Catherine Barento was largely born with a tennis racket in her hands. Starting at the age of 4, the Canadian was a natural, working her way up the ring until she eventually achieved a ranking in the top five in the country. Recruited by the University of Arkansas to play in Division I tennis, she ended her college career playing at Michigan State University.
But during her final year in Michigan, Parento discovered a new sport that captured her heart and interest: pickle ball.
Today, the 27-year-old is the No. 2 singles player and No. 4 doubles player on the PPA Professional circuit.
While blackball has a reputation as your grandmother’s favorite game, seeing a Parenteau on the court means knowing that the sport has a solid athletic side to its character, too. And with younger, faster and more skilled athletes entering the game, the level of play is only rising.
An estimated 4.8 million people play pickle ball in the United States today, according to the Federation of Sports and Fitness Industry annual report on individual sports. Among these, the fastest growing segment are the under-24 players, and there are hundreds of leagues across the country throughout the year. In 2018, the PPA was formed and became the first organization to offer a professional tour, followed in 2019 by the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP), the first tour endorsed by USA Pickleball.
Pickleball is changing
Barento was initially a bit hesitant to try blackball again in 2016 when Michigan State tennis coach Simon Jardim, a professional pickleball player, suggested she give it a try. “I thought it sounded silly, and it took three weeks before I even took a paddle,” Barento said.
To Barento’s surprise, she loved it. “I joined a club and started playing three to four times a week,” she said. “I took part in my first big event – the US Open Football Championship – in 2017.”
Pickleball tournaments are open to both amateurs and professionals, and are unique from its more exclusive cousin to tennis. In 2022, that equated to 32 pro events, offering singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
“We are in a unique phase now,” said Ken Hermann, founder of APP Tor. “We’re not yet at the stage where the Pro Tour kicks off on its own, but I don’t think we’re many years away from that.”
The prize money is not yet enough for a professional pickleball player to make a living out of his earnings. The PPA Championship, which begins October 6, has a payout of $3,000 for individual champions and $10,000 for multipliers.
But there are plenty of sponsors who are in the game now to fill that gap. Parenteau, for example, is among the sponsors of Skechers Shoes, Jigsaw Health’s electrolyte solution, Charge Electric bikes, Takeya pickleball accessories and Paddletek paddles.
“At first, it was financially difficult to travel to tournaments,” she said. “But with the expansion of my sponsors and PPA, I can now travel and pay for a team that helps me stay ahead of my game.”
This team now includes a coach and a nutritionist. Barento is on court four to five times a week, and he keeps five times a week off the court to stay at his best.
“You need a massive amount of sports to compete at this level,” Hermann said. “We have a lot of young women out of the 1,000 WTA players entering the sport now.”
These arrivals make even the most experienced players take notice.
“The young players hit the ball hard, and it’s hard for me to play against them, even when I’m 27,” Barento said. “Every year there are new talents entering the game and the more they enter the sport, the better.”
As baseball continues to rise in popularity – it has been the fastest growing sport in the country for the past two years in a row – it will continue to attract more sponsors, participants and fans to follow the pro circuit. That’s what New Belgium Beer is based on, vying to become the “Pickle Ball Beer”.
“We like that it is an inclusive and unconventional sport that you can make as competitive as you want,” said Joanna Laubscher, director of community marketing for the brand. “The talent at the professional level is crazy and the more people start following it, they will see that legitimate athletes are at the top of the game.”
While pickle ball is not yet an official NCAA sport, it is rapidly evolving into a competitive club sport at the college level.
“The beauty of pickleball is the ease of learning and learning,” said Stu Upson, CEO of the Pickleball Association USA. “But to take it to the professional level, you have to be dedicated. You can’t go out on the weekend and play and expect to compete like a pro – which is good for the sport.”