Not your grandpa's game anymore! Pickleball sees popularity skyrocket

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(Source: KFDA) (Source: KFDA)
(3TV/CBS 5) -

To some, the name pickleball doesn't ring a bell, but the game looks very familiar.

Pickleball used to be a popular alternative to tennis and other racquet sports as players age, but now younger fans are getting in on the game.

Pickleball has been around for more than 50 years, but it's only become an official sport in the past 12 years. There's now a governing body, rules, sponsors, major product manufacturers, tournaments and prize money.

Recently, pickleball's popularity has skyrocketed.

[RELATED: Pickleball gains popularity in Goodyear]

The executive director of USA Pickleball Association, Justin Maloof, says membership is up 325 percent in just the past four years.

"Sports and Fitness Industry Association has pickleball at 2.5 million players right now and it's growing," said Maloof.

He says the sport is growing for a lot of reasons.

First, there are now more places to play across the country as larger tennis courts are turned into smaller pickleball courts. Maloof says about 90 courts are being added every month nationwide.

Second, it's an easy game to play.

"It's play to 11 - win by two. If you've played tennis or any racquet sport, you're gonna be able to pick up a paddle, take it out on the court and you can be playing within 10 minutes," said Maloof.

Another reason for pickleball's growing popularity is it's affordable. Games cost just a few dollars and you can now find the paddles and plastic balls in big box stores instead of only online.

In Casa Grande this month, a big-time tournament featuring the best of the best.

The national championship hosted 1,400 players from 42 states and three Canadian provinces.

Ben Johns, a 19-year-old student from the University of Maryland, won the 19-plus 5.0 men's singles.

"It's the flagship event of pickleball, so I couldn't miss it," explained Johns.

Johns has only been playing pickleball a year and a half, and he's already a pro. The former tennis player says his love of the game was immediate.

"I tried it once and I pretty much loved it right then," described Johns.

The young pro realizes those who are familiar with the game picture a much older player, but he believes he and others are helping to change that perception.

"I think that stigma will gradually wear off," said Johns.

Currently, there's a big effort underway to introduce children to the game.

"We've got kids that are playing it all over the U.S. in P.E. programs. I actually played it in P.E. growing up," explained Maloof.

Most notable about pickleball, it's a game that brings generations together. Eleven-year-old Owen Thomas and his dad Jim came to the tournament in Casa Grande from Prescott.

"I just like playing. It's fun," said Owen.

The pair like playing so much, they built a court in their backyard so they can compete anytime they want.

"My dad goes out about seven to eight times a week. I go out like two to three times," describes Owen.

"It's the fastest growing sport in America because you can put 70, 80-year-old people.. and put them up against 13-year-olds and they'll have fun," said Jim Thomas.

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