What is pickleball? That might be a question heard just a few years ago but it won’t be asked much longer.
Pickleball—a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong—has flown under the radar for decades but in the past few years, the unique sport has become much more mainstream. In fact, not only has pickleball piqued an interest in thousands of people across the country but it is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2016 Pickleball Participant Report, approximately 2.8 million people across the country are playing pickleball. Data from the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the national governing body of the sport, adds that from January 2013 to January 2018, the association grew from 4,000 members to more than 22,000 members, a 450 percent increase in just five years. “There are so many reasons shy people are deciding to play pickleball,” said USAPA’s Executive Director Justin Maloof. “There are the obvious health benefits but it’s also a sport that can be played by youth, adults and seniors. It’s low impact and less court to cover than tennis.”
The sport was invented in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, a Congressman in Washington State, and his friend Bill Bell. They were bored and sitting around with their families. They had a badminton court at their disposal but no badminton rackets, so legend has it that Pritchard and Bell improvised: with some ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball and what the decided was the ideal net height—three feet—they began playing. They eventually created rules for the game and the new sport was born, though in the early years it had no name. (Although some assert that the name was based on the Pritchard’s dog, Pickles, that would run off with the ball, another story suggests the name derives from the term “pickle boat.”).
Combining many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, pickleball can be played both indoors and outdoors on either a badminton-sized court or a modified tennis court. Four pickleball courts can fit on one tennis court. By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states. “Many older players were learning the sport while wintering in warmer-weather states in their RVs staying at RV parks,” Maloof said. “Many RV parks were putting pickleball courts over their tennis courts and people were learning the sport and taking it back to their home communities with them. That really was a big part of the sport expanding nationwide.”
Since its inception in 2005, the USAPA and its 1,600 volunteer sport ambassadors have been doing all they can to help grow the sport. That includes launching Pickleball Magazine, which is available free to all USAPA members and provides all sorts of game-related content. Launched in 2016, the magazine is produced bi-monthly and is now available in some major bookstores. Another initiative—perhaps the association’s biggest—has been Places 2 Play, a feature on the homepage of the USAPA’s website that helps anyone looking for pickleball facilities to find them anywhere in the country. The database was launched last year and tracks all locations in the United States that house pickleball courts. “On average in 2017, there were over 90 new locations a month added to our database,” Maloof said. “Those aren’t just courts, those are venues that are now offering pickleball that previously hadn’t.” The Places 2 Play database currently lists almost 6,000 known locations. “It’s a great option for those who may be traveling but want to still have a chance to play while away from home,” Maloof said. “The database is very user-friendly and even includes current weather conditions in real time in the area.”
With interest exploding and the USAPA continuing its many initiatives, many of the association’s regions around the country are booming. That includes the Mid-Atlantic, which is one of the fastest-growing regions with more than 30,000 estimated players, notes Joe Borrelli, USAPA Mid-Atlantic regional director. A prime example of that growth comes from just one city in the region: Raleigh, N.C. “About six years ago, Raleigh had just two facilities with maybe six courts,” Borrelli said. “Now we have more than 26 facilities with more than 100 courts. Those are just the indoor facilities. Outdoors there are over 20 courts available. That’s just one small part of the region and that illustrates just how much growth there has been here in the sport.”
Another hotbed for the sport has been central Florida. The Villages—a 55-plus retirement community—boasts more than 180 pickleball courts that stay busy year-round. “You would think over 180 courts would be enough but during the season, there is a line in the morning to get on a court,” said USAPA Ambassador Christopher Thomas. “That’s how popular the sport is here.”
The Grand Oaks Resort in Lady Lake, Fla., has caught on to the pickleball boom and has recently expanded its pickleball court offerings. The resort added eight courts and plans to add more in the future. “We’ve really seen a growth in the sport here in our area, and a big part of that is due to the age demographic we have with many retirement communities,” said Steven Clenney, manager of sports development for Visit Lake. “There are 18 communities located within Lake County that have pickleball, so we are always looking at opportunities to grow and host the sport.”
“Pickleball” Pete Patterson is one ambassador of the sport in Lake County who fell in love with pickleball years ago and, along with his wife, has been teaching the sport at a local facility for the past few years. “We love the game and want to share that enthusiasm with everybody,” Patterson said. “It’s great to see people learn the game and excel and feel better about themselves while also making new friends.”
The excitement about the sport has led the USAPA to expand its number of regions—as of January 1, 2018, the association’s eight regions increased to 11—and the most-recent USAPA National Championships experienced a record-setting year. Held in November at the Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande, Ariz., the championships hosted approximately 1,330 players during the nine-day tournament, with approximately 2,800 matches played. “The tournament is in its ninth year and has grown every year,” said David Jordan, a past president of the USAPA. “This year, we had so many people sign up to play that we couldn’t accommodate them all.”
The sport that started making a name for itself in RV parks is now not only seeing record-setting events but even getting airtime on TV. (The 2017 USAPA Pickleball National Championships were broadcast on CBS Sports Network.) Major sporting-goods companies are now manufacturing the sport’s necessary equipment. And the USAPA foresees even more growth in its future. “It’s incredible, the advancements we’ve seen with the sport in just the last few years,” said Maloof. “Today we have easier accessibility to equipment and a huge growth in facilities. We’re excited to continue sharing the positives of the sport and getting more people in the game.”