Pickleball History: Origin of America's Fastest Growing Sport

Image Credit: USA Pickleball
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

If you didn't know by now, pickleball is America's fastest-growing sport.

The said title has been given to the sport for three consecutive years (since 2021). And why is that? Well.. the numbers say it all!

According to the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP), more than 36.5 million people played Pickleball from August 2021 to August 2022! 

Pickleball has captured the hearts of countless people across the United States, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon. But what's the history behind pickleball, and how long ago did it become a thing?

What Exactly is Pickleball?

In a nutshell, pickleball is like the cool cousin of tennis, which also carries some ping-pong and badminton genes. Players use a paddle and a ball that looks a bit like a wiffle ball. A pickleball court has a specific size and a net with a particular height.

Although the goal is similar to that of other racket or paddle sports, Pickleball is unique and has its own rules, associations, and tournaments.

History of Pickleball

Where and when was pickleball invented? Why is it called pickleball? But more importantly, who were the people behind this popular sport, and how did they invent it?

Who Invented Pickleball?

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three dads: Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington at the time, his buddy Bill Bell, a sharp businessman, and Barney McCallum, a successful entrepreneur in the envelope industry. It all started in Joel's place on Bainbridge Island, just outside Seattle. Because the sport became an instant hit, they established the company “Pickle-Ball, Inc." in 1968.

How was Pickleball Invented?

So, here's the scoop, folks: Imagine a sunny Saturday in the said year; Joel and Bill had just finished a round of golf. Upon arriving at Joel's summer home, they found their families twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do. They decided to visit the old badminton court on Joel's property and play. But there was a teensy problem – they couldn't find all the badminton gear. 

The solution? Be creative and improvise! The two friends grabbed some ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball with holes and started goofing around. They set the net at the regulation badminton height of 60 inches, just volleying the ball over. But then, magic happened. The ball bounced like crazy on the asphalt surface, and they thought, "Hey, let's make this even more awesome!" So, they lowered the net to 36 inches.

Next thing you know, Barney joined the pickleball party at Joel's place, and the trio decided to lay down some rules, borrowing a bit from badminton. Their goal? To create a game that families could enjoy together. But as expected, it was not all magical. The three dads did several experiments to establish the original version of the pickleball rules.

Where Did the Name Pickleball Come From?

Over the years, there have been countless debates about how pickleball got its name. Initially, many people believed that the name “pickleball” originated from Pickles, Pritchard’s family dog. Allegedly, the dog would often chase after the ball and run off with it, so the family would refer to the game as "Pickle's ball,” which was shortened to simply "pickleball."

However, in a 2005 interview, Peggy Pritchard-Olson, Joel’s daughter, clarified that the dog only came to their family years after the sport existed. Joel’s son, Frank Pritchard, supported her statement, saying that their mother, Joan, referred to the game as the ‘pickle boat,’ a term used to describe the slowest boat in a race. It was later learned that Pickles the dog was born in 1968 and was initially named Lulu.

So, how did the dog rumor start? According to USA Pickleball, Joel Pritchard was interviewed by a national publication reporter sometime between 1969 and 1970. When asked why the sport was named Pickleball, he first said it came from the pickle boat. However, the then-lawmaker told the reporter that it would be more memorable if people knew the sport's name came from a dog.

Evolution of Pickleball

So, how did a casual family backyard pastime transform into a structured and internationally recognized sport? Well, thanks to Pritchard’s political status during its first years. He started some of his political and fundraising events by playing pickleball and introducing it to the public. And sure enough, his efforts slowly paid off. Not to mention, the game rules were further improved to cater to all ages.

Orders of pickleball paddles were increasing rapidly, which paved the way for the group to establish Pickle-Ball, Inc. in 1972. Pickleball also began to attract media attention, including an article in The National Observer in 1975 and Tennis magazine the following year. While players continued to flock to pickleball courts, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (USAPA) was created in 1984.

From its humble beginnings as a backyard game, pickleball is evolving today as its popularity continues to surge. It's super welcoming; you can find it in schools, community centers, retirement communities, and sports clubs. As pickleball grows, expect more comfortable gear, better court and paddle designs, and more exciting matches.

Related Post: 30+ Amazing Pickleball Facts, Trivia, and Milestones

Final Thoughts

Pickleball may be young, but its history and evolution testify to the power of innovation and community. Now that it has emerged as a global sensation, the sport is undoubtedly attracting players of all backgrounds and ages, from professional athletes to recreational enthusiasts and even tennis players. So, don’t be left behind.

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