America’s fastest growing sport



Zane Navratil stretches to reach a ball in a pickleball match. Photo courtesy of Zane Navratil.

Nick Walczak, Mens Sports Journalist

Weekends in the fall belong to football while basketball owns winter nights. But you better make way for pickleball, America’s fastest growing sport. Pickleball is a badminton/ping pong/tennis fusion that started in 1965 when people in the state of Washington wanted a fresh new activity to entertain their families. Within the last few years the sport has exploded and is now entertaining nearly five million people around the country.

Part of the reason behind the booming popularity is the fact that virtually anyone can play. People from all ages compete in the sport and if one cannot find a regulation pickleball court in their area, all they need is concrete and chalk. Even a UW-Whitewater graduate has made a splash in the world of pickleball, as a player and even on the business side of the sport.

With more and more people picking up a paddle and talent level rising, the Professional Pickleball Association and the Association of Pickleball Professionals were established. Alongside the sport’s pro tours, a professional league was founded in 2021. Major League Pickleball has 12 teams with four members per team and they battle it out all season long for a chance to win $100,000. The champions of the 2022 campaign were team BLQK led by UW-Whitewater graduate, Zane Navratil. 

Zane Navratil watches his shot as he follows his swing through toward his shoulder while competing in a pickleball match. Photo courtesy of Zane Navratil.

Navratil is from Racine, Wisconsin, and attended high school at The Prairie School where he was a two-time tennis state champion and earned a top 15 ranking in United States Tennis Association’s ranking system. In 2014, Navratil decided to take his talents to Whitewater, where he set the record for most singles wins in a season (25) playing No. 2-5 in the lineup. Navratil put together an impressive resumé playing for the Warhawks including countless victories, academic awards and being named one of two team captains his senior year. 

The now ranked No. 3 pickleball player in the world, Navratil started playing the crossbreed sport just for fun in high school, but it wasn’t until college where he realized his true potential. 

“I would screw around with pickleball a little bit over the summers while I was playing college tennis at Whitewater. Just playing over the summer, I was getting pretty good at it and there was this very good player out of Madison, Wisconsin who was going professional and I was competing very closely with him,” said Navratil. “I realized when I’m done playing tennis at Whitewater, I had an opportunity to be a pretty good player.”

After graduating in 2018, Navratil saw that there still were not many pro pickleball events taking place, so he decided to use his accounting degree working as an auditor. 

“In the summer of 2020 I quit my job and decided to go full time pickleball because there were two competing professional tours that emerged with millions of dollars in overall prize money at that point,” he said.

Pickleball now has hundreds of tournaments and events every year. The money in the sport is growing and so is its attention. It is not uncommon to see sports boom in popularity in short periods of time, but many of those sports tend to dwindle away, similar to the popularity with CrossFit in recent years. People still participate in the sport, but at one time, not too long ago, it seemed like CrossFit was all the buzz. 

“I think the community is very similar to CrossFit. I think that people get addicted to pickleball even more than people do to CrossFit. It’s that same old joke, ‘you can’t talk to a person who does CrossFit without them telling you that they do CrossFit.’ Well, you definitely can’t talk to a  pickleball person without them telling you that they play pickleball and then they try to get you to go play,” Navratil said. “But I do think it is more of a sustainable trend than CrossFit though.”

Navratil is looking to be involved in pickleball for many years to come, both as a player and as someone working on the business side of the sport.

“I see myself being around pickleball the rest of my life, that’s for sure,” Navratil said.

With big name pickleball franchise owners like LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, and more, the sport is likely to grow exponentially in the nearing future. It also doesn’t hurt having passionate and exciting professional players like Navratil paving the way for the future of the sport. Be sure to keep an eye out for pickleball, because it is coming, and coming fast.