If you overlook its peculiar name and the fact that it’s played with a modified Wiffle ball and a gigantic ping-pong paddle, you just might enjoy pickleball.
That is what millions of Americans have discovered. In the last three years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the racket game, invented by a future congressman and apparently named for his family’s dog, has been the nation’s fastest-growing participation sport.
“It’s been sweeping the country,” said Jane Souewine, a 65-year-old East Norriton, Pennsylvania, resident who plays in a community league. “I’ve been amazed at how popular it’s become.”
Now that popularity appears to be accelerating as Americans cloistered by COVID-19 are increasingly hungry for social activities. People of all ages, but especially seniors, are playing pickleball indoors and outdoors, in leagues and informal groups, on converted tennis courts and those built to satisfy the new demand.
“You can find it just about everywhere,” said Greg Waks, an Upper Merion Township, Pa., supervisor and an avid participant. “Yes, the name is strange. It isn’t one that embodies skill or strength or athleticism or precision. It sounds like something made up by bored kids. But the more people see and experience it, the less strange it sounds. It’s growing like crazy.”
A hybrid of ping-pong and tennis, pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court, at 44 feet by 20 roughly one-third as large as a tennis court. Using wood or composite paddles, participants serve underhanded, then smack a perforated, dense-plastic ball back and forth across a net that at 34 inches is two inches shorter than its tennis counterpart.
Though the rules are simple and the physical demands few, much of its appeal is social. Since no special abilities or expensive equipment are required, almost anyone can play. Leagues tend to be as low-pressure as the sport’s funky name might suggest.
“It’s just a very fun two hours,” said Souewine, who participates in a league at the Upper Merion Community Center. “It’s athletic. It’s social. It’s inexpensive. It checks a lot of boxes.”
Kate Corr, 60, of Collegeville, said she played doubles pickleball — by far the most common format — a few times a week with former tennis friends at gatherings that serve the same function that card parties or coffee klatches did in a more sedentary age.
“It’s a fun, social sport,” said Corr, the mother of six. “We bring a cooler of beer. If there’s more than four of us, we rotate in and out. If you’re sitting and waiting, you can have a cocktail. If you’re playing, you’re playing, but you can still kind of chitchat and catch up.”
Pickleball’s pace tends to be slower than tennis or squash and participants must remain several feet behind the net. And with a smaller court and a ball that travels at lower speeds, seniors and the unathletic can get their exercise without straining themselves.
“You don’t have to hit the ball as hard as in tennis so you have a lot more long rallies,” said Jeremiah Thomas of Doylestown, 37, a onetime college tennis player whose serves in that sport were once measured at 142 mph. “It’s almost like chess. You can set up a point, react to things.
“You can play with people of varying skill levels. I can make points off the top players in the world. In tennis, I’d have no prayer of doing that.”
Founded in 1965 but only recently gaining momentum, has been spread primarily through word of mouth or serendipity. Thomas discovered it in online search after a devastating knee injury made tennis nearly impossible. Waks stumbled upon it at an adult-education course.
Courts have been popping up at tennis clubs, YMCAs, community centers, 55-and-over developments, public parks and private country clubs. They’re egalitarian. Dozens of formal and informal leagues, like the whimsically named Garnet Valley Gherkins Pickleball Association, have been created to sate this growing appetite.
“I play three times a week at the Upper Merion Community Center,” Waks said. “My condo community has two private pickleball courts. There are retrofitted [tennis] courts at Bob White Farm Park, which is nearby. You can find leagues or pickleball groups online and there are always tournaments.”
It’s been a relatively short journey since that day in 1965 when Joel Pritchard, later a Republican congressman, and a few friends decided to play badminton at his home on Bainbridge Island, Wash. When they couldn’t find a shuttlecock, they improvised with a Wiffle ball and homemade paddles. Searching for a name, someone spotted the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, and the new sport was christened. (Some claim the name actually derived from the rowing term “pickle boat,” in which a crew is assembled with oarsmen from different boats.)
An estimated 3 million people play. The large sporting-goods manufacturers have discovered pickleball and once rudimentary equipment has evolved. For $200, you can buy a six-layer, carbon-fiber paddle.
There are three types of balls. Because there’s no wind and they don’t tend to bounce as well there, the indoor ball is lighter. Its perforations are larger and more numerous, making it less likely to skid. The outdoor ball is heavier and more rubbery. And those used by elite players are made from a harder plastic.
Locally, that equipment can now be found at major sporting-goods retailers like Dick’s and Walmart, at tennis and other racket-sport centers and at numerous online sites.
Executives of PickleballCentral.Com, a Washington state company that is the largest online seller, told the Puget Sound Business Journal that they expected that revenue, estimated at $20 million in 2020, would grow by 25% this year.
“We started in September 2006 as a hobby website,” said Anna Copley, the company’s cofounder. “After three years the sport of pickleball was booming and our little side business had grown into a full-time enterprise serving thousands of customers.”
Statistics show that 64% of pickleball players are, like Souewine and Corr, 55 and over. In some senior-laden areas, the game has developed an enthusiastic following. At the Villages, the massive Central Florida retirement community, there are more than 200 courts.
“It’s a sport anyone can play, even as you get older,” said Corr. “There’s not a lot of running. It’s more quick hands and hand-eye coordination. It’s not real tough on the joints.”
For those reasons it allows for more balanced competition between age groups than most sports. Thomas discovered that early in his transition to pickleball.
“I was playing this 65-year-old and he destroyed me,” Thomas said. “That really got me hooked.”