengdu MixC teamed up with PickBoom! to launch a month-long exhibition, where participants could engage in pickleball competitions, racket juggling challenges and other activities. Last month, Futian Xinghe Coco Park partnered with Chinese pickleball club Nesia to hold beginner classes and matches.
“Once the vast majority start to learn and know about the sport, pickleball is gonna have a bright future in China,” Pickboom! founder Wan tells Jing Daily over WeChat. “Right now, our way to promote the sport is to make it fun, collabing with hip-hop music, visual arts, event planning, food and drinks, etc. to attract people to first become aware of the sport.”
Pickleball takes center court in the US
On a recreational level, some 36.5 million American adults played pickleball at least once between August 2021 and August 2022, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals. At a competitive level, USA Pickleball, the de facto governing body for the sport in the US, reached 68,697 members and sanctioned 237 tournaments last year.
And the craze extends far beyond the US. The International Pickleball Federation was created earlier this year to facilitate the international development of pickleball, including advocating for the sport’s entry into the Olympic Games. The organization now comprises over 80 member countries, including China, and plans to establish a liaison office in Shenzhen, among other destinations.
“It’s easy to pick up the sport quickly in just an hour or two and get started,” says Melissa Zhang, Director of Communications & Content, USA Pickleball. “We see people really get hooked that way, because after their first time playing pickleball, they can already get a sense of how fun and enjoyable the game is to play.”
Among those hooked are some of the world’s biggest celebrities. Prominent figures like Leonardo DiCaprio, the Kardashians, and Bill Gates have publicly proclaimed their love of the sport — Gates has been a proud “Pickler” for over 50 years — while several major athletes like Tom Brady, Lebron James, and Naomi Osaka have invested in their own Major League Pickleball teams.
Thanks to media publicity and financial backing, pickleball has evolved from a Pacific Northwest pastime to an international phenomenon. While the fashion and trendier aspects of the sport may fade, its increasing acceptance on a global stage could solidify its position among China’s growing list of favorite outdoor sports.