Pickleball has been named the fastest-growing sport in America for the third year in a row by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). It’s considered the “sweet spot” between other popular racquet sports, including badminton, ping pong and tennis, and provides a good workout without being overly strenuous.
The popularity of the game that started in a backyard on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965 has gained popularity for several reasons. Among them are the quick learning curve, ease of playing and accessibility to people of all ages and skill levels. The sport engages kids in a fun way while helping improve their motor skills and hand-eye coordination, while seniors can play to stay active and maintain their physical and mental health.
The sport is deeply rooted in social engagement, as it was initially created for families and retains this spirit by encouraging group play, interaction and partner rotation. Beyond its numerous benefits, pickleball boasts a rich history and intriguing theories about how it got its name.
When Was Pickleball Invented?
Pickleball was invented on a warm Saturday afternoon in 1965, on Congressman Joel Pritchard’s old badminton court. By the end of that summer, Joel and his friends had created the rules for the game after several friendly matches between their families.
It was not until 1967 that the first permanent pickleball court was built, in Bob O’Brien’s backyard on Bainbridge Island. O’Brien was a wealthy industrialist, close family friend and neighbor to the Pritchards, and the O’Brien family had also enjoyed playing the game the summer it was invented.
Pickleball has grown immensely from a fun summer game for families vacationing in Washington to becoming among the decade’s fastest-growing sports. Here are other notable events in the pickleball timeline:
- 1968 — The invention of Picke Ball Inc., later Pickel-Ball Inc., which was the first manufacturer and commercial distributor of pickleball equipment and accessories.
- 1976 — The first pickleball tournament was held in Tukwila, Washington, at the South Center Athletic Club. Around the time of the first tournament, Tennis Magazine wrote and published an article where they referred to pickleball as “America’s newest racquet sport.”
- 1984 — The United States Amateur Pickleball Association, now USA Pickleball, was formed to support the growth and development of the sport in the U.S. and its territories. That same year, the first rulebook for pickleball was published.
- 1990 — Pickleball hit a milestone of being actively played in all 50 states.
- 2008 — The USAPA Rules Committee published the USA Pickleball Association Official Tournament Rulebook and the game debuted in the National Senior Games Association (NSGA), which has been revised severally since.
- 2015 — SFIA recognized pickleball as the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.
Who Invented Pickleball?
The invention of pickleball was out of sheer coincidence. In 1965 Joel Pritchard, a former lieutenant governor and Seattle congressman, and his friend Bill Bell were vacationing with their families at the Pritchard’s Bainbridge Island, WA, residence. One hot Saturday afternoon, the men returned from golfing and found their families bored.
In an attempt to bring some life to the party, Joel, Bill and their kids set out to the badminton court in the front yard of the inherited vacation property to have some fun. But to their dismay, they could not locate the shuttlecocks. Determined not to give up, they had to innovate. They started throwing a perforated ping-pong ball over a 60-inch high badminton net using ping-pong paddles.
The game was an instant hit and the next Saturday, they invited Barney McCallum, a very handy guy who lived about six doors down from the Pritchard, to join them. These three men, Pritchard, Bell and McCullum, became pickleball’s revered founders and inventors. They collaborated to formulate the rules, devise the right pickleball court dimensions and settle on the best equipment for subsequent pickleball games.
That same summer, McCallum designed appropriate pickleball paddles using plywood, ensuring they were heavier and had more surface area than the ping-pong paddles they used initially. They also settled for the Cosmos Fun Ball, a lightweight ball made of durable plastic with holes on the surface, which offered more bounce and could be used to play both indoors and outdoors. They also lowered the net to 34 inches at the center and 36 inches around the edges, making it easier for everyone in the family to drive the ball across the net.
Through the winter, they also debated about the rules of the game. They settled for a set of rules that borrowed a lot from badminton, considered their court conditions and ensured the entire family continued participating in the game. Pritchard, Bell and McCallum soon realized this game’s appeal and introduced other friends, neighbors and extended families to it.
In 1968, Joel Pritchard and Barney McCullum created a company called Pickle Ball Inc., which spearheaded the mass production and marketing of pickleball kits and paddles. Their goal was to create equipment, starting with paddles to promote the game lawfully and make it easier for people from around the US and beyond to start playing pickleball. Their first product was Diller plywood paddles and it wasn’t until 1992 that they started designing and manufacturing.
Why Is Pickleball Called Pickleball?
Pickleball is a game with an interesting and contradicting naming history. There are two popular accounts of how pickleball got its name: the “mushy” dog story and the “sentimental” boat story. Here’s how these two theories go.
The Mushy Dog Story
The dog story is the most popular account of how pickleball got its name, but that doesn’t make it the true version. The mushy dog naming story started when a national publication reporter interviewed Joel in the early 1970s. He shared two accounts of how the name could have come up, and the second account was that the game was named after their cute dog Pickles, who liked to run after errant balls in the bushes surrounding the court.
While this was only a joke, it stuck and was heavily reported as how pickleball got its name, presumably because it was a fun and memorable tale. Despite Joel admitting it in subsequent interviews and the story being disputed by his wife Joan and their two children, the mushy dog story remains very popular.
The Story of Pickles the Dog
Pickles the dog was the Pritchard’s cute pup, who many people to date believe was the origin of the name of the now-famous game pickleball. However, according to the pioneers of the game and innovators of the name, Pickles the Dog was actually named after the game, not vice versa.
According to the Pritchards, the Bells and the McCallums, pickleball was named the same summer in 1965 when they started playing the game. But it wasn’t until 1968 that Jeannie the Pritchard’s youngest daughter and Dick Brown’s son Paul picked up and brought home two cute cockapoos. The Browns named their puppy Lulu. Unsurprisingly, the Pritchards went with Pickles.
Pickles lived up to her name as she loved to chase after stray balls that would jump into the bushes during heated pickleball games.
The Sentimental Boat Story
Before Joel got into the funny tale of how they could have named the game after the dog, he told the reporter about how Joan coined the name from “pickleboats.” Pickleboats refer to weak boats made of leftover or mismatched rowers for fun local crew races. Joan was a pickle boat rower during her days at Marietta College — one of the colleges with the best crew programs in the country.
Joan’s name idea may have been inspired by the fact that pickleball combined ideas, equipment and rules from a couple of other racquet games, just as the pickleboat crews. She documented this version of the naming story in articles in the Parkersburg, West Virginia News and Sentinel newspapers. Her children, Frank Pritchard and Peggy Pritchard-Olson, also support and confirm this theory in several interviews done over the years.
Honoring the Memory of Pickleball Founders
The three pickleball founders were crucial to the sport’s early development. Sadly, none of the founders are still alive. Joel passed away in 1997 at 72, Bill passed away at 83 in 2006 and McCallum passed away most recently in 2019 at 93 years old.
Their efforts are greatly appreciated and the sport of pickleball credits and honors them in a variety of ways, including:
- Pickleball Hall of Fame inductions: Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum were among the first people to be inducted into the Pickleball Hall of Fame, established in 2017 to acknowledge their contribution to the development of the sport.
- Tournaments and events: Numerous pickleball events and tournaments have been held in honor of the founders and special awards have been presented in their names. USA Pickleball appreciated McCallum for attending the National Championships in 2013 and 2018 to witness how far the sport had come.
- Historical museums and sports facilities: Museums and sports facilities on Bainbridge Island and beyond have exhibits dedicated to educating the public about the founders and their role in the sport’s creation. These museums include the Pickleball Hall of Fame and the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum that offers free admission.
- Commemorative plaques and monuments: In Bainbridge Island, where pickleball was born, plaques and monuments are dedicated to the three founders. These serve as reminders of their contributions and the sport’s origins. One such plaque can be found on the first-ever make-shift pickleball court in the Pritchard’s front yard, which identifies as an original badminton court repurposed for pickleball by the three founders whose names are also listed.
Pickleball’s Prevalence Today
Almost three decades after its invention, pickleball became a national and international sensation.
By 1990, people in all 50 states were playing the game. The spread and popularity of the sport are driven by the increased availability of places to play, such as community centers, YMCA facilities, parks, schools, tennis clubs and private residences.
An Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) report in March 2023 revealed that over 48 million adult Americans played the sport at least once since March 2022. New York, Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth recorded the highest numbers of pickleball players.
APP also found that the average age of players is 35 years old, which speaks to the growth of the sport among ages 18 to 44. The sport is diversifying and spreading faster than anyone imagined, with more people playing professionally and participating in competitive leagues and tournaments.
USA Pickleball has also recorded and increase in membership to over 70,000 members playing the game at recreational and competitive levels. They also note that there are over 44,000 known courts in the U.S., with more than 10,000 places to play in North America.
Today, there are several main pickleball organizations, including:
- USA Pickleball: The national governing body for the sport in America
- Professional Pickleball Association (PPA): Stages many tournaments for professional players, including singles, doubles and mixed doubles
- APP: Organizes many professional events with millions in prize money
- Major League Pickleball (MLP): Relatively new league in the sport with competitions that follow a team draft
- International Federation of Pickleball: Curates a repository of the sport’s rules and has over 60 member countries global
- World Pickleball Federation: Includes six regional federations across many continents
Pickleball has also appealed to several A-list celebrities, star athletes and business gurus who play the game at professional, amateur and casual levels. Some proudly support and promote the game, while others have taken to investing in the game. Ellen DeGeneres, Selena Gomez and Will Ferrell are big fans and active pickleball players. Tom Brady and LeBron James have even invested in professional pickleball teams to help grow the sport.
Partner With USA SHADE to Enhance Your Pickleball Court
Given the growing popularity of pickleball, more businesses like eateries, parks, recreation centers and resorts have built pickleball courts to draw more customers and serve their communities. Creating the best pickleball court takes time and accounts for various factors, including the right dimensions, materials, perimeter fencing, net systems and shade structures.
Shade structures are essential to protect the players from extreme weather conditions and enhance the spectators’ comfort as they cheer on the game. At USA SHADE, we can help you design and build shade structures that create a comfortable, protective environment for pickleball players and audiences. Our solutions can be customized to any shape, size and style to suit your unique requirements.