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Pickleball Grows in Popularity

Find out the history of our nation’s fastest growing sport

By Rachel Kelly

“It’s no mystery why pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the nation. The people are welcoming, the game is fun to play, and it’s suitable for all ages and ability levels,” says 5.0+ pro-rated pickleball player Bryce Ogren. It may be no mystery as to why pickleball has exploded across the nation, but most people don’t know that pickleball was invented here in the state of Washington on Bainbridge Island by a local family.

The official story is that Joel Pritchard, William Bell and Barney McCallum invented pickleball in 1965. If put simply, they developed the game over time for their families’ entertainment. Joel Pritchard and his wife had an especially invested interest. However, it also sounds like their children may have had as much a hand in its invention as the adults. The unofficial story goes that while the adults conversed, the kids were handed a wiffle ball and told to have fun outside. The kids didn’t come back, and the adults heard their kids actually having a blast outside on the badminton court. So, they joined in, and developed the game from there.

There’s also a version of the story where the adults came home from golf to find their kids restless and bored, so they set out to invent a game that would entertain them throughout the summer. That may be true of course; the game most likely did entertain the kids (and the whole family) throughout the summer. The game was so successful in entertaining the three families, that it soon spread to everyone they knew. Eventually the net was lowered, the rackets exchanged for paddles, and the rules developed to be close to what they are today.

At first, in the ‘60s, pickleball was generally only played by the families who had developed the game. Very soon after though, this was not the case. Their friends joined in, their friend’s friends joined in. Then the city. Then the state. It was so fun that it soon spread far and wide. It only took a few years, but the Pritchard family knew they were on to something. It was then that they and their friends formed Pickleball Inc. In the 1970s, newspapers got wind of its growth and spread the word of the new sport. Since the game can be played on virtually any hard surface, the materials are inexpensive, and the rules simple, it is easy to pick up. So once the word spread, so did the curiosity. Players everywhere were joining in, at first just to satisfy their curiosity and then because they were having fun.

By 1984, interest had progressed so much that the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was established. It was during this time that an official rule book was developed and circulated. In 2008, pickleball was adopted into the Senior Games, which are played nationally. In 2009, the USAPA held the National Pickleball Tournament with 400 registrants. By 2017, that same tournament registered 1,300 players. Today, pickleball has a pro rating system and various leagues.

The paddle of the game went through a similar evolution. Originally, the Pritchard family was using ping pong paddles. Using a jigsaw, they made bigger paddles. These new paddles were easier to hit the wiffle with. They also reinforced the handle, making it easier to grip. Eventually, the paddles were incorporated with a honeycomb construction, making the paddle lighter. As the game progressed in popularity through the ‘70s and ‘80s, fiberglass and Nomex honeycomb paddles were popular. Today, wood and honeycomb materials are still used to make paddles. But other materials, such as Polymer composite and graphite, are also popular.

The name is a bit odd though: Why pickleball? While a good crisp pickle does sound good right now, there are no pickles required in the playing. There’s a rumor that’s gone around (possibly started by some far away journalist …) that the game was named after the family dog: Pickles. Apparently Pickles liked to pick up the ball when it was dead at the net, no doubt from a desire to be involved. While this version is cute and funny, it’s not the real story. Pickles the dog was named after the game, not the other way around.

The real, albeit less fun, story has to do with Joan Pritchard, who had some experience with rowing. There’s a term in crew called a “pickle boat.” It’s usually the slowest boat in the race because it’s derived from rowers leftover from all the other teams. Just as a pickle boat picks and chooses from various teams and goes a bit slower, so pickleball picks and chooses its rules from various sports. The result is a game that’s a little slower—but just as much fun. Regardless of the origin, the game needed a zany name. And pickleball stuck. And really, if you think about it, what about all these other racquet sports and their names? Tennis? What does that even mean?

Perhaps the reason why pickleball is so accessible is because it’s a family game developed by a family. If the whole family is going to play, it not only has to be fun and engaging, but adaptive. Surprisingly the game is not reserved for just families, as it can be quite the workout. Because the game was created to be adaptive and fun, it’s also challenging and very competitive at certain levels. So much so that there are tournaments and pro leagues across the nation.

“It’s a common misconception that pickleball is very slow and only for the older crowd,” says Ogren, an elite gold medal 5.0 pickleball pro in both singles and doubles. “When played at the higher skill levels, it requires great overall athleticism, quickness, agility, hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes and sound decision making.” Pickleball is making money, winning sponsorships (Selkirk being one of the largest) and creating a name for itself. Because the game can be both played slowly and quickly, most P.E. classes have even picked up the sport. All skill levels, even pro-level players, are able to develop their skill and participate. Regardless, that’s quite the growth in a relatively short amount of time. Perhaps pickleball is fated for the Olympics one of these days? Who knows?

Pickleball is a racquet (or paddle) sport derived from rules from other netted sports, but what is pickleball? It’s kind of like tennis. Maybe like badminton. All the best things about racquet and net sports and none of the bad were adopted and adapted to the game. The result is just plain fun. The server starts the game and serves the wiffle ball, underhand, over the net and diagonally across the court. Like tennis, it must land within the acceptable perimeter so that the receiver has a chance to get it. They then return the wiffle, underhand, and the opposing side volleys back and forth. However, upon the serve, the receiver must allow the ball to bounce before returning. The ball must bounce at least once on each side of the court before it is allowed to be returned without bouncing. This prevents players from rushing the net too soon, which eliminates the server advantage. This results in a longer play time. Once a side makes a fault, and misses the wiffle, then that side loses that point and passes the wiffle ball to the opposing team to serve.

Points can only be made on a serve, for which there is only one qualifying try. If there are two team members, if the first server serves a faulty serve, they pass the wiffle to their teammate, who also has a chance to make a qualifying serve. If both serves are at fault, the wiffle ball passes to the opposing team. At no point in the game is a player allowed to hit the wiffle above waist level, or with the paddle at an upward angle. It must be hit underhand and below the waist. Which means that the ball can be tipped just over the net, but not slammed downward.

These rules allow for a longer playing time, meaning that it’s more fun. Especially if your skills are moderate. The competition is retained, however. That means, upon learning pickleball, a player can still participate and have fun. Even though they might be losing, or their skill isn’t “up to par.”

“Pickleball is easier to learn and play than tennis. It allows a complete beginner to learn the basics and feel successful early on. That’s one of the reasons why people keep coming back for more,” says Ogren. The game is a win-win! As players progress, they are met with higher and higher rewards, and even at lower levels, players are successful. Perhaps this explains why the game is most often played in teams of two per team, rather than singles. It’s naturally a fun group game.

Today, the game is still evolving to allow for increased access, and to eliminate needless rules that get in the way of playing longer. Anything that gets in the way of the fun is out! This means that the rules are sometimes adjusted. For example, pickleball now allows balls that have tipped the net during a serve to still be playable. In tennis this is called a “let” and is not allowed on a serve, even if the tennis ball lands in the acceptable space after tipping. “Lets” are allowed in the game play, but not for serves. Pickleball allows the ball to tip the net at any time, which, if you’ve ever delivered a stellar serve during tennis only to have it be “let,” this is quite a relief.

Pickleball also just recently started allowing the server to drop the ball, bouncing it on the ground, before serving it. As long as the rules for serves and paddle height are not broken, then the serve is acceptable for play. The ability to throw the ball in the air, and then get it over the net, is often the result of established muscle memory. While throwing the ball in the air usually means a quicker serve, there is no reason for requiring that type of serve from the beginning. This is just one of those rules that allows entrance for all skill levels, as the serve is often the most difficult part of a net and racquet sport to master.

As stated above, pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States. But Canada also seems to be picking up the sport. Just as we have pickleball venues in every state, Canada has venues in every province. The game is fun, simple, accessible and competitive. All the good and none of the bad, perfect for families and great for pro players. Rules are changing to allow for more access, and as it continues to spread those rules will continue to be relatively flexible. When it comes to fun, there’s really no hindrance!

As to where pickleball will go next? Who knows! From Washington to New York, from The United States to Canada, there really are no limits as to where pickleball will go.

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