Since it started gaining popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, pickleball has quickly gone from a more obscure sport to a national phenomenon. In fact, the tennis-badminton-squash combination is America’s fastest-growing sport, with millions of people playing globally — many of whom do not normally play sports, and a large number of whom are women.
But why is this hybrid racquet-and-ball game catching on at such a fast rate in the U.S.? Should you jump on the bandwagon? Here’s what you should know about this recreational activity that has become an indelible part of U.S. culture.
The History Of Pickleball
Pickleball started on Bainbridge Island, Washington, a 35-minute ferry ride west of Seattle. In the summer of 1965, friends Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum created a fusion of tennis and ping pong using various, mismatched paddles and balls they had on hand.
The goal was to entertain themselves and their kids, and the game was named by Joel’s wife Joan, who said it reminded her of the “pickle boat” of random crew members put together in rowing races. (Another family legend says the game took its name from the Pritchard’s dog, Pickle, though she came after the game had been created.)
Eventually, the family pastime evolved into an organized sport with set rules and regulation equipment. It steadily grew in popularity, spreading from the Pacific Northwest to other warmer coastal areas, where it could be played outside all year, and then beyond. The first tournament took place in 1976.
The number of recorded places to play pickleball in North America steadily grew. In 2003, there were 39 registered locations. In 2008 there were 420. In 2016 it jumped to 4,600 and in 2018 it rose to 7,000. Today, in post-pandemic 2023, there are 11,000.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association says pickleball has been the quickest-expanding sport, with 158.6% growth in participants in the last three years. SFIA says there are roughly 8.9 million players in the U.S. over the age of 6 years old, almost double the number in 2021-22.
However, a CNBC/Association of Pickleball Professionals report puts the number of people in the U.S. who played at least once between August 2021-2022 at a whopping 36.5 million. (That number goes down when you look at repeat players.)
The Basics Of Pickleball
Pickleball uses a table tennis-like paddle rather than a racquet. A pickleball is similar to a whiffle ball but it has more holes and is rounder.
The net on a pickleball court is two inches lower than a tennis net. The court size is 20 feet wide and 44 feet long compared to a 60-by-120-foot-long tennis court.
You can play one-to-one or on doubles teams with pickleball and the court size stays the same. Pickleball, however, has a 7-foot “no-volley” area by the net called “The Kitchen.”
In pickleball, only the server’s side scores a point, and the server to go first is chosen at random. The ball must bounce once per side after the serve, and only underhanded serves are allowed when volleying. The ball must stay in bounds during the game, and a game ends when one team has achieved 11 or more points. The winning team must have two points more than their opponent.
Why Is Pickleball So Popular?
Pickleball is part of a general uptick in fitness participation for Americans since the pandemic, but this sport has become especially popular for several reasons.
First, it’s inexpensive. The basic equipment consists of affordable racquets and balls. If you play on existing tennis courts, you can modify them with a slight lowering of the net and temporary markings. Portable nets usually cost under $100. You can get pickleball-specific shoes, but you could also start off playing in regular athletic shoes.
Another pro for pickleball is that there are fewer advantages to being athletically inclined. For example, being taller doesn’t help as much as it does in tennis since pickleball courts are not as large as tennis courts. Pickleball serves are underhanded, so they’re easier to make and receive.
“In pickleball, you’re hitting a plastic whiffle-like ball, so it’s less bouncy and doesn’t fly as fast through the air,” Ernie Medina Jr., an assistant professor of public health at Loma Linda University and pickleball coach, told the New York Times. “And the paddle is much easier to handle because it’s shorter and lighter than a tennis racket.”
Because pickleball isn’t as physically rigorous on the body, a wide range of ages can play. This makes for multi-generational fun as well.
“I can have a competitive game with a 75-year-old, a 25-year-old and a 60-year-old all on the same court,” said Bill Schilling, a Bainbridge Island pickleball player, to the Seattle Times. “That’s one of the things that’s so special.”
Even celebrities have played pickleball. Here’s a YouTube video from ESPN, showing a game between James McEnroe and Andre Agassi at the 2023 Pickleball Slam.
Time To Play Pickleball!
If you’re looking to buy pickleball gear, here are some Don’t Waste Your Money recommendations for sets, paddles, nets, balls and shoes. You won’t have any trouble locating what you need, and remember you can start out with minimal basics.
Places2Play has a tool that will help you find public places to play pickleball. More health clubs are adding pickleball courts, too, including Life Time Fitness, which expects to have 600 permanent courts in place by the end of the year.
The sport isn’t without controversy. In some areas, pickleball players have taken over playground areas, marked up and damaged tennis courts, and supplanted standard tennis court space — much to the unhappiness of tennis lovers and local families. Pickleballs are louder than tennis balls, leading to some noise complaints, too.
So if you do play pickleball, make sure you are respectful of sharing any public recreational space with others. If you chalk or mark a tennis court, be sure that any lines can be removed without damaging the court surface. And for the regulars: let any newbie pickleball players join in if you see them hovering around the courts.
After all, given how egalitarian the sport is, novices have just as good a chance at dominating the courts as veterans. And that can be a good thing!