Pickleball is one of those sports where if you know, you know. Millions of people do, yet millions more are unaware of what pickleball is or where it came from. So then, what are the origins of pickleball?
Pickleball was created in Washington by a group of friends looking to come up with a new game to entertain their children. The game they ended up with - the first to resemble the pickleball we know - was played in 1965 on a badminton court using table tennis paddles and a Wiffle ball.
The origins of pickleball are humble and heartwarming. Join us as we explore the origins of pickleball, how the sport grew to 4.8 million players today, and what's ahead! Let's begin by setting the scene.
Pickleball's Origin Story
In 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, Joel Pritchard, a businessman and later a politician (as the 14th lieutenant governor of Washington and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) was at his vacation home with his family, including his wife and children.
A friend of Pritchard’s was also there - Bill Bell, who, with his own family, was enjoying a summer getaway.
During their vacation, Bell and Pritchard were enjoying refined activities, such as golf. Upon returning to the summer home on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the men were dismayed to see bored families.
It wasn’t only Pritchard’s family that was sitting home, listless, but Bell’s as well.
So the men had an idea. Why not play some badminton?
Creating the Game of Pickleball
This would have worked out fine had a shuttlecock been available, but no one could find one. It was time for a backup plan. So Bell and Pritchard asked the kids to come up with a game.
That game, which later became pickleball, was played on a badminton court. Nobody was quite sure what could replace a shuttlecock, so they experimented with table tennis paddles and other types of racquets, as well as an assortment of balls.
The First Ball of Pickleball
The first games of pickleball played in the yard of that summer house on Bainbridge Island used a Wiffle ball. Later, this was swapped out for a Cosom Fun Ball, which had more bounce and better durability than a Wiffle ball.
The Fun Ball was even chosen for future pickleball games played within the family.
The First Net of Pickleball
Before the families settled on the Cosom Fun Ball, they experimented with the proper net height and different types of balls. This ultimately led to lowering the badminton net from its standard 5 feet to hip height, which allowed the ball to be driven over the net with ease.
First, the height of the badminton net was set to 60 inches, and later, 36 inches at the edges and 34 inches at the center, which is the regulation height to this day.
Pritchard happily invited friend Barney McCallum over to his home the next weekend to show him how pickleball worked.
And that's where pickleball as we know it established roots to grow from.
The First Rules of Pickleball
McCallum liked the new game, so he began brainstorming with both Bell and Pritchard about what the rules of pickleball could be.
All wanted pickleball to remain true to the original spirit of badminton, so the pickleball rules to this day borrow quite a lot from how you play badminton.
However, the rules weren’t so difficult that families couldn’t figure out how to play, as that was the point of pickleball. It was supposed to be fun for the whole family - which is an enduring sentiment and one of the ingredients behind its explosive growth.
The First Legitimate Paddle of Pickleball
McCallum decided to take some initiative with the game, and he crafted paddles out of plywood. Soon, everyone in the family was using McCallum's paddles. Gone were the days of table tennis paddles. It was time to level up the sport.
A tinkerer at heart, McCallum continued to refine his paddle designs in a basement workshop in Seattle that belonged to his father. It was in this workshop that he created the McCallum 2, or M2 for short - the paddle for early pickleball players.
All of these changes didn't occur overnight; the ball, net, rules, and paddle development were modified over the years. But key decisions made even as early as the first few weeks of the game’s existence ultimately set it up to transition into the sport it is today. Here's how.
Legitimizing the Game of Pickleball
Pritchard, McCallum, and Bell were quick to realize the appeal of this game beyond the confines of their immediate families. It quickly became a game played in their neighborhoods and extended families.
This is the real stage where pickleball started to become legitimized, and there's no better example than the new court created for the game.
After two years of playing the game in the backyard of the Bainbridge Island vacation home, it was time to find a more suitable surface.
The First Legitimate Pickleball Court
In 1967, the men set up the first permanent pickleball court on Bainbridge Island, on the property of Pritchard's neighbor and family friend, Bob O'Brien. This court was another catalyst for the game's popularity, as people from all around Bainbridge started to hear about it more and more.
After all, Bainbridge is a small island, even if it’s just a short ferry ride from Seattle. And everyone who played pickleball seemed to love it.
The First Pickleball Brand is Created
In 1972, the instant crush on pickleball from new players inspired Pritchard and David McCallum (Barney McCallum’s son) to create the first company for the occasion, aptly named Pickle Ball, Inc. The first thing the company did was trademark the pickleball name.
Later, Pickle Ball, Inc. began manufacturing pickleball kits and wooden paddles so that those outside of family members and neighbors who wanted to play the sport could.
This step was a critical moment in the game's growth since it made it easy for anyone anywhere to pick up the game and play. It wasn't long before pickleball started spreading. It was an immediate hit across Washington, and soon after the greater Pacific Northwest.
Even tourists who took day trips to Bainbridge carried pickleball kits back home with them, so it was soon played in other parts of the country, such as Florida, Hawaii, California, and Arizona.
Pickleball's First Media Coverage
Helping the rise in popularity was undoubtedly the press that pickleball started to receive.
In 1976, the National Observer published what may be the first article about pickleball in history.
That was followed by a detailed piece in Tennis magazine in 1976 titled America’s Newest Racquet Sport. In 1978, a book called The Other Racquet Sports included pickleball.
What started as a backyard game a decade prior was now getting media attention. Little did they know, though ...
Pickleball Shifts from a Game to a Sport
With products, rules, press, and rabid fans all around the country and globe, it was now time for pickleball to start thinking about itself not as a game but as an actual sport.
It had all the makings of a sport already - it was a physical activity, there were rules for playing, and it was fun. But it was missing one crucial element to catapult it to sport status - competitive tournaments.
The First Pickleball Tournament
IIn 1976, the first tournament emerged in Tukwila, Washington, and was held at South Center Athletic Club. Pritchard declared the tournament “the world’s first pickleball championship.” The announcement of the tournament coincided with the Tennis magazine publication, which mentioned the tournament.
That naturally drew more competitors to the tourney. The first-place winner in the men’s singles competition was David Lester, followed by Steve Paranto.
As you might expect, many participants weren't well-versed in pickleball, as it hadn’t been around that long.
Most players were college kids, meaning they didn't have the disposable income to buy the right equipment. Tournament participants used plastic balls the size of a softball, as well as sizable paddles made of wood to practice.
The First Governing Body - US Amateur Pickleball Association
The 1980s saw the continued rise of pickleball tournaments. A man known as the pioneer of pickleball, Sid Williams, began organizing and participating in tournaments throughout his native Washington.
Eventually, Sid Williams founded the US Amateur Pickleball Association. - which did more than publish an official pickleball rule book. It also held tournaments.
The first tournament with this organization’s involvement was in Tacoma, Washington. It was a national doubles championship and the first of its kind.
Williams happened to serve as the president and executive director of the organization between 1984 and 1998, being the first person to fill both those roles. Frank Candelario succeeded him through 2004.
Pickleball's Growth into the 1980s and 1990s
In the early 1980s, Arlen Paranto - the father of Steve, who played in the first tournament in Tukwila - created a composite pickleball paddle, which was yet another first. An engineer from Boeing, Paranto knew a thing or two about product creation.
The First Composite Pickleball Paddle
His composite paddle was made of Nomex and fiberglass honeycomb panels. The inspiration for these materials came straight from his day job. Nomex and fiberglass are used for the structural system and floor of airplanes.
This was a great thing for paddle innovation too because those materials are incredibly durable, as you'd expect of an aircraft.
Paranto constructed roughly 1,000 composite paddles from his prototype, then sold his business to Frank Candelario.
Pickleball's First Major Milestone
And lo and behold, by 1990, pickleball hit a major growth milestone. This was the year the sport had been played in all 50 US states.
Another notable moment in the 1990s was the standardization and innovation in balls for the sport.
Pickle Ball, Inc., which was still going strong, began producing pickleballs at scale in 1992. Using customized drilling equipment, they created a perfectly round ball that was solid and had consistent flight patterns.
Although overlooked today, this was an important advancement. Creating consistency in pickleballs improved the competitiveness of the sport and allowed players to compare their levels of play more accurately.
Pickleball Surges in the 2000s
Although Pritchard sadly passed away in 1997, his creation lived on. By 2001, a man named Earl Hill got the game of pickleball in front of the Arizona Senior Olympic committee. The Arizona Senior Olympics marked a point of no return for the sport's popularity.
Senior Adults Play Pickleball and Fall in Love with It
Hill helped spearhead a pickleball tournament there that had 100 players. Although that doesn’t seem like many by today's standards, it was the biggest pickleball tourney at the time.
It was also a profound entry point into an older demographic, which latched onto the sport.
The beauty of pickleball from its inception has been its accessibility to people of all ages. It can be as intense or as casual as you like.
This was a driving force with senior communities.
The event, held at the Happy Trails RV Resort in Surprise, drew more players as the years went on.
In 2003, St. George, Utah, added pickleball to the Huntsman World Senior Games.
It wasn't long before senior communities fully embraced the sport all over the country, with The Villages, in Florida, becoming the unofficial Capital of Pickleball.
With massive participation, The Villages would go on to install over 200 pickleball courts in the senior community.
Pickleball's Governing Body Reorganizes
In 2005, the US Amateur Pickleball Association was reorganized as the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA). By 2008, it had created a Rules Committee. This came with published rules for the game, paddles, balls, nets, and tournaments.
This change provided direction to manufacturers of products and established clear standards for competitive play. Both are hallmarks of a legitimate sport.
Pickleball's National Media Moment Arrives
Another noteworthy year for the sport was 2008, when it was featured on Good Morning America on ABC with a live demonstration. This was more exposure than pickleball had received in its entire history.
This moment gave pickleball a level of legitimacy it hadn't had until that point.
After GMA aired a segment on pickleball, every other daytime TV show followed suit.
The First USAPA National Tournament
In 2009, the inaugural USAPA National Tournament was held in Buckeye, Arizona. Nearly 400 players from all around the world–including Canada–showed up to play pickleball.
The game's popularity can only be described as exponential at this point.
The Sport of Pickleball Today
With the 2020s underway, pickleball has continued to make strides.
The USAPA, which had almost 40,000 members by the end of 2019, became USA Pickleball in 2020. In 2021, USA Pickleball officially reached 50,000 members.
Astronomical membership growth has brought infrastructural growth as well. In 2020, Places2Play estimated that there are around 38,140 pickleball courts.
This is a far cry from an old badminton court.
Although 2020 is marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, this event increased participation in the sport and became one of the significant reasons membership grew so much between 2019 and 2021. People trapped at home and unable to go into gyms found activity and community in backyard and local pickleball courts.
The 2021 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships event attracted more than 2,300 players. No tournament to that point had drawn such high participation, but it's surely a record that will continue to be broken.
How Did Pickleball Get Its Name?
The history of pickleball is truly extraordinary, but you might still have one or two questions. Why is it called pickleball? Where did the name pickleball come from?
There’s some debate over how pickleball received its name, with three origin stories to go along with it, including:
- The first game's setup was reminiscent to setting up a pickle boat.
- One of the sport's founders had a dog named Pickles.
- It refers to the term being in a pickle when you're losing a match.
Each theory is shrouded in myth and fact, but they make for an interesting story. Let's look at each theory in greater detail.
Pickleball Name Theory 1: Pickle Boat Story
This story starts with Pritchard’s wife when she witnessed her husband (cofounder of pickleball,) his friend, and the kids setting up the original pickleball game.
She said the game reminded her of a pickle boat used in rowing or crew. A pickle boat is commandeered by a rowers who aren’t principal rowers but are used as leftovers.
The name makes sense when you think of it from that perspective. The Pritchard family and friends created pickleball using whatever they could find - à la a pickle boat.
The leftovers in this case were bits of sporting equipment they found lying around their Bainbridge vacation home after they couldn’t find a shuttlecock.
The pickle boat story seems to be the likeliest origin for why it's called pickleball.
Pickleball Name Theory 2: The Dog Story
According to another source, the Pritchard family dog should be thanked for why the sport is called pickleball. The dog was named Pickles. While this sounds like a cute, heartwarming origin story, it’s likely not entirely accurate.
The Pritchard family later came out after this rumor became prevalent and said that the family dog being named Pickles was in honor of the sport. The sport came first then and the dog after.
The story got twisted due to a reporter who published a piece on the Pritchards and pickleball in the 1970s. The reporter decided to tie the name origin to the dog story, rather than row boats because it was more relatable and easier for people to understand.
Later, the writers of History of Pickleball: More than 50 Years of Fun!, Beverly Youngren and Jennifer Lucore, investigated the matter further. They suggest that it’s possible that the dog could have been there first and that the canine inspired the name.
So perhaps the infamous dog story has some legitimacy after all.
Pickleball Name Theory 3: The In-a-Pickle Story
The same writers who sought to legitimize the dog story also posited yet a third origin story, but this one has nothing to do with the Pritchards. This story surrounds Bill Bell.
They mention that Bell hit the ball with such precision that his opponents felt like they were in a tough spot, aka a pickle.
This one is most likely just a funny story, but who wouldn't want to have that association?
Since the founders are no longer with us, the mystery may always continue.
Fun Fact: Pickleball Goes By Other Names
What’s interesting is that pickleball isn’t known only as pickleball all over the world. It’s also called pukaball. That name comes from Hawaii. The name refers to the holey pickleballs since puka is Hawaiian for hole.
The name stuck, and in Hawaii, everyone calls pickleball pukaball.
What Does the Term Pickle Mean in Pickleball?
More so than just part of the name, the term pickle is also included in the official pickleball vernacular. So what does it mean?
When a pickleball player shouts the word pickle, they’re in a serving position and warning others that they’re going to serve the ball.
If you're new to the sport of pickleball, you'll find that it's buried in tons of terms that sound as unusual as the name of the sport itself. But even with the root word pickle or variations of that, you'll find some unique words among players.
One is the pickeldome, which is akin to a tennis court. It’s an official pickleball court for championship-level tournaments.
The other term is pickled. If you’re pickled when playing pickleball, it doesn’t mean anything good. The term refers to scoring 0 points. If you score even 1 point, you’ve not been pickled, but an 11-0 game means the losing side was pickled.
There are also picklers, who are the most obsessed, dedicated pickleball players in the world—which just about anyone who tries playing pickleball will become.
Pickleball: From Humble Origins to Worldwide Acclaim
Today, pickleball is more popular than it’s ever been. The New York Times, in a 2022 article, predicts that the United States alone has 4.8 million pickleball players. Also in 2022, pickleball became Washington’s official state sport.
Its humble origins of trying to entertain children and keep up a fun family vacation belie what pickleball has become today, which is one of the most appreciated and beloved paddle sports on the planet!