Pickleball Fandom Grows 40 Percent During Pandemic


Courtesy of Getty Images

Pickleball is played using a paddle and ball.

Invented in 1965, pickleball is a relatively young sport. For most of its 57 years of existence it was rather niche, but its popularity has recently skyrocketed. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of players has grown by over 40 percent, and within the last six years, there has been a 650-percent surge.

Pickleball originated in Bainbridge Island, Washington, located west of Seattle. Joel Pritchard and his friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, were about to play badminton with their children while on vacation but couldn’t find enough rackets to play with. Rather than continuing the search, they instead tried to play a game with what they had — ping-pong paddles, a net, and wiffle ball. With these paddles and a perforated plastic ball, along with more experimenting in the later days and months, the game of pickleball was born.

There are three hypotheses of how the name pickleball came to be. Pritchard’s wife, Joan, claimed that the sport reminded her of a pickle boat, which in rowing refers to a boat filled with last-minute random rowers. There is also a rumor that the sport was named after the Pritchards’ family dog, Pickles, but Pickles was born after 1965; the dog was actually named after the sport. Decades later, Bell stated that the name originated from the fact that Pritchard liked to put his opponent in a difficult situation — also known as a pickle — during the game.

The game, which can be played as either a singles or doubles game, is best described as a mixture of ping pong, tennis, and badminton. A pickleball court looks like a tennis court but is the size of a badminton court, though a lot of people use tennis or badminton courts for pickleball. The area within seven feet on both sides of the net is called the non-volley zone, also known as the “kitchen.” Coming in contact with the non-volley zone when hitting a volley, whether it is the player themselves or anything they might be wearing or carrying, is considered a fault. Only the team that is serving can earn points, but once this team loses a rally or commits a fault, it becomes the opponent’s turn to serve. Faults include failing to hit the ball, not passing the ball over the net, or volleying within the non-volley zone, among other things.

Each match consists of three games, and each game is played until a player or team scores 11 points with at least a two-point lead. If the team is leading by only one point, the game continues until a team pulls two points ahead. Serving the ball is similar to tennis — the only two serves are volley and drop, and the serve must reach the opposite side of the court. To serve, one or both feet must be behind the baseline of the court.

Though the leading demographic of “core” pickleball players — people who play the sport eight or more times a year— are those 65 and older, the pandemic has brought an increase in younger players who appreciate the sport and play with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. Third-year women’s basketball guard Jaedyn O’Reilly used to play pickleball with her grandparents and their friends at a retirement home.

“Growing up playing a lot of sports, it was cool to be able to play one with my grandparents,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a very easy sport to learn, so even if people don’t see themselves as athletic, pickleball is something they can enjoy.”

One of the recreation centers on the south side of the town of Oberlin, Splash Zone, is home to four pickleball courts. Ann McDonald, the front desk worker at Splash Zone, noted that most of the people who come in and play pickleball are 50 and older. However, there have recently been more people 30 and older who are coming to learn and play the game. Oberlin’s pickleball community has grown to the point where these players interact off the court.

“We get a large number of people who come and play,” McDonald said. “[Pickleball players] mingle with and look out for each other. Sometimes they’ll even do a potluck, and they do this on their own, not with Splash Zone.”

Students like College second-year Sam Brady have also started to gain exposure to the sport. He learned how to play for the first time while at home on break.

“It was fun and low-key,” Brady said. I just played with friends at the beginning of winter break last year on some tennis courts. It was 60 degrees and sunny that day in Santa Fe. I felt like an investment banker enjoying retirement.”

Major cities, such as Chicago and Houston, are building more pickleball courts as more people pick up the sport. There’s even a pickleball summer camp in Huntsville, AL set to open in 2024 called “Camp Pickle.” As of today, over 60 countries have joined the International Federation of Pickleball. Because 75 countries are required to make a sport part of the Olympics, pickleball players are optimistic about the sport being included in the 2024 or 2028 Summer Olympics as a demonstration sport.