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As international participation grows, pickleball could end up in the Olympics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Billions of people watch the Olympic Games around the world on more screens than ever, and the emerging sport of pickleball wants some of that valuable exposure. Organizers are planning a bid for Olympic inclusion to bring more attention to the game. Shannon Mullen has more.

SHANNON MULLEN, BYLINE: For the rapidly decreasing number of Americans who've never heard of pickleball, the sport was invented in 1965 by three middle-aged fathers in Washington state. One claimed they named the game after a family dog called Pickles. It's a cross between tennis, pingpong and badminton, played with a paddle and a perforated plastic ball and has a famously short learning curve. The country has about 10,000 places to play, from sports clubs and hotel groups to a restaurant chain called Chicken N Pickle with locations in four states.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKLEBALL AMBIENCE)

MULLEN: In Meredith, N.H., the town's parks and rec department offers indoor pickleball in a multipurpose gym that's also used for basketball, tennis and other sports. Some pickleball players got so serious the program is now supervised, and it's capped around 50 people with dozens on the waiting list.

FREIDA YUEH: It's addictive, so we just started playing, and now with our other friends and relatives - actually, everybody we know now plays pickleball.

MULLEN: Freida Yueh joined the program with her husband two years ago after they retired in the area. This spring, they're going with two other couples to a six-day pickleball training camp in North Carolina.

YUEH: And I'm hoping I learn just one skill that improves my game (laughter).

MULLEN: Pickleball is the country's fastest-growing sport with more than 4.8 million Americans who play, says the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Most core players are over age 65, but the game is getting younger. Pickleball is also attracting sponsors and other sources of revenue. Its governing body, USA Pickleball, was formed in 2005 to set rules and promote the sport. Now it has two dozen brand partners, ranging from gear-makers to an online health care market and a CBD company.

STU UPSON: We're still small and scrappy, but we're not so innocent anymore.

MULLEN: That's Stu Upson. He was hired just over a year ago as USA Pickleball's first CEO. Upson says pickleball can make money without losing the social element that spiked its popularity in the last decade.

UPSON: People are looking for avenues to have some fun, get some exercise but do it in an environment that's not divisive. It's friendly. That's a pretty important thing in our society today, I believe.

MULLEN: Pickleball is also becoming a spectator sport. Two national professional tournaments have formed in the last four years with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize payouts that are minting full-time players. One of the tours is sanctioned by USA Pickleball; the other was recently acquired by the owner of a National Hockey League team. Fans can watch both online, mostly on sports or social channels.

BEN SHIELDS: The ability for a sport to find an audience quickly via social media is unprecedented.

MULLEN: Ben Shields lectures at MIT's Sloan School of Management and studies the sports industry. He says pickleball still needs its Michael Jordan. Star power can still drive a sport's growth, the way transcendent players always have in big leagues that started with grassroots and unusual names.

SHIELDS: And I think if pickleball, in its own humble way, can continue to grow its participation and find ways to make the sport a compelling fan product - who knows? - 10, 20 years, could be a very viable competitor in the global sports industry.

MULLEN: Enter that Olympic bid. Before pickleball can make one, the sport needs competitive players in at least 75 other countries. So far, the International Pickleball Federation has 70 member nations. Most joined in the last three years.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREEKBASS' "UNDER KRAMERIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.