What is pickleball, you ask? Aside from a fantastic excuse to don some colorful pickleball t-shirts, pickleball is a sport played with a larger-than-ping-pong but smaller-than-tennis paddle, a perforated plastic ball, a 36-inch-high net, and usually, a light hearted sense of camaraderie. It might be the infectious spirit of the sport (more on that later) that’s helped fuel its exponential growth over the last few years–around 40% between 2019 and 2021, making it the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. Earlier in 2022, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported that there are over 4.8 million “picklers” nationwide, and as the sport’s popularity has grown, so has the range of people who play it. According to USA Pickleball, participation is growing fastest among players under the age of 24. No matter what age, one of the things people love about the sport are the pickleball outfits (or ‘fits’) that are becoming all the rage. (More on that later, too.)
From announcements of celebrity competition shows to a growing number of athletes investing in professional teams, pickleball has made its mark on the cultural news cycle over the last year. With so much novelty surrounding a sport that lacks the immediate name recognition of baseball, basketball, football, or tennis, it would be understandable to assume that pickleball is a recent creation–perhaps even dreamed up during the early days of pandemic lockdown.
But no, pickleball claimed its place in the pantheon of American-born sports back in 1965 on an island not far from Seattle, the city that would become home to tech and corporate titans like Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon in later decades. The story goes that its co-creators–Congressman Joel Pritchard, businessman Bill Bell, and handyman Barney McCallum–created the sport and its rules over the course of two summer weekends while on vacation with their families on Bainbridge Island. Finding themselves with nothing to do, they sought to create a sport that the generations could play together, improvising with a badminton court, ping pong paddles, and a wiffle ball–lowering the badminton net to accommodate the weight of the ball and its potential to bounce on the asphalt.
As for how the sport got its name: though there’s popular lore that the creators named the sport after the Pritchards’ dog Pickles, the name “pickleball” was actually coined by Joel’s wife Joan, who was referencing the sailing term “pickle boat”–the name for the last boat to finish a race or a crew formed from “leftover” rowers to compete in the last race of a given day. Her rationale was that pickleball was itself created from the “leftovers” of other sports like tennis, badminton, and ping pong. The Pritchard family did have a dog named Pickles, but Pickles didn’t join the family until 1968, when they had already had three years of pickleballing under their belts. So while adorable, that origin story has been thoroughly debunked.
The co-creators went on to do business as Pickle-ball, Inc. in 1972, promoting the sport and manufacturing paddles and pickleball kits for public consumption. The sport got its first press coverage in 1975 and held its first tournament in Tukwila, Washington in 1976, and from there the sport grew in popularity throughout the Pacific Northwest before spreading nationwide in the mid 80’s. By 1990 people were playing in all 50 states, and by the turn of the century pickleball’s first website, Pickleball Stuff, was giving access to information about the sport and ways to purchase equipment online.
As participation grew during the 2000’s, pickleball gained a foothold among senior citizens. Pickleball USA reports that as of 2021, 52% of “core” players–who play more than eight times per year–were aged 55 or older. The sport and the way it’s traditionally played make it accessible to and inclusive of players of all ages and most levels of physical ability. The pace of the game is slower than tennis, and since its court is significantly smaller than a tennis court, there’s less ground to cover as players return serves, particularly if they’re playing doubles. The combination of the ball–which is served underhanded and by nature doesn’t fly as fast as a tennis ball–and the short, light, grippable paddle makes playing pickleball generally easier on the joints than tennis or other sports. And, as avid players will always be quick to remind you, the inclusivity and ease of the sport doesn’t keep it from being a great source of exercise, offering a chance to build both cardiovascular health and hand-eye coordination. This age group is quick to say it lifts their spirits too—who doesn’t love an opportunity to coordinate some classic pickleball clothing?
Since 2020, some younger players have gravitated toward the sport not just for all of the reasons above, but also because it gives groups of friends a way to connect with each other safely. Since the sport is usually played outdoors with ample space between players, it’s easy to follow pandemic precautions while you play.
Back in March Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation establishing pickleball as the official sport of the state of Washington. Though Pritchard, Bell and McCallum have all passed on before witnessing the game’s recent rapid growth, pickleball’s intention to merge sports has translated to a community among players representing all walks of life–not bad for a game improvised by three dads hoping to entertain their families.
If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about on a court near you, check out USA Pickleball’s extensive resources, including a Places 2 Play search engine. What to wear for pickleball? We thought you’d never ask. Shop our new AGPC collection for your favorite pickleball outfits to show your pickleball pride.