Ben Johns

Ben Johns is the no. 1-ranked men’s pickleball player in the world. Andre Chung/WashPo/Getty

Editor’s note: Woodall’s Campground Magazine (WCM) heard from owners this fall who have noticed an uptick in the number of campers wanting to play pickleball while camping. WCM has also heard from a number of owners who have built or are building pickleball courts. In an effort to help our readers learn more about this trend WCM is publishing this article, which also highlights travel trends around the sport. 

Ben Johns is the No. 1 player on the men’s international pickleball circuit. Notably, he is neither a Baby Boomer nor a resident of the Sun Belt. It’s an assumption a lot of people make about who plays the game, which is pretty much a mashup of all the racquet sports — tennis, ping pong, badminton, squash, etc. — and a number of non-racquet sports, like volleyball, according to Inside Hook.

But Johns isn’t only a pickleball player. The 22-year old from the DC suburbs — a senior at the University of Maryland studying material science engineering — has a sponsorship with Franklin Sports and his own pickleball vacation company, Pickleball Getaways. Last year, Johns started an instructional video company, Pickleball 360, and a podcast, Freestyle Boys. That’s not it: Later this month, Johns, whose success on the courts reportedly nets him $250,000 year in tournament winnings, is moving from his home in Gaithersburg to Texas, where he’ll make the soon-to-open Austin Pickle Ranch, a sports and entertainment facility in Southeast Austin, his official training facility.

Johns randomly picked up the sport when he was 16, during a family vacation in Florida. The third of six kids, all homeschooled, he says he had burned out from the tennis circuit he’d been on since he was eight. Johns took to pickleball immediately; within a year, he was winning tournaments.

Despite the game’s popularity in RV parks and retirement communities, pickleball is not an elder sport — though it is the kind of sport achy-kneed 70-year olds can excel at, a strategic game that doesn’t rely only on brawn or speed but brains, too. Even before the COVID lockdown, which saw pickleball grow by 21.3%, the Sport and Fitness Association had declared it “the fastest growing sport in America.” According to its governing body, USA Pickleball, 4.2 million Americans now play the game at least once a year.

Johns knows that people who like pickleball love pickleball — to the extent that they’ll schedule their vacations around it. Johns’s travel company, Pickleball Getaways, offers both a resort option and a tour option, and pickleball is always the most important item on the daily agenda. While COVID grounded the company’s offerings to a halt for nearly two years, the company’s first trip of 2022, to Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, has been fully booked for months.

Hosted at the Grand Palladium Resort and Hotel, the facility sets up 16 pickleball courts on four of their tennis courts to accommodate Johns’s 80 guests. (Johns’ favorite pickleball vacation spot is “hands down, definitely Ecuador, because it was just, just gorgeous,” says Johns. “I mean we’d be playing thousands of feet in the air, 10,000-feet altitude. It was pretty awesome.” In 2022, his company has trips slated for Portugal and Croatia.)

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