The fastest-growing sport in the country requires little more than a net, a ball and a racquet. Some hand-eye coordination and a little foot speed can help. Apparently, alcoholic beverages for sipping on the sidelines don't hurt, either.

Pickleball — a sport that merges elements of tennis, pingpong and badminton — expanded 22% from 2019 to 2020 and is gaining younger players, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). In the Twin Cities, that popularity is on display at an expanding number of venues that accentuate the sport's social aspects, some of them far from the usual sports club or city park.

At the Minneapolis Cider Co. in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, the thump of racquets hitting plastic balls resonates in the taproom most nights of the week. The cidery hosts 13 pickleball leagues over five nights on its pair of courts next to the bar. It plans to add 12 more leagues this fall, including one for gay men called Just Pickles, after two additional courts are completed. Anyone can reserve a court for play at the venue, where players often sip cider between games.

A new spot, Lucky Shots Pickleball Club, will open soon in a northeast Minneapolis warehouse with 12 courts and food and beverage service.

Metro-area parks are also serving the trend, answering the call of pickleball-loving residents with new dedicated pickleball courts and pickleball lines added to existing tennis courts.

"This is the coolest thing. It is a national obsession at this point," said Ajay Pant, senior director of racquet sports at Chanhassen-based Life Time Inc. The stalwart of traditional racquet sports — tennis, squash and racquetball — has added pickleball at 16 of its 23 Twin Cities locations, and a 17th will be added soon.

In the Twin Cities and across the country, pickleball is taking center court in the realm of recreational fitness, and it is drawing new — and younger — fans.

Once viewed as catering to retirees, the sport now claims 4.2 million players — and many of them are years away from gray hairs.

Cora Stallcup, 22, of St. Paul, is one of them.

She plays with her 23-year-old boyfriend, Noah Wolfe, in Minneapolis Cider Company's mixed social league on Thursday nights. The two got started in the sport playing with Wolfe's grandfather and parents.

"His grandpa was always saying, 'Let's go play,' and I thought 'Sure,' and then we started playing and I thought, 'Wait, this is really fun,' " Stallcup said.

Easy and friendly

Pant said part of the appeal of the game is the players.

"Pickleball people are just scary friendly," said Pant, who recounts times when he's been invited to play just by showing up solo at a pickleball court. People are willing to rotate out of a match to allow new players in, he said, and no one cares about a newcomer's level of experience.

Ease of entry also plays a huge role in the rapid expansion of the game.

It can be played nearly anyplace with a large enough surface and a portable net, from basketball courts to driveways with lines drawn in chalk.

"It is pretty easy to pick up. It is easy to get better and better the more you practice. There is a little advantage if you are physically fit, but there's luck involved, too. The rules and scoring are simple. The paddles aren't too expensive," said Stallcup. Her kit, which included two paddles and four balls, cost about $40.

"If you're not playing in 10 minutes, something is totally out of whack," said Pant. "I can have people rallying in tennis in that time, but I can't have you playing and competing," he said.

A side of exercise

Fortunately, although the sport is fun and friendly — and so casual that it can be played after enjoying a drink — it offers the benefits that come with exercise.

"It's a guarantee: You are going to sweat, and you are going to make friends," Pant said.

He noted that pickleball burns 40% more calories than walking. It engages the mind, which must sort out the spatial relationships between the racquet and the ball. The small court size (the same dimensions as a badminton court) means that wear and tear on joints is minimal. And the Wiffle ball used for play is ringed with holes, which slows down the ball, and consequently, the play.

The result is that players tend to rally longer, which makes for an enjoyable game.

"You aren't moving great distances, but you're moving enough to break a sweat," Pant said.

Even as younger players enter the sport, the game can be an equalizer.

During their first season of league play, Stallcup and Wolfe, who had both been recent college athletes, thought they were pretty good — until they faced down a couple in their 60s.

"They were one of the best teams," Stallcup said. "They killed everybody."

Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282