America’s fastest-growing game was born out of boredom.
The summer of 1965 was a groundbreaking year in American history. They were rioting in Watts. The Rolling Stones’ hit, Satisfaction, topped the charts and The Sound of Music became the highest-grossing film of all time. Meanwhile, three dads were inventing a new sport in the Pacific Northwest.
Bainbridge Island is a summer enclave just west of Seattle. One drizzly Saturday afternoon in the summer of ‘65, Joel Pritchard, a state representative who went on to become Lieutenant Governor of Washington, and two of his friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, returned from golf and found their children sitting around with nothing to do. They attempted to set up badminton on a decrepit paved court on Pritchard’s property, but no one could find the shuttlecock. The fathers improvised with a Wiffle Ball, ping-pong paddles, and lowered the badminton net. Within minutes, pickleball was born.
While urban legend has it the game was named after the Pritchard’s Cocker Spaniel, Pickles, who constantly ran off with the stray balls and hid them in the bushes, the game was dubbed pickleball by the matriarch of the family, Joan Pritchard. An avid rower, Joan came up with the name because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the ‘Pickle Boat’ in crew, where oarsman were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” The dog, which came along two years later, was named Pickles in honor of the family’s favorite game.
Joel Pritchard used his political influence to help pickleball gain notoriety, often including games at fund-raising events. Soon the sport moved off Bainbridge Island – known as The Rock in the Puget Sound area – to Seattle, where more people were exposed to it. When a reporter from New York featured pickleball as part of a news story, the sport gained national attention.
The first pickleball court was built at the home of Pritchard’s neighbor, Bob O’Brian, in 1968. Eight years later, an article in Tennis magazine dubbed it “America’s newest racquet sport” and, that spring, the first tournament was held at South Center Athletic Club in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila. The USA Pickleball Association [USAPA] – the sport’s governing body — was formed in 1984 and, by 1990, the game was being played in all 50 states.
A paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, pickleball can be played indoors or outdoors. Similar in size and layout to a doubles badminton court, the playing surface is 20 feet wide and 44 feet deep, with a net in the center. Two [singles] or four [doubles] players use solid paddles made of wood or composite material to hit a perforated ball, similar to a Wiffle Ball, over a net. The paddles are about twice the size of ping-pong paddles and the net is 34 inches tall at the center – the height of Joel Pritchard’s waist.
The rules are similar to tennis, with some modifications. The court is divided in half by service lines. The serve, which must be underhanded, is delivered diagonally, and points can only be scored by the side that serves. Players must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed, and there is a seven foot no-volley zone – called the kitchen – on each side of the net to prevent spiking. The server continues to serve, alternating service courts, until he or she faults. The first side collecting eleven points wins, and teams must win by two.
There are several reasons pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America. It is easy for beginners to learn, has a social component and offers multigenerational appeal. A fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players, pickleball requires no special apparel, and equipment is inexpensive and portable. Now taught in PE classes, the sport is popular in community centers, YMCA facilities and retirement communities – and continues to grow worldwide.
The first USAPA national tournament was held in Buckeye, Arizona, in November 2009. The event drew almost 400 players from 26 states and several Canadian provinces. Of the 205 awards given that year, 75 medals went to players from Arizona. A pickleball hotbed, the Copper State has hosted the USA Pickleball National Championships nine times. The 2017 championships, held 50 miles south of Phoenix in Casa Grande, included more than 1,300 registered players and was broadcast nationally by CBS Sports Network.
Scott Schwartz is founder and chairman of the Paradise Valley [AZ] Pickleball Association. A New Jersey native, Schwartz is an avid player and promoter of the sport, and has played all over the U.S. The PVPA motto is Fun, Fitness and Friendship, and Schwartz points out that the social component, coupled with the low impact nature of pickleball, allows the game to be enjoyed by players of all ages. He is also quick to point out its competitive element. “I love the comradery,” observes Schwartz, “but players will forget all friendships when they’re out on the court.”
In addition to the USA Pickleball National Championships, the USAPA hosts eleven regional tournaments and sanctions over 100 tournaments annually throughout the U.S. Pickleball Magazine is the official publication for the USAPA and is the world’s only publication for the sport. Published six times per year, the electronic edition is free to all USAPA members, while the print version costs $ 18 per year. The Pickleball Channel is a free on-line program that helps enthusiasts improve their game, find places to play and keep abreast of the latest goings-on within the sport. Available on Apple, Android and Google Podcasts, the Pickleball Show! With Chris Allen is the top-rated pickleball podcast in the world.
The Grand Canyon State Games Pickleball Championships get underway today outside Phoenix in Surprise, Arizona. The USAPA-sanctioned event will run through next Tuesday, February 26.