Pickleball sounds a lot like a sports parody. Its origin story reads like a prequel to BASEketball. A future U.S. congressman has a couple buddies over to his cottage, they grab some miscellaneous sports equipment and by happy accident concoct a brand new game that they name after Pickles, the representative’s beloved pooch — apparently the wily cocker spaniel had a penchant for stealing the ball.
Today there are 2.5 million players who pick up paddles and swat away at perforated balls on outdoor and indoor courts across America. Scores of grade school kids get their first taste of pickleball during PE, the sport has become a gym class smash hit.
So, What’s the Dill-io?
Take a shrink ray gun to a tennis court until it’s one quarter the size, pick up a rectangular paddle, and serve the ball underhand from behind the baseline diagonally over the net into the opposite court and you’re playing Pickleball. Games are typically played to 11 points and you need to win by two.
With a much smaller court space and ball that moves a third the speed of a tennis ball, Pickle Ball is low impact all ages fun for the whole family. Baby boomers who can no longer cover a full tennis court comfortably have been taking up the game in droves but the recent surge in pickleball participation is being propelled by multiple factors. The cinch to setup and pickup sport is making major inroads with school-age children and teens who are being introduced to the sport in gym class.
“We’re making a concerted effort to get into schools and Universities to grow the sport” explains Drew Wathey, the Managing Director of Recreational Programs at the USA Pickleball Association. “We hope to reach them young and early and have them develop a passion and love for a sport that they can play for the rest of their lives ”
The History of Pickleball
While it only takes around three weeks to ferment and cure run-of-the-mill dill pickles, the gestation period for a new sport can take decades before reaching critical mass and that’s the story of Pickleball.
The great game was brined back 1965, on Bainsbridge Island, a bedroom community just a seven-mile ferry ride away from downtown Seattle. Joel Pritchard, then a state senator representing Washington’s thirty-sixth district, had just finished up a round of golf with friends and they had reconvened at his place to chill. Their families were hanging around itching to play a game of sorts and that’s when the magic happened. Pritchard had a badminton court on his property but couldn’t find enough rackets for everyone; instead, they improvised and grabbed ping-pong paddles and a Wiffle ball. They quickly noticed the perforated ball bounced pretty decently on the asphalt and that gave them the idea to lower the net to make it easier to hit over. The next weekend another buddy dropped by, rules were codified and an new pastime was born.
The game grew surely but slowly over the last fifty years before really exploding in the twenty-teens. According to the USAPA, pickleball’s governing body, there are more than 4000 court locations, double the number of 2010. Community centers, PE Classes, YMCA’s, resorts and 55+ active adult communities have been biggest adopters driving the sport’s growth.
A Starter Sport
While you don’t have to cover the same distances as tennis in order to track down your opponent’s shots, pickleball is still a fast-paced game that can deliver a great cardio workout.
Jesse Gates, a middle school phys-ed teacher in Camden, South Carolina has been teaching the sport for a few years now and finds kids tend to pick up the game faster than they do tennis.
“The dimensions of the courts are smaller so it’s a lot more fun and they don’t spend as much time chasing the pickleball around as much they do a tennis ball. The name draws them in too, kids love the name ‘pickleball.’”
Gates attributes the popularity boom to the game’s shallow learning curve and instant gratification factor. Many people gravitate toward sports they can feel successful at right off the bat and Pickleball fits that bill to a tee.
Tucker Meyer, 17, works weekends as a caddy at Champions Retreat golf just outside of Augusta Georgia and took up pickleball last year. Developing a modicum of skills in a hurry proved a big part of the appeal.
“It’s easier to learn and a lot easier to play than tennis—you don’t have to run around as much. It’s fun and less physical activity,” he admits. Meyer estimates it took him a solid three months of practicing for an hour or two every day to get really good, to the point where he has the degree of confidence he can hold is own against any opponent he squares off against at his high school.
Anna Copley co-runs Pickleball Central, a sporting goods store, along with a half dozen other pickleball related websites with her husband. According to Copely sales have been roaring from the start with top line revenues jumping 40-50 percent every year since they opened up shop eleven years ago. They ship product all over the world and this past April opened up a new brick and mortar pro-shop in Kent, Washington, part of a 20,000 square foot indoor facility that includes four rent-by-the-hour courts. She views pickleball’s current growth spurt as a continuation of the snowball effect that began back in 1965 on Bainsbridge Island.
“It’s just taken fifty years for it to permeate from one person’s backyard to more people’s backyards,” she said. “And then to schools and resort communities in the sunbelt and folks [who discovered it there] taking the sport back to their homes in the Midwest in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan.’
In other words, it’s taken just a bit longer to brine.