BY Kayla Melo Costa & Jordan McKay

“The ball is out,” shouts Sylvain Racieut as his last rally of the yellowish-orange ball flies across the court, landing outside the white lines.

Racieut, a pickleball enthusiast who frequents the court most days, embodies the passion shared by many for this burgeoning sport.

Pickleball combines other paddle sports like tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It is starting to outgrow these sports as it has become one of the fastest growing sports in Canada.

Man squatting low to the ground to hit the ball

Sylvain Racieut squats, extending his arm with a pickleball paddle in hand, ready to strike the ball as it approaches. Photo by Kayla Melo Costa.

Twenty-three year-old Xavier Bastien-Ducharme hones his skills on the court and has learned everything he knows by watching videos on YouTube. Like Racieut, Bastien-Ducharme has become a fervent pickleball player and enthusiast, drawn in by the sport’s surging popularity across Canada in recent years.

“At first it was just a fun physical activity that I could play with friends and family,” explains Bastien-Ducharme, “but once I started, I couldn’t stop. Now I play two days a week, sometimes every other week depending on my schedule, but once the weather gets nice out again, I know that I will be playing more often”.

Three American parents and their kids came up with the sport in the mid-1960s. They used a badminton net, a wiffle ball and some table tennis paddles to create a hybrid of their beloved sports. They lowered the net, established a few regulations and created a new sport named after their family dog, Pickles, who enjoyed running off with the ball.

Man hitting ball while partner waits to the side

Pair of Pickleball players, work together to strike the orange ball over the net. Photo by Kayla Melo Costa.

Pickleball Canada found in a 2023 survey that, in one year, there was a 37 per cent increase in pickleball players from 2022 with 1 million players compared to 2023 with more than 1.37 million individual Canadians playing the sport at least once per month.

“The popularity of pickleball started with COVID because we can play outside,” says Stéphane Brière, General Director of the Quebec Pickleball Federation. “If we talk about badminton, during COVID, badminton couldn’t be played, nor could ping pong. All indoor sports were difficult, except for outdoor sports.”

While Briére believes the pandemic helped the sport grow in popularity, a reason why it continues to grow is because it is a multi-generational sport.

Graph representing Quebec Pickleball Members per year

This graph is based off of the number of official members of La Fédération Québécoise de Pickleball (FQP) provided by General Director Stéphane Brière. Graph by Kayla Melo Costa.

“It’s very accessible to everyone,” Briére says. “It’s probably one of the only sports where you can really see, on the same field, ten-to-twelve-year old’s who play with their grandparents and parents, it’s incredible to see honestly.”

Pickleball is a sport that does not require difficult movements or hard swing motions like tennis. It does not require a lot of agility, which is why it is often associated as a sport for older adults.

“A lot of people think that pickleball is a sport for older adults,” says Bastien-Ducharme. “But no matter the sport, pickleball requires intensity from the people you play against. So, if you play with people who have a lot of technique, agility and energy then the game will be intense regardless of the age. It is a sport that is very accessible to everyone no matter your physical condition because it is very easy to learn and once you start, it’s hard to stop.”

Community building through Pickleball. Video by Jordan McKay.

While Pickleball is still a popular sport among older adults, according to data collected by Pickleball Canada, younger adults—especially those in the 18 to 34 age range—are the leading demographic age of pickleball players in Canada.

Geoffrey Dover is an Associate Professor in Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology at Concordia University. He notes that pickleball is an easy sport to join.

“One of the strengths of pickleball is that you can have someone who’s barely played and someone who’s played often and they can play together and there’s not many sports like that,” he says.

Bastien-Ducharme agrees it’s a sport for all levels.

“There are times I find myself playing with people my age and older who take the game very seriously and they keep it competitive by performing at a higher intensity level and suddenly we’re running around the court volleying the ball back and forth at a high pace,” he says. “But then there are those other times, where I play just to have fun, it’s less intensive and we’re just hitting the ball back and forth so at the end of the day you can have the best of both worlds with this sport.”

With the sport continuing to grow in Canada each year, there has been a greater demand for facilitating indoor and outdoor pickleball courts across Quebec, especially in Montreal.

Responding to this demand, several initiatives have been undertaken, from the addition of five new regulation-size courts in Côte-St-Luc’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park to the establishment of courts in LaSalle at Parc Hayward. Additionally, parks like Warren-Allmand and Martin-Luther-King now boast two dedicated pickleball courts.

While efforts are underway to install courts in smaller boroughs across Montreal and Quebec, it’s a slow process.

“It’s an investment, it’s not a secret, Quebec is a little behind in sports infrastructures,” explains Brière. “Whether it’s arenas or tennis courts, etc. and for us, pickleball, well, it’s a new sport. We are a new player who has just entered the picture. No one is ready for that.”

The Quebec Pickleball Federation is the only established association that aims to grow and support the sport of pickleball across the province.

“We need to improve the playing spaces. We need to have more external courts across the province and we, the federation, it’s our job to organize and develop this sport,” says Brière.

Eric Gagnon, co-owner of the Montreal Lions Pickleball League, says governments need to get more involved.

“People want a free activity, but they also want the space too,” he says. “So it’s up to the city to invest.”

Group of pickleball players touching paddles at the end of the game.

After an intense game of pickleball, a group of four players meet in the middle of the court at the net, touching paddles as they salute one another for a good game. Photo by Kayla Melo Costa.

Gagnon is a pro pickleball player ranked among the top 20 worldwide. In his first year of playing pickleball professionally, he won the US Open gold medal, the world championship in singles, and mixed doubles. Eric went on to win 16 medals that year, in various tournaments.

While at a conference in Las Vegas, he was approached by one of his business associates to buy a pickleball team.

“The Lions want to do tournaments in Montreal, but my number one problem right now is I can’t find space,” says Gagnon. “Or if I find space, I must charge so much to people, I’m afraid I won’t be able to get enough people to come, because they won’t pay the money.”

The lack of playing spaces across the province affects not only pro athletes like Gagnon but also returning pickleball players like Bastien-Ducharme.

“I am currently looking for tournaments that I can play in but it has been hard. I currently reside in Blainville and there aren’t any right now as we are in the winter and there aren’t many indoor pickleball courts that have the capacity to host a big event like a tournament,” he says.

While pickleball can be played both competitively and as a leisurely activity, Pickleball Canada’s 2023 survey found that Canadians play pickleball because it is fun, social, and for health and fitness benefits.

Women in stance waiting for ball

A woman wearing protective eye gear stands in a stance, holding the pickleball paddle with both hands, as she gets ready for the game to start. Photo by Kayla Melo Costa.

“What is interesting about pickleball is that it’s minimal equipment that you need, which is affordable, and it is physically demanding yet safe to do like there’s a really low injury rate associated with it,” says Dover.

“I know a lady; she lost 45 pounds just by playing pickleball,” Gagnon says. “Her health has changed. This is life changing for that person to see somebody’s life transformed like that. It is incredible. I don’t care how many medals you got; how good you are to me. That’s the victory of the sport.”

Stêphane Brière believes the sport still has a lot of growth ahead of it.

“The future is unlimited,” he remarks confidently. “We are really a popular sport right now. People want to play pickleball. It is a sport that is affordable and that doesn’t cost much. I have people call me and say, I want to play pickleball, where can I play? We have a very good future for our sport.”

Main image by Kayla Melo Costa.
Published March 22, 2024.