Catherine Parenteau was pretty much born with a tennis racquet in hand. A natural from the age of four, the Canadian worked her way up the circuit, eventually finishing in the top five in the country. Recruited by the University of Arkansas to play Division I tennis, she finished her college career at Michigan State University.
However, during her senior year at Michigan State, Parenteau discovered a new sport that captured her heart and interest: pickleball.
Today, the 27-year-old is No. 2 in singles and No. 4 in doubles professionally.
Pickleball has a reputation for being your grandmother’s favorite game, but when you see Parenteau on the court, you know the sport also has a tough, athletic side to his personality. And as younger, faster, and more experienced athletes come into play, the level of play increases.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s annual report on individual sports, an estimated 4.8 million people play pickleball in the United States today. The fastest growing segment of this is players under the age of 24, and there are hundreds of tournaments throughout the year across the country. In 2019, the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) was formed and was the first organization to offer a professional tour.
Pickleball is changing
Parenteau was initially a little reluctant to try pickleball in 2016 when her Michigan State tennis coach, Simone Jardim, herself a professional pickleball player, suggested she give it a try. “I thought it sounded silly, and it was three weeks before I picked up a paddle,” Parenteau said.
To Parenteau’s surprise, she liked it. “I joined a club and started playing three to four times a week,” she said. “I competed in my first major event in 2017 – the US Open Pickleball tournament.”
Pickleball tournaments are open to both amateurs and professionals, unique to its more exclusive tennis cousin. As Parenteau’s star rose in the tournaments, Ken Hermann joined and founded the PPA.
“We’re the official USA Pickleball Pro Tour and we offer sanctioned events,” he says. “We wanted this to be successful and after being closed in 2020 due to the pandemic, we’ve had steady growth.”
In 2022, this corresponded to 32 events for professionals with singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
“We are currently in a unique phase,” said Hermann. “We’re not at the point where the Pro Tour will sort itself out, but I don’t think we’re many years away from that.”
The prize money is not enough for a professional pickleball player to live on his winnings. The PPA Championship, which begins October 6th, has a payout of $3,000 to singles champions and $10,000 to doubles. But many sponsors are now stepping in to fill that gap. Parenteau, for example, counts among their sponsors Skechers shoes, Jigsaw Health electrolyte solution, Charge Electric Bikes, Takeya Pickleball accessories and Paddletek paddles.
“In the beginning it was difficult financially to travel to tournaments,” she said. “But with my sponsors and the expansion of the PPA, I can now travel and afford a team to help me stay connected.”
That team now includes a trainer and a nutritionist. Parenteau is on the court four to five times a week and trains off the court five times a week to stay in peak condition.
“You need tremendous athleticism to be able to keep up at this level,” said Hermann. “We have a lot of young women in the WTA top 1,000 who are now entering the sport.”
These up-and-coming players attract the attention of the more experienced players.
“The young players hit the ball very hard and it’s hard for me to play against them, even at 27,” said Parenteau. “Every year new talent comes into the sport and the more that get into the sport the better it gets.”
As pickleball’s popularity continues to rise – it has been the nation’s fastest growing sport for the past two straight years – it will continue to attract more sponsors, participants and fans to follow the pro circuit. This is what New Belgium beer is betting on, trying to become the ‘Pickleballs’ beer’.
“We like that it’s an inclusive, whimsical sport that you can make as competitive as you want,” said Joanna Laubscher, the brand’s Community Marketing Manager. “The pro-level talent is insane and the more people follow it, the more they will see that real athletes are at the top of the game.”
While pickleball has yet to become an official NCAA sport, it is fast becoming a competitive collegiate-level club sport.
“The beauty of pickleball is that it’s easy to learn and learn,” said Stu Upson, CEO of the USA Pickleball Association. “But to take it to the pro level you have to be committed. You can’t just go out and play at the weekend and expect to compete as a pro – which is good for the sport.”