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The era of niche sports

15 Jan 2024   ·   

Journalist specialized in culture and sports innovation. Analyst of the technological, economic, and social changes that are shaping the sport of the future.

If basketball courts in the United States are being transformed into pickleball courts, we can confidently say that the rapid growth this sport is experiencing is not a passing trend. This blend of tennis, ping pong, and badminton is the fastest-growing sport in the country. The origin of this explosion can be traced back to the pandemic, but there are technological factors explaining the fervor. It’s not an isolated phenomenon; neither is it strictly about how spectacular or entertaining the game can be. It is the new technological ecosystem that is strengthening niche sports worldwide. 

In the case of pickleball, its unprecedented expansion cannot be understood without considering this technological context. If baseball was a perfect sport for radio, American football for television, European football experienced a remarkable boom with satellite broadcasts, and basketball has proven to be the most adaptable to social media, pickleball might be thriving because of its potential for community-building.

Just like with the Oliver app for playing football, the current surge in connectivity has been essential for positioning this sport at the heart of urban leisure.

It is a straightforward sport, requiring no years of technical training. Instead, it is instantaneous, and its accessibility allows participants of all ages to play. With this human potential, pickleball has become an excuse to meet people and foster connections in urban environments, as well as a simple way to engage in physical activity and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Similar to the Oliver app for football, the current surge in connectivity has been crucial in positioning this sport at the heart of urban leisure. 

In this case, the most important app is Places2Play. It enables users to find suitable courts near their location, discover tournaments, connect with players who share similar affinities or skills, and create groups or communities for play. Additionally, it offers a news service that includes updates on game rules and showcases videos of celebrities participating in this sport. Another app, Pickleball Connect, goes even further, allowing users to plan vacations by renting properties with private courts and offering a coach-finding service. To gamify the experience, Pickleball Match ScorerPro serves as a database for tracking match scores and personal statistics. And to resolve disputes, Pickleball FYI explains the rules.

The creation of user communities, the most coveted goal of new technologies since the 2010s, has found an accessible game for the general population that addresses the need for social interaction in urban settings. Furthermore, for those looking to delve deeper into this hobby, there is professional-level sports technology accessible to any user. There are smart paddles equipped with sensors that collect real-time data on shot speed and spin, as well as performance metrics. Apps like Vizual Edge serve as virtual coaches, while Playing Pickleball allows for virtual reality training, which is relatively easy to emulate given the similarity of strokes. If connectivity propelled this sport, the technology sector is now focused on creating apps and gadgets to meet the high demand. Numerous analysts are calling it a perfect storm, where every social and recreational aspect is accompanied by technological incentives.

The practice of ultimate frisbee wouldn’t be sustainable without technological support. The Spanish national team, as explained by their coach, couldn’t have been formed without the use of apps like Meetup, which provide clubs with players.

Another alternative sport experiencing significant growth is ultimate frisbee. While it has been around since the 1960s, its resurgence can be attributed more to a paradigm shift than other factors. Ultimate is a team game, but it involves no physical contact. Players must showcase their skills in passing, receiving, or intercepting the disc, all without pressure or intimidation. Moreover, there are no referees. When a contentious play arises, team members must discuss and reach an agreement. If they fail to do so, the disc returns to the last point of agreement. 

These rules have shaped a game that challenges certain aspects of traditional sports. Firstly, it promotes an image where competition is not everything. Winning at all costs is not the objective; one cannot deceive the opponent, and legitimacy of the outcome must be shared. Additionally, the most popular way to play is in mixed-gender teams. With these characteristics, recent social changes have only magnified its appeal. Contemporary society increasingly rejects the ultra-competitive athlete, thriving in high-pressure and stressful matches. These atmospheres are not attractive to young people and their parents alike. 

Hence, alongside the decline in popularity of sports like American football, which pose significant health risks, ultimate frisbee has become an attractive alternative for a new breed of athletes. It is gaining fame as the ideal sport for those who are not masters of traditional sports, which is actually the majority of people interested in physical activity but not necessarily in the cutthroat world of wins and losses. In ultimate frisbee, as its players often point out, there’s no drama

Not coincidentally, this sport has been chosen for peace projects, fostering reconciliation between Arab and Israeli populations or between Colombians and former FARC members. It has also been considered a platform for gender equality campaigns and LGBTQ+ inclusion. In fact, the American Premier Ultimate League, focused on combating racism and promoting gender equality, was created as a breakaway from the professional American Ultimate Disc League, which they considered less inclusive.

Carles F, the coach of the Spanish national team in this sport, confirms the nature of this game to Barça Innovation Hub: “It’s more emotional, in the sense that the reception is much more welcoming than in any other sport. Clubs are mixed, which is the opposite of many other sports. While testosterone might be positive for football, it’s not the case in ultimate frisbee; competitiveness is oriented positively.” 

However, the practice of ultimate would not be sustainable without technological support. The Spanish national team, as explained by their coach, could not have been formed without the use of apps like Meetup, which provide clubs with players. During the last World Championship held in Los Angeles, from which they returned with medals, “it was crucial for us that the Ultiworld platform, which provides professional-quality open and subscription-based broadcasts, covered our matches and could be watched in Spain. Reading the comments after each game was very motivating for us. We were far from home, playing an alternative sport, and seeing feedback is essential to continue participating in future tournaments in other countries.” 

Lacrosse is a sport based on Native American or indigenous games, easy to learn, and doesn’t require a lifetime of technical development like traditional sports.

The words of the coach can be extrapolated to any other niche sport. Traditional television is losing ground to streaming and a new fragmentation of audiences that benefits alternative sports, grassroots categories, and community-based sports. 

Another sport showing significant growth in the United States is lacrosse, which is already being broadcasted by ESPN. Cultural aspects have also favored its rise. It is a sport based on Native American or indigenous games, easy to learn, and does not require a lifelong technical development like traditional sports. On one hand, its growth can be explained by the increasing relevance of decolonialism and the rejection of Eurocentrism, but also because it only demands speed, with physical strength being less important. Sports with such characteristics have been challenging stereotypes for the past two decades. Simultaneously, technological advancements in lacrosse sticks, aimed at increasing accuracy, have been a driving force for those who have taken up the sport. Applications like Catapult monitor performance with tracking tools to measure workload. 

In 2006, Chris Anderson, the director of Wired, wrote in his essay on marketing, “The Long Tail“, that the future of companies lies in selling less, and that companies with mass sales, to sustain them, should offer a wide variety of products. In the chapter titled “Niche culture,” he explained: “The growth of niche cultures will reshape the social landscape. People are reconstituting themselves into thousands of cultural tribes connected less by geographic proximity (…) We are leaving behind the era when most of us followed, listened to, and read a relatively small set of mostly successful content, and entering the era of microculture, where we all like different things.” 

Gradually, the sporting world is experiencing this evolution. Changes in the perception of sports culture driven by various social factors are altering sports as we know them, in a process where technological development has strengthened and solidified alternatives. The unthinkable has never been more possible than in this era.

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