Making a full-court press
Readers of a certain age will remember Lloyd Dobler in the 1989 film Say Anything confidently asserting kickboxing to be the “sport of the future.” Lloyd Dobler was wrong. The sport of the future, of course, turned out to be pickleball.
Over the past decade, and especially since the covid-19 pandemic, the game—a mash-up of tennis, ping pong, and badminton—got taken up by seemingly every American housing development built for the 55-and-over set. Easy to learn and fun to play, pickleball’s popularity has spread to other countries and younger age brackets.
Now the game is becoming a big business for court operators and a host of boldfaced names, including professional basketball players such as LeBron James, who have invested in the sport. There’s even talk of pickleball becoming an Olympic event by the end of the decade. That’s probably just wishful thinking by the already converted—but also a sign of how widespread the interest has become.
Ready to learn about the game that’s sweeping the globe? Let’s rally.
By the digits
44x20 ft: Length and width of a regulation pickleball court
11: Number of points a player or team must obtain to win a pickleball game (must win by two points)
1967: Year that the first permanent pickleball court was installed
38,000: Number of indoor and outdoor pickleball courts in the US in 2022
64: Number of countries the International Federation of Pickleball represents
50+: Number of pickleball-themed podcasts currently available on Spotify
From Bainbridge Island to the world
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by a group of friends on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as a workaround for an incomplete badminton set with a shortage of rackets. According to USA Pickleball, congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell improvised with ping pong paddles, and a wiffle-like ball in lieu of a shuttlecock. The next weekend, they introduced the game to another friend, Barney McCallum, and the three men created a set of rules based largely on badminton, but with a lower net.
Bob O’Brian, another friend of Pritchard’s, is credited with installing the first permanent backyard pickleball court two years later. In 1976, a year that also saw the first known pickleball tournament, Tennis magazine described the game as “America’s newest racquet sport.”
By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 US states. From there, it spread internationally, and exponentially.
Explain it like I’m 5
Like shuffleboard, the game initially became the domain of the retired set. But the very aspects that made it attractive to older folks—a relatively slow-moving ball, lack of overhand shots, and a smallish court—have endeared it to the youths. Why run around playing tennis? Who’s got the space for a ping pong table or a badminton net? How come those other sports don’t have a shot called a “dink”?
When you want something a little more mobile than cornhole but still easy enough to convince your roommates to play on a Thursday evening before beers, just grab your paddles and head to the park.
“Today we have a front row seat to a celebrity pickleball tournament unlike any other, mostly because there haven’t been any others.”
—Comedian Stephen Colbert while hosting Pickled, a two-hour CBS celebrity pickleball tournament in 2022 that benefited Comic Relief and featured the likes of Emma Watson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Will Ferrell
What is the name for the horizontal zones on either side of the net on a pickleball court?
A. The playground
B. The kitchen
C. The strike zone
D. The volley zone
The sound of a pickleball paddle connecting with a regulation hard plastic can be more than 25 decibels louder than the thwack of a tennis racket hitting a felt tennis ball. If you live near a pickleball court, you are very, very aware of this.
Top of their game
Watch highlights from the Hyundai Masters Tournament men’s singles gold medal finals in Palm Springs, California on the 2023 Carvana PPA Tour.
Take me down this 🐰 hole!
Pickleball has had its share of controversies, from neighborhood battles over the noise made by the thwack of pickleball paddles connecting with the sport’s hard plastic balls, to the turf wars with tennis players resistant to seeing their courts re-lined to accommodate pickleball court configurations.
But perhaps the juiciest point of contention has been over the origin of the sport’s name.
One story is that Joan Pritchard, wife of pickleball co-inventor Joel Pritchard, christened the game after the “pickle boats” in crew that carry spare oarsmen from different teams. But neighbors claiming to have witnessed pickleball’s origins maintain it was named after Pickles, the Pritchard family’s dog. As Pickleball Magazine tells it, the Pritchard family “held fast for decades that the dog came along a few years later and was named after the game.”
Undeterred by the sometimes inscrutable nature of origin stories, Pickleball Magazine dug in and did the research, gathering dog records, photographs, and interviews with witnesses of the sport’s early days on Bainbridge Island. “Based on evidence, we learned that the dog was born in 1968—three years after pickleball was first played and named,” the magazine’s intrepid investigators reported. Their conclusion? “[T]he Pritchard family story stands true that pickleball was not named after the dog, but rather in reference to the local pickle boat races.”
Have you been swept up by the pickleball trend?
- No way. This game is for nerds and old people.
- Considering finding some folks to play with.
- Already an addict!
Serve us up a good response.
💬 Let’s talk!
In last week’s poll about indelible ink, 67% of you thought that ink still is stronger than the sword, and the rest of you were divided between preferring erasable pens and writing only in the sand. We don’t know what this means about any of you.
Today’s email was written by Heather Landy (has received one pickleball lesson from an avid player—Hi, mom!), edited by Susan Howson (does enjoy badminton 🤔), and produced by Julia Malleck (survived ping pong summer camp).
The correct answer is B. The kitchen. Every serve must clear the kitchen, and no volleys can be taken out of the air by a player standing in the kitchen.