Pickleball: America’s Hottest New Sport

This hybrid racquet sport is sweeping the nation. (Photo by David Fleming)

The Fairfield Pickleball Club hosts the Second Annual Regional Tournament on Saturday, January 19, 2019, at the MUM Rec Center in Fairfield. To register, contact Ron Bessette at ron@pcklball.com or go to Fairfield Pickleball Club on Facebook.

Pickleball. Indeed. Is that really the name of America’s fastest-growing sport? Pickleball—a game that actually uses no pickles whatsoever. A pickle would not bounce high enough to rally, and it would certainly explode on contact (imagine all those bursting gherkins).

But no, the growth of this sport is serious. The pickleball craze is taking over communities all over the country and the world. According to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association report in 2017, about 2.8 million people play pickleball in the U.S.. There are over 12,000 pickleball courts in North America, increasing at a rate of 76 per month. You can find them at recreation centers and retirement communities, in PE classes and at YMCAs.

Many pickleball players, I learned recently at Fairfield’s courts, know exactly how the game got its name. It arose out of some silliness (or a creative slump) on the part of its family of origin: the trio of Congressman Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell, who invented pickleball in the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as a way to entertain their families.

The sport remained nameless until one day Pritchard’s wife Joan gazed long and hard at their ball-stealing cocker spaniel, Pickles, and made history when she announced, “So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball.”

The ball belonged to Pickles, you see.

So what is pickleball, exactly?

Pickleball (n): a paddle sport that draws from badminton, tennis, and ping pong, played on a badminton-like court using a 36-inch-tall net.

In this era of cultural appropriation, why not blend three long-established sports into a new one that’s, well, super fun and maybe a tad easier to play?

A Popularity Surge

Though it’s been around for 50 years, pickleball has suddenly become all the rage. Why? In the technology field, when a product’s sales surge past its pool of early users to the mass market, it is said to have “crossed the chasm.” Pickleball, after five decades, has done exactly that over the last three years.

Last week, I arrived at the Fairfield courts to see if I could figure out why. About a dozen players were practicing rallies. “What is this pickleball thing?” I asked.

Don’t be fooled by the name. Pickleball can be intensely competitive. (Photo by David Fleming)

“Most people start out thinking it’s mini-tennis,” said Ron Stakland, 64, a food industry executive who painted lines in his driveway to create a pickleball court. “We all started out that way. They think they can stand at the baseline and whale away at the ball. That’s not how the great players do it. Ninety percent of it is dink shots and drop shots. Dink, dink, dink, then wait for a flub from the other guy and put it away and end the point.”

The rules are similar to doubles badminton. The ball must be served with an underhand stroke. Quickness and finesse usually win out over heavy groundstrokes and topspin.

A Boomer Obsession

It took just a glance at the players around me to see that pickleball is especially attractive to people of a certain age. “You can play,” said one player, “without having to run too much.”

Fairfield pickleball players (photo by David Fleming)

“Pickleball is for older folks who can’t play tennis anymore,” said Chris Stanley, 48. “People are living longer and they want a sport they can keep playing into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.”

About 75% of core players (people who play eight or more times per year) are 55 and older, reports the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But in truth, the game is played by all ages, and oftentimes hypercompetitively. Several Fairfielders have brought home medals from pickleball tournaments held around the state.

One curious aspect of the game is the ball: a plastic 24-hole whiffle ball that tends to ping off the court, bounce low and come at you much slower than a tennis ball. Which means you have time to whomp it—and watch as it slows down as it approaches your opponents, giving them time to react. (Not that you can’t smash a pickleball, because you surely can.)

Players play at net often—while avoiding stepping into “the kitchen,” the area on either side of the net—smacking the ball back and forth in lightning-fast rat-a-tat exchanges at close range. Sometimes play resembles beach paddleball, the game that originated on Israeli beaches in the 1920s. (One advantage of a pickleball location is that you don’t have to clean the sand out of your toes.)

“The whiffle ball is less lively, meaning it’s easier to hit,” said Stakland. “Points last longer than in tennis.” Another benefit of the ball speed is that it doesn’t hurt nearly as much when it thwacks you.

Players’ skills are rated on 1–5  scale. Most of the local players are in the 2.5 to 3.5 range. Being a lifelong tennis player, I learned pickleball relatively quickly, though I was told I probably wouldn’t score a single point against a 5-rated player. Which made me desperately want to find one of Fairfield’s 5-rated players. . .

Great Game for the Times

Personally, I wish the Pritchetts had named their dog Rocket Paddle. Or consulted friends who worked in branding. Or been more danged patient. Coining a term is a serious business. The Fairfield players had their own ideas.

“It should be called Danger Ball,” said Tim Hoehner, a local player.

“Really, it should be called Giggleball,” said Paul Stokstad, another area player, “since there is nothing funnier than a grown adult swinging mightily at a tiny target and completely missing.”

“The name is… unfortunate,” said pickleballer Martha Knight.

“I don’t care at all,” said another player. “It’s just so much fun.”

Perhaps because of the name, or the whiffle ball, or the easy-going attitude of many of the age 60-plus crowd, pickleball can be very smile inducing. It appeals to players of all types. Many of the ones I met have never played a sport, until now.

“People who are competitive get what they need in pickleball,” said Thom Krystofiak, 64, a technology worker. “And it’s fun for the less intense players, too.”

Maybe things are light-spirited on these courts because they’re in Iowa, the state that ranks #1 for lowest mental distress, according to a recent U.S. News & World Report’s best states for aging list.

Pickleball may have crossed the chasm because it promises a positive experience in these heavy times, when the country and the world are badly in need of cooperation and harmony. And just plain, forget-about-everything fun.

Perhaps that’s the spirit Joan Pritchett tapped into when she put the pickle in pickleball—keeping it light. Maybe she had nailed the branding, after all.

“I love the social aspect the most,” said Hoehner. “I’ve expanded my network of friends. If you’re there for something bigger and better than yourself, then the magic can happen.”

If you decide to head to the courts and try your hand at pickleball, you may have to find a way to explain to friends and family that what you’re doing does not involve anything moist, briny, or fermented. But then, at the rate this sport is spreading, you probably won’t have to.

For more information about pickleball in Fairfield, email ron@pcklball.com.

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