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Getting playful

Two accessible racquet sports – padel tennis and pickleball – are taking the health club world by storm. Both are fun, social and easy to play. Kath Hudson finds out more

Published in Health Club Management 2023 issue 3
Padel tennis and pickleball are growing in popularity globally / Photo: Shutterstock/Damiano Buffo
Padel tennis and pickleball are growing in popularity globally/ Photo: Shutterstock/Damiano Buffo

Like many people, I like a casual game of tennis but have never truly mastered the serve and frequently spend more time retrieving balls than actually playing.

Now two solutions have been offered up for the likes of me: padel tennis and pickleball.

Health club operators around the world are getting on board with both hot trends, with former England squash player and founder of The Gym Group, John Treharne, among investors in the sector.

For both games the entry level is lower than tennis – most people can generally pick up a racquet and have some fun immediately, but if you want to take it more seriously you can, with them being flagged as potential Olympic sports.

HCM editor, Liz Terry, says both games are hitting a sweet spot as people are looking for playful, social and affordable activities: “People want some fun to lift the gloom of the pandemic and re-engage with friends and family,” says Terry. “They also know they need to do more exercise, but some struggle with motivation and both padel and pickleball have been designed to overcome these hurdles.

“In addition, health club operators are looking for fresh things to offer members, to drive retention and create upselling opportunities and these racquet sports tick all those boxes too. We expect to see both growing rapidly in the health and fitness sector.”

In padel, it’s estimated the ball is in play for 50 minutes in every hour, compared to 15 minutes in an hour for tennis. Played in pairs, it’s also highly sociable.

“Padel is easy to learn but difficult to master. As you get better at it you look for shots which are harder to reach.” says Harry Benyon, director at Padel 22. “The racquet is like an extension of the hand, it’s an underarm serve, there are walls around the court and it’s a doubles game so there’s not as far to run, resulting in longer rallies. As there’s less of a gap between points it’s a fast moving game.”

Padel originated in Mexico 40 or 50 years ago and spread around South America. It’s now the second most played sport after football in Spain and has become popular in the Nordic countries since the start of the pandemic. The sport is now garnering global attention – Sky is showing World Padel Tour tournaments and larger and more structured groups are leading investment.

Places to play
The main thing holding the sport back is that demand is outstripping supply, which is good news for operators looking for a fresh income stream.

There are a number of companies keen to partner with the industry to create courts. According to one of these – Italian outfit Padel Hero – around 240sq m is needed for a court. This could be found by converting indoor space or can use outdoor space with artificial grass and a canopy.

Padel Hero says it’s getting enquiries from all over the world, including Greece, Mexico and France. “We’re looking at the UK with a particularly close lens and are exploring different formats with which to enter the market – be it direct purchase and management, a franchise deal or joint venture,” says founder, Francesco Belloni.

Another court developer, We Are Padel, is focusing its expansion in the UK. It has an 11-court venue in Derby up and running, an imminent launch in Bristol and others in the pipeline. “The roadmap for 2023-2026 will see us doubling the expansion year on year,” says Rosco Muller, UK country manager.

“We’re seeing the flow of new people wanting to experience padel constantly increase. We’re highly motivated to build places where kids and families feel at home, where children and parents play together. We believe 2023 will be a wake-up year for the UK when it comes to padel.”

The new tennis
Another court developer, Game4Padel, has been growing rapidly since 2018, with sites in Spain and Australia and 10 venues in the UK. A further 18 are in the pipeline for the UK and there are ambitions to have 30 operational by the end of the year.

CEO, Michael Gradon, says it’s the world’s fastest growing sport: “In 2022, the Lawn Tennis Association estimated there were 89,000 active players in the UK, but that number is now believed to be closer to 300,000. Court space is at a huge premium, with demand outstripping supply in most locations. We have a pipeline of over 100 venues, from health clubs and hotels to sports centres and schools who are looking at padel as a way to actively engage their various communities.”

Game4Padel has recruited some big guns from the tennis world to spread the message about the sport. “As a company we’ve really tried to raise awareness for the sport – working with high profile investors, such as Andy Murray and Virgil van Dijk, to drive media coverage and putting on events at high profile venues, such as the Westfield shopping centre in London,” says Gradon.

“Our tennis ambassadors – Andy Murray, Jamie Murray, Annabel Croft and Andrew Castle – all think padel can work alongside tennis and won’t be a threat because they’re technically different but complement each other. While a lot of padel players come from the tennis world, there are a huge number of non-racquet sports players who are now giving it a go.”

Offering a complete padel package, including funding, design and planning, the build itself, operation and promotion to drive participation, Game4Padel is keen to connect with health and fitness operators. The company even offers a pop-up court option if operators are interested in trialling courts for a short time, or enabling a padel community to grow during the construction period.

Introducing pickleball
Like padel, pickleball is also growing rapidly in popularity because of its accessibility and the opportunity to get to a decent standard quickly. Around 130 courts a month are being added in the US, where demand is outstripping supply. Investors include health and fitness operator YouFit, which introduced courts into 28 of its gyms at the end of 2022 and is marketing them via tennis aggregator, Break the Love.

Pickleball combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis and can be played indoors and outdoors on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood, or a composite material, to hit a perforated polymer ball.

Karen Mitchell, chair of Pickleball England (PbE) says anyone with reasonable hand to eye coordination can play. “You can get to a decent standard quickly and then it takes diligence and drilling to master the shots and techniques to play at a high level,” she explains. “The great thing about the game is that anyone who’s played tennis, squash or badminton can transfer their skills and pick up new ones which help their other games.”

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) recent Topline Participation Report, pickleball was the fastest growing sport in the US for the third year in a row. Participation was up 85.7 per cent year-on-year in 2022 and an astonishing 158.6 per cent over three years.

The court is smaller and the net lower than in tennis, so there’s less distance to cover and the ball is lighter, meaning it takes less out of the body, so it’s also appealing to older people who are moving on from tennis.

The SFIA report showed 52 per cent of the core players – who play eight or more times a year – are 55 or older and 32.7 per cent are over 65. It’s great for keeping balance and hand-eye and foot coordination and the social aspect is appealing for older people. A 2018 study of 153 people who compete in pickleball tournaments also found it is significantly related to a lower levels of depression in older adults.

The game is now played in 70 countries, with the largest numbers in Australia, India and Spain and is gaining ground in the UK, with Pickleball England driving the momentum. “We’ve developed a network of county representatives to support grassroots development with new club start-ups and introduced a Pickleball Leaders Certification programme to train people in how to teach the game,” says Mitchell.

Courts are starting to spring up in the UK, David Lloyd Leisure has rolled out 50 and GLL and South Downs Leisure have also got on board. Pickleball England would love to hear from operators who are interested in introducing the sport and will work with them to develop tailored programmes (

“PbE has an ambitious target of 25,000 members by 2025 and for players to be able to find somewhere to play within 25 miles of their home,” says Mitchell. “We already run events for players, such as festivals, leagues and tournaments and the demand for these is growing. In the mid-term we think there’ll be pickleball events across the country several times a month and long-term there will be elite competitions around the world and the opportunity for players to turn professional.”

David Lloyd’s guide to pickleball
Pickleball rules at a glance

• The first player or pair to 11 points with two in hand is the winner

• Service begins from the right-hand court and serves must be underarm

•There are no second serves

• There’s a non-volley zone seven feet either side of the net (referred to as ‘the kitchen’ – see below)

• The two-bounce rule: The service ball must bounce in the receiving court (beyond the non-volley zone) before it’s returned, then bounce in the service court on its way back before it can be returned again

• The rally can continue with any combination of volleys (except in the kitchen) and groundstrokes

• Only the server or serving pair can win a point. If they fault, service goes to the opponent

• In doubles, player one serves until they fault. When it is their team’s turn to serve again, their partner then serves until they fault

Pickleball terms you need to know

The Kitchen: Informal term for the non-volley zone, the area within seven feet of each side of the net where volleying is not allowed

No-Man’s Land: The area on the court between the kitchen and the baseline. Also referred to as the transition zone

Dink: A soft, controlled shot that moves downward shortly after it clears the net, landing in the no-volley zone

Nasty Nelson: When the server intentionally aims a hard serve at the non-receiving opponent to cause a fault

Pickle!: A player shouts “Pickle!” to let the other players know they are about to serve

Pickled: If a team scores zero points by the end of the game, they have been pickled

Volley Llama: Did you fault by hitting a volley in the kitchen? Then you are a volley llama!

Simon Pearson
David Lloyd Leisure, Group racquets manager
Photo: linkedin/simon pearson

We launched Pickleball at David Lloyd Clubs in 2021. As the UK’s largest chain of racquet clubs, we’re constantly looking at the latest trends, and pickleball is growing hugely in popularity both in the US and the UK.

We have regular weekly sessions running in 50 David Lloyd Clubs nationwide and are aiming for it to be available at most of our UK racquets clubs by next year.

It’s become one of the easiest racquet sports to play and be successful at and is super accessible, with less running around required than the usual sports, such as tennis and the skills required are often easier to master. For this reason, it’s very popular with older members who still want to enjoy racquet sports but can no longer handle the physicality of tennis, squash and badminton. At the same time it’s high energy and fun for all abilities.

We launched by running a series of Pickleball taster classes, which allow all members the chance to try it in a relaxed social setting

Andrew Clark
GLL, Head of sport and aquatics
Photo: simon jacobs/gll

GLL was keen to be at the forefront of padel’s introduction to the UK, as it’s a beginner-friendly racquet sport without the elitist connotations some associate with tennis. Based on global trends we’re confident it will be huge.

We’ve teamed up with Game4Padel to introduce it across a range of our facilities. We feel it will work well in all sorts of settings and build on our community offering.

Our plans are to introduce 100 courts across 50 sites within our Better estate, kicking off with West View Leisure in Preston and Gosling Sports Centre in Welwyn Garden City, which has an annual footfall of a million people. It will also be introduced at Odd Down Sports Ground in Bath and Delta Tennis Centre in Swindon.

Although we’re in the early stages of rollout, we’ve already had significant interest and our customers are curious to find out more. Those who’ve tried the game, love it because it’s easy to pick up and very social.

We’re inviting customers to give it a go and using their feedback to refine our offer. We’ll be hosting community days and offering coaching, group activities and leagues.

Based on global trends, we’re confident padel will be huge
Pickleball appeals to all ages, as it can be played at different intensities / Photo: shutterstock/ Ron Alvey
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