The Origin of Pickleball for Beginners

Welcome to my deep dive into the origin of pickleball! In this article, I’ll explore the rich origins and history of Picklkeball; America’s fastest-growing sport. I’ll reveal who put pickleball on the map and the ingenious minds that made it a global phenomenon. We will also cover key pickleball milestones punctuating the growth of the sport.

From its humble beginnings to game-changing moments that have etched its place in history, I’ll go in-depth on everything pickleball. So, let’s lace up those court shoes and embark on the origins of pickleball!

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02/28/2024 02:42 am GMT

What is Pickleball?

Despite its quirky name, pickleball is an action-packed sport that combines principles from tennis, badminton, and ping pong. The game is played with paddles, on a court the size of a badminton court.

Pickleball is played with a custom plastic whiffle ball, providing quick, lively gameplay. The objective?  Consistently return the ball to the opponent’s court until they can’t volley it back or someone hits the ball out. 

With a very unique scoring system, the first team to reach 11 points, by a margin of two, wins the game. It’s extremely popular because of its accessibility and inclusivity.  It’s suitable for people of all ages and skill levels. Retired people love pickleball because it provides an exercise outlet and fierce competition all at the same time.

All these aspects combined make for an engaging, friendly yet competitive game that is both highly addictive and challenging.

Pickleball is a sport as fun as its name!  Whether you’re seeking a friendly game or a competitive match, pickleball serves up quick, strategizing gameplay filled with fun and excitement for the whole family.

The History and Origin of Pickleball

Born in 1965, pickleball came to life as a delightful accident. Washington State congressman, Joel Pritchard, and businessman Bill Bell had returned from a golf game to find bored families. With a seldom-used badminton court at hand, they improvised a game with ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball.

They initially set the net at badminton height, but soon realized the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface. It prompted them to lower the net to 36 inches. The next weekend, Barney McCallum joined them, and together, they formalized the rules, leveraging their badminton insights.

By 1967, the first official pickleball court surfaced in Pritchard’s backyard. To this day this is considered a historical pickleball site for fans and enthusiasts alike.

The game continued to evolve and expand, even beyond Washington. In 1976, the first pickleball tournament took place in Tukwila. This only increased the awareness of the game and started an official competitive angle.

A firm framework developed over the years, detailing how pickleball should be professionally played. This soon became known as the “Official Tournament Rulebook”.

However, the 1980s were truly pickleball’s breakthrough decade.  The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) formed in 1984, became instrumental in promoting the game.  This formal group helped establish uniform rules and coordinate player rankings. This was a key step in pickleball’s recognition as a legitimate organized sport.

Despite these advancements, the game remained relatively unknown until the 1990s. Demonstrations at over 50 sporting events and other active lifestyle expos catapulted the game into the limelight.  The sport itself adapted to its newfound popularity by focusing on equipment design and modification.  This allowed for lighter, more durable paddles and an “official” pickleball ball.

Pickleball’s history may be relatively short, but it certainly hasn’t been short on impact.

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Other Key Moments in Pickleball’s History

-1972: The first pickleball paddle corporation was formed called Pickleball Inc. 
-1978: Pickleball began to be mentioned in racquet sports articles and books
-1984: The first official rule book was created
-1990: Pickleball is now played in all 50 United States
-1997: Founding father Joel Pritchard unfortunately passes away
-1999: The first pickleball-focused website is created entitled “Pickleball Stuff”
-2003: The USAPA forms a Board of Directors headlined by pickleball legend Mark Friedenberg
-2006: Founding father Bill Bell unfortunately passes away
-2009: The first USAPA-approved tournament for all ages is approved and played in Buckeye Arizona
-2010: Due to global popularity, the USAPA creates the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP)
-2013: Active USAPA members exceed 4,000
-2015: Pickleball is estimated to have over 2 million players
-2016: More than 4,600 locations are available to play pickleball
-2017: USAPA Membership numbers double to 22,000, and over 5,900 locations to play at
-2019: Founding father Barney McCallum unfortunately passes away
-2020: USAPA is rebranded as USA Pickleball
-2022: The Sports and Fitness Association names pickleball before America’s fastest-growing sport
-2023: Pickleball reaches nearly 9 million players in the US alone

Who Invented Pickleball and Why?

The invention of pickleball is a charming story born in 1965 by three dads looking to occupy their children. Washington State congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman magnate Bill Bell found their families stuck in a rut of boredom.

Seeking to kindle some joy, they invented a new game using the equipment they had laying around the house—ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball—on an aged badminton court. 

Soon after, Barney McCallum joined this inventive duo.

Together, they refined the improvised game into the sport we now know as pickleball. Their goal was simple yet nurturing— to craft a game that could engage the whole family, adults and children alike. Thus, the delightful game of pickleball was introduced to the world.

Other Prominent Figures in the Origin of Pickleball

Other colorful characters also lace the origin story of pickleball.  Starting with Joan Pritchard. Joan played a crucial role in naming the game, drawing inspiration from her days observing rowing competitions and rooting for “pickle boats”. More on that below.

Alongside her, Mark Friedenberg was a significant player, becoming the first president of the newly formed USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) in 2005.  To this day, Mark is considered the “Yoda” of pickleball.  I interviewed him and his knowledge of the sport and the strategy behind it, is second to none. 

In 1968, co-founders Joel Pritchard and Barney McCallum, along with McCallum’s son, David, formed Pickleball Incorporated.  Due to the demand for their homemade paddle kits, Barney and David formed Pickleball Inc. 

Demand was so high, that they needed an official corporation to manage it all. David’s involvement in the company underscored the generational influence on the sport, as it transitioned from neighborhood pastime to international sport.

And finally, it’s worth mentioning the game’s first tournament champion.  David Lester won the first pickleball tournament in 1976, with Steve Paranto finishing as the runner-up.

These individuals represent the passionate individuals who embraced the new sport, shaping pickleball’s evolution from a backyard diversion to one of the fastest-growing sports in America.

When and Where Did Pickleball Originate?

As I mentioned above, pickleball was started in the summer of 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington. After a round of golf, congressman Joel Pritchard, and businessman Bill Bell returned home to find their families bored out of their minds.  In addition, their kids were complaining about the lack of things to do.

So, the adults sent them outside…

Desperate to stop the complaining, they repurposed an old badminton court and started their own game. Amid a lack of proper equipment, the duo improvised with ping-pong paddles and a plastic whiffle ball, creating what we now know as pickleballThis is how the origin of pickleball was started.

By the following weekend, the game had developed even more, with a lower net height and more concise rules. In the search for a family-friendly pastime, the addictive and inclusive sport of pickleball was born.

Pickleball Equipment – What You Need to Play

To enjoy the game of pickleball, even at a recreational level,  you’ll need the right equipment. First up, you’ll need a paddle. In my seven years of playing, I’ve played with dozens of different kinds, but fiberglass and composite paddles remain a personal favorite. 

Then comes the ball, unique with its perforated plastic surface. Ensure you pick the right ball for your venue; outdoor balls have smaller, more numerous holes compared to indoor ones. The nuances between the two can significantly impact your game.

Lastly, you’ll need a net and a court. The courts resemble miniature tennis courts and the net stands at 36 inches high. Yep, that’s all you need to delve into this addictively fun sport. Embrace the game that’s changed my life in more ways than I could count!

Related Content:  Check out my list of paddles that I recommend to any level of player!

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Why is Pickleball Called Pickleball?

From the very beginning, pickleball’s name has sparked curiosity and some controversy.  From stories including “Pickles” the family dog to origins rooted in rowing – how pickleball got its name has baffled experts.   

The real tale goes back to one of the game’s founders and his wife.  After the game’s creation, Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, named it ‘pickleball.’ Why?  She drew inspiration from a term in rowing, called the ‘pickle boat,’ which referred to a vessel with a mixed crew.

The pickle boat is the boat at a rowing event made up of various rowers left over from the race.  It’s a mashup of sorts.  The Frankenstein of row boats.

Joan felt like pickleball was a mashup of various racquet sports like the rowers of a pickle boat,  And thus the name pickleball was born. 

However, a competing theory humorously suggests that it was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles.  It is said that Pickles would chase stray balls all over the court.  Pickles thought the balls were his – so Pickles’s ball became “pickleball.”

So which story is true?  Despite the charming nature of the dog story, it is not the true origin of Pickleball’s name.  The Pritchards did have a dog named Pickles, but he came after the game’s creation.  So, the rowing “pickle boat” story is how pickleball got its name. 

As an expert and a player, this a fun quirk of the game I love explaining to newcomers.

Despite all the oddball naming controversy, one thing is certain. Pickleball has always been centered on one goal – creating a game for all ages and skill levels. 

The Growth of Pickleball and Its Popularity

Pickleball’s popularity has surged dramatically over the last decade, and as someone who has witnessed this growth, it’s breathtaking.  The sport has captivated millions and has now become a global phenomenon.

How many people play pickleball?  In 2023, over 36.5 million people had tried pickleball, according to a report by the APP. 

Recently, the game has particularly resonated with the younger crowd, with the 18-34 age group now making up the majority of players. Most people who are unfamiliar with the game think it’s an “old person’s” game.  Twenty years ago, that was the case.  But not anymore.

Pickleball’s appeal is bipartisan, drawing both genders to the courts, although male players slightly outnumber females.  Both young and old.

As the landscape of American sport evolves, pickleball stands out, claiming the title of the fastest-growing sport for three consecutive years. With the number of US players spiking to nearly 9 million, one thing is clear: pickleball is here to stay.

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The Future of Pickleball

The future of pickleball is very bright!  The game’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down.  This presents a unique situation of challenges, opportunities, and consequences.  

The challenges mainly fall on the manufacturers.  Paddle manufacturers have been challenged to make paddles quieter so that noise complaints don’t plague the sport.  Many parks and neighborhoods have taken part in the game’s growth and installed courts.  

But with easier access comes complaints and noise violations.  Paddle makers now must continue to develop new and better paddles while reducing the noise they make.  Big strides have already been made. 

As for opportunities in the future of pickleball, they are seemingly endless.  There are opportunities for more players to join the sport.  More people to stay active in retirement.  And more opportunities for the younger age group to continue to add layers to the sport’s strategy.  

The sport can be played with power and finesse and there is an opportunity for the younger generation to foster this movement in the game’s strategy.  And it’s only a matter of time before pickleball becomes an Olympic sport.

As for consequences, the future of pickleball means fewer tennis players and tennis courts.  Tennis courts are being converted to pickleball courts all over the country.  Even dedicated tennis facilities are adding pickleball. Some tennis enthusiasts don’t like this.  

The other consequence worth mentioning is what the game’s popularity has done to the equipment market.  Everyone wants a piece of the pie.  This means every company in the racquet or paddle sport industry wants some of that money.  

This has caused the paddle market in pickleball to become oversaturated and very hard for beginners to find the right paddle. 

Related:  Check out my guide to the best paddle sets for kids. 

Origin of Pickleball – The Bottom Line

Despite the game of pickleball being relatively new, its origin story is as unique as its name. The game’s roots run very deep for a sport still in its infancy. As someone who’s followed the sport for a decade, I’ve seen the game change so much. Most of it is for the better.

I’ve seen it evolve from a retirees’ sport to one attracting packed junior tournaments.

The true origin of pickleball is simple. It’s a game that was born out of the need to bring people together. It’s a game that attracts everyone and welcomes everyone. Pickleball originated to blend inclusivity with a friendly, highly competitive environment. That’s just like the founding fathers intended.

Origin of Pickleball – Other Helpful FAQs

1. Who are the original founding fathers of pickleball?

The sport originated in 1965 when Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell attempted to create a new game to entertain their families. They used a badminton court, a wiffle ball, and table tennis paddles.

2. Where was the first game of pickleball played?

Joel Pritchard and his friends played the first game of pickleball in his backyard on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

3. What is the significance of the first permanent pickleball court?

Joel Pritchard built the first permanent pickleball court in his backyard, marking the sport’s birthplace. Fans still consider this court legendary, eagerly desiring to visit this historical site. 

4. When was the first pickleball tournament held?

Eleven years after inventing the game, the first known pickleball tournament took place on Bainbridge Island in 1976.

5. What are pickleball paddles made of?

Nowadays, manufacturers typically make pickleball paddles from graphite, carbon fiber, or composite fiberglass. All paddles, regardless of material, must meet specific guidelines from organizations like the USA Pickleball Association to qualify as official.

6. Who organized the first official pickleball association?

The United States Amateur Pickleball Association was one of the first official organizations to oversee the game of pickleball.

7. Why is pickleball considered the fastest-growing sport?

Pickleball’s wide appeal across various age groups and fitness levels, along with the growing availability of courts and tournaments throughout the United States, has made it the fastest-growing sport.

8. Is pickleball recognized internationally?

Certainly, pickleball has achieved international recognition, with its popularity spreading worldwide.

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