A sport that transcends age, language, and borders, pickleball has taken the world by storm. But where did it come from and how did it evolve into what the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) deemed a “highly contagious” sport? Keep reading to take the journey of pickleball throughout the years, from its beginnings as a casual backyard game to a fun and competitive sport.
What is Pickleball?
First things first: what is pickleball, exactly? The sport for everybody, pickleball is a racquet sport played in singles or doubles on a court that looks like a tennis court, only smaller. Like other racquet sports, it requires players to hit the ball over the net back and forth until one player misses. It lasts until a player reaches 11 points with a 2-point lead. Though requirements for playing pickleball are limited, you do need basic pickleball supplies to get started, including a paddle and a perforated ball.
Who Invented Pickleball?
Pickleball has humble beginnings, created in 1965 by three dads in Washington State searching for a fun game to entertain their families after returning from playing golf. Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell sought to play badminton since Pritchard’s home had a court but found that they lacked a full set of badminton equipment.
The two improvised by using ping pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. As their play progressed, they realized that the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface, so they lowered the net to 36 inches high. The third inventor, Barney McCallum, joined the following weekend and the three began to develop the basic rules for their game – pickleball.
A Game on the Rise
The popularity of pickleball began to rise in the late 1960s and into the ‘70s. Its appeal spread via word of mouth in their local community, with Pritchard’s neighbor and friend Bob O’Brian building the first “official” court in his backyard. Official rules were developed in the late ‘60s and a pickleball association was established years later in 1972, paving its way towards competitive play.
Their association was only the beginning. Once a local phenomenon, pickleball was featured in an article from The National Observer in 1975 and again in a Tennis Magazine article, where they dubbed pickleball “America’s newest racquet sport.”
After years of being enjoyed locally in Washington and neighboring states, pickleball began to spread across the country. In 1976, ten years after its creation, the first-ever pickleball tournament was held in Tukwila, WA. It attracted over 100 participants – many of whom were tennis players.
As pickleball began to gain traction, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association was founded in 1984 to standardize the rules, govern the sport, and organize national events. The game caught on because by 1990, pickleball was played in all 50 states! The first national tournament for players of all ages was held in 2009 in Arizona. The tournament drew 400 players from across the U.S. and Canada – four times the players from the very first tournament.
The Global Sensation
A sport loved for being low-impact and appropriate outdoor activity for all ages and skill levels, pickleball has continued to rise in popularity in the U.S. and internationally, including in the U.K., Canada, and Spain. Wondering how pickleball reached such a surge in popularity from its humble beginnings to today? It comes down to two reasons.
For one, the 2010 establishment of the International Federation of Pickleball grew the sport’s global interest. In the U.S., this surge can be attributed partly due to popularity in community centers, YMCA facilities, and PE classes and partly due to the digital era. Online communities and social media gave players a space to connect and share their love of pickleball. Truly America’s fastest-growing sport, there were an estimated 36.5 million pickleball players in the U.S. in 2022 according to a report from the Association of Pickleball Professionals.
The demand for pickleball as both a recreational game and a competitive sport is high. Players of all ages are attracted to the game thanks to its accessibility, social appeal, and appeal to every skill level. More than for recreation, pickleball is also a recognized competitive sport. Competitive events are held every year, most notably the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships and the USA Pickleball National Championship.
How Pickleball Got its Name
While there’s been controversy claiming that the game was named after the family dog, Pickles, it’s merely speculation. Joan Pritchard, the wife of pickleball inventor Joel, actually came up with the name. She’d called it pickle-ball in reference to the non-starters in the “pickle boat” of crew races. According to Pritchards’ children, the Pickles story came from a joke from an interview with a reporter about the origin of pickleball.
Hit the Courts
With its appeal to all ages and skill levels, it’s easy to understand why pickleball has garnered so much attention over the past few decades. Whether you’re playing recreationally or competitively, it provides a fun, social way to engage in physical activity. Hit the courts to see for yourself!