Several years ago, my family and I temporarily moved into the quaint neighborhood of Fircrest, while our house was in the process of being built. Our neighbor two houses down the street had the backyard of every kid’s dream, and we were invited to use it as much as our hearts desired. On one particular trip, my parents were invited to play a new racquet game only they were familiar with: pickleball.
At its core, pickleball was created because, like many parents, its inventors found themselves searching for an answer to their children’s cries of summer boredom. It started in 1965 on Bainbridge Island when Joel Pritchard, a former Washington congressman, and Bill Bell, a businessman, returned to the Pritchards’ house from a round of golf to find their children idling around. Unsatisfied with the lack of activity, Pritchard and Bell went in search of badminton equipment, since the property already had a court. However, when the pair couldn’t find enough rackets, they improvised with ping pong paddles and plastic balls.
Initially, the net stayed at the standard height for a game of badminton, and the ball was volleyed back and forth. As the weekend drew on and the family kept playing, though, they discovered the plastic ball performed best when being bounced against the asphalt, so the net was lowered. After its initial creation, the game was taught to Barney McCallum, and from there, the three men began the process to officially create the sport of pickleball.
Pickleball is probably best described as a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. The game is played on a small court with wood, composite, or graphite paddles and a plastic ball. With a scoring system similar to badminton, the game is specifically designed for easy understanding, making it a sport open to beginners.
It is perhaps this simple setup and rule book that have allowed pickleball to become one of the fastest-growing sports. The 2017 United States America Pickleball Association (USAPA) Participant Report, conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SIFA), found there were 2.8 million pickleball players in the U.S., which was a 12.3 percent increase from the previous year. The sport’s most avid players also tend to be its oldest. The SIFA 2016 pickleball report found that about 75 percent of core players (those playing eight or more times a year) were 55 or older.
Now, while hearing these statistics might conjure images of pickleball being played exclusively in the gated retirement parks of Arizona, just run through the world rankings, and you’ll see anything but. Tyson McGuffin, the world’s top-ranked men’s singles player, is 28 and only began playing pickleball in 2015. The world’s top-ranked women’s singles and doubles player, Simone Jardin, is 39 and also started playing in 2015. And recently, Anna Leigh Waters, 12, stunned the pickleball world when she and her mother competed against Jardin and fellow top-ranked women’s doubles player Corrine Carr and won.
Karen Thomas, the director of marketing and communications for Kent-based PickleballCentral, one of the most popular pickleball retailers in the nation, can vouch for the sport’s push toward a younger demographic.
“If you look at who the champions are that are winning at nationals and the U.S. Open, they’re all young. A lot of them are collegiate tennis players. So, a lot of people in their 20s are switching from tennis to pickleball or adding pickleball to their racquet sports,” said Thomas. For pickleball, the exposure of players from all ages has increased the sport’s visibility and chipped away at its misconstrued image as a sport only for retirees.
And it’s this desire for an inclusive game that was at the core of its very creation. The USAPA chronicles the sport’s history online and notes that when Pritchard, Bell, and McCallum were crafting the sport’s rulebook, “They kept in mind the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together.” It’s the curiosity and fun that draws people in, but it’s the community and camaraderie that keeps them coming back.
KING 5 sports reporter Chris Egan is passionate about pickleball and can testify to its community. Just look at the 20-person group chat he’s a part of: It’s full of pickleball players reaching out to see who’s up for a game after work.
Growing up in Edgewood, Egan remembers fondly how he and his brothers would rally the neighborhood around their pickleball court for an annual summer tournament.
“We had over 100 people in our tournament every year; it was for everybody,” Egan said. “We had 7- and 8-year-olds out here playing it, and we had 70-year-olds and 80-year-olds playing in it.”
Even when the Egan Invitational tournament wasn’t running, their backyard was still full of neighbors and friends eager for a game and a chocolate shake from Mrs. Egan.
“I think that’s why it’s such a popular sport: Anyone can get out and do it,” he added.
As far as community goes, the pickleball enthusiasts are eager to recruit new players. They also strive to create an environment for the game that’s centered around the balance of staying competitive, while still having fun. Like most pick-up games, pickleball is typically self-reffed, but rarely will you find opponents trash-talking or letting the players’ competitive natures ruin the game.
Pickleball is truly a unique sport on the rise. It was built with backyard barbecues and summer days in mind but has found its place as a legitimate, competitive sport. And if you need further proof of pickleball’s power to draw people in, look no further than my own family, who added a pickleball court to the house plans.