What is Pickleball & Why Is The Sport Getting So Popular?

family playing outdoor pickleball
Image Source: Bretton Woods Mountain Resort
You know how it goes: it’s Saturday afternoon, you’re looking to hang out with your friends and do something active, but you can’t figure out what to do. Baseball requires too much equipment, basketball requires too much athleticism, and the last time you played football, you couldn’t get out of bed for a week.

Your group is flummoxed until a buddy makes a suggestion: “Why don’t we play Pickleball?”

No, your friend hasn’t been day drinking. Pickleball is a real sport that’s been around for more than 50 years and is purported to be the fast-growing sport in America. So, what exactly is this oddly named game?

The origins of Pickleball

The sport of Pickleball can be traced back to an island community just outside of Seattle. On Bainbridge Island in 1965, three dads invented the sport when, as with the origins of many new sports, they were looking for a way to keep children occupied. Half a century later, the sport invented by Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell is still entertaining.

When the three dads invented the sport, they were attempting to initiate a game of badminton. Unable to find shuttlecocks, they improvised, lowering the net to the position of a tennis court. Nowadays, the sport is played on specialized courts of 20 by 44 feet, roughly the same size as regulation double badminton courts. Click here for a more detailed account of the sport’s origins

Pickleball is a paddle sport, a crafty mix of badminton, tennis, and ping pong (or table tennis). Like tennis, it can be played in singles or doubles, but the pickleball ball is plastic and perforated, like a wiffle ball.

As determined by the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA; and yep, that exists), the ball must be “between .78 to .935 ounces and 2.874 to 2.972 inches in diameter.” There are different permitted paddles that have been approved for official use, with many companies regularly putting new ones on the market.

While high-end paddles can run up to the range of $150, there are much cheaper options for beginners.

Why is it called “Pickleball?”

pickle boat crew
Photo Credit: Oklahoma Riversport Events

No, the ball you play with is not made up of pickles or any other dill-related material. The name comes from a reference to rowing or fishing boats, in which the final boat that returns consists of whatever crew was leftover to row. This “make due with what you’ve got” ethos underlies the origin of the sport, a strange amalgamation of whatever equipment the families had lying around.

There is an apocryphal story that the sport was named after the family dog, Pickles, who liked to chase the balls. This is actually a reversal of the true origins, though, as the family adopted that dog after the game was invented and named the pet for the game.

Click here for a more in-depth look at these two contrasting stories about the origin of the name. 

How popular is Pickleball?

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) is a trade organization that tracks the popularity of sports and registers the sales of products for those various sports throughout America. What is known about the growth of Pickleball is based on their reports. In their report, they distinguish between core players – playing eight or more times a year – and casual players who play between one or seven times a year.

The most recent data is from 2014 when SFIA found that there were a total of 2.815 million US players of Pickleball. Breaking down those numbers further, there were 1.57 causal players and 930 thousand core players. Those numbers represented a 1.8% rate of growth from the previous year, which is what earned it the reputation of being one of the fastest growing sports in America.

Just for contrast, SFIA (formerly Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association) found in 2012 that basketball was the most popular sport in America with 26.3 participants. Considering how massive basketball is in America (and the world), it’s impressive that Pickleball would achieve 1/10th of its numbers.

Who plays Pickleball?

The great thing about Pickleball is that it’s a sport for virtually anyone. It’s a non-contact sport that doesn’t require nearly as much running or ground cover as tennis. In fact, in an NBC story on the sport, they spotlighted a 91-year-old Pickleball tournament participant.

Pickleball is recommended as a good sport for staying active if you are older or not in great shape. However, lest anyone thinks that means it’s just a sport for the elderly, the sport has dedicated participants of all ages. It’s an excellent activity for a casual day out, but can be just as competitive and hard fought as a tennis match.

In the same SFIA report, the write-up broke down the number of players by age: roughly 75% of core players are 55 or older, while, interestingly, less than 14% of casual players are older than 55. Perhaps predictably, the sport is most popular in the Pacific region where the game was first invented.

The continued growth of Pickleball

The USAPA has a number of outreach programs designed to help continue the sport’s growth. These programs include the High School Grant Program and the Community Grant Program that provide money as reimbursement for groups who purchase Pickleball equipment.

There is also a USAPA Ambassador Program with over 1,600 volunteers dedicated to spreading the popularity and awareness of the program. Some activities for volunteers include organizing and overseeing tournaments and acting as representatives for USAPA in communities.

Pickleball is gaining popularity across the US and other countries

Another reason the sport seems to be growing so much is that many people are migrating from tennis to pickleball. While pickleball still provides way for people to stay active and enjoy the competitive nature of racket sports, it’s not as intense as tennis. Pickleball is also relatively easy to pick up, the underhand serve is less technical than tennis and the smaller court makes it less strenuous.

Many players also comment on the very open and inclusive community that is known for being very welcoming to new players. While people do play at a very competitive level with national tournaments, brand sponsors and prize money- you can easily join a local league or club and pick up the game in a very casual atmosphere. Pickleball is also a great way to stay active with several health benefits and fewer injuries that some other sports.

Where can I play?

As of 2017, there were 5,869 USAPA officially designated locations to play Pickleball, including at least one in every US state and Canadian province. This means that there is a good chance you don’t live that far away from an official Pickleball court. You can use this website to search your area to find the closest courts.

Screenshot from places2play.org

Even if you don’t have one near you, you can do like the founding fathers of the sport did and convert a badminton court or make a home court with a just a portable pickleball net and lines drawn with chalk or tape (click here to see easy steps to setting up your own home court).

The growth of the sport in recent years probably has a lot to do with the fact that it is a sport that is easy to learn and fun for mixed groups, no matter the age, gender, or skill of the players.

Now that you know about Pickleball.  Part of the beauty of the sport, though, you can play Pickleball at your local park or even in your driveway with little investment. And it might just turn out to be your new favorite sport.

 

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