72 minutes with… Connor Pardoe
New York magazine|January 17 - 30, 2022
Pickleball, once a game for the 50-plus crowd, exploded during the pandemic. This sports commissioner wants to turn it into a national pastime.
By Giri Nathan, Photography by Kim Raff

IN THE SUMMER of 2019, Connor Pardoe was trying to persuade Life Time, Inc., a health-club chain and the largest private operator of tennis courts in the U.S., to embrace a different game. Pardoe, then 26, was peddling pickleball: a racquet sport similar to tennis but played on a much smaller surface, over a slightly lower net, with a squarish paddle and a perforated plastic ball. The year before, Pardoe had left his family’s real-estate business to build the Professional Pickleball Association. As he hunted for tournament venues, he went straight for the flashiest sites in pro tennis. “We started big, reaching out to the Miami Open, the Lindner Family Tennis Center, where they play Western & Southern. A lot of those guys weren’t too interested,” he says. After all, for most of its 60-year history, pickleball was the domain of senior citizens too achy in the joints to scramble around full-size tennis courts. “We were on our hands and knees, begging these people to give pickleball a chance,” Pardoe says.

After months of negotiation, Life Time agreed to host one event on a trial basis. On tournament weekend, thousands of pickleballers descended on one of the health club’s Atlanta locations, where each tennis court had been painted into four standard pickleball courts. “They brought their executives out and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the real deal. Can we add another one?’”

Since then, Pardoe’s case has only gotten stronger. Pickleball was a curious beneficiary of pandemic conditions, which left people searching for low-stakes, outdoor ways to socialize at a distance. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates that 4.2 million people played pickleball in 2020, up 21 percent from the year before. Unsuspecting parkgoers may now be familiar with the distinct plonk of ball against paddle. (Last winter, after a rash of noise complaints, the mayor of Ridgewood, New Jersey, put a padlock on the town’s pickleball courts for three months.) Interest seems to be trickling down from the boomer set to my millennial peers: Four days into the New Year, one otherwise sports-agnostic group chat lit up with a bold resolution: “Have any of you played pickleball/I’m thinking this is my year.”

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