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pickleball: the history of america's fastest-growing sport

learn where pickleball came from, how it got its name, and where to play for fun. here’s everything you want to know about pickleball from 1965 to today.

Pickleball is well-loved because it’s easy to learn, affordable to play, and fun for the whole family. It’s no wonder why it captured the heart of America in the 60s and 70s: the sport was invented by a few dad-friends and their kids!

Where exactly did pickleball come from? Why is a game with such an absurd name becoming a favored sport worldwide? Read on to learn the fascinating history of pickleball, from its beginning to its evolution today. 

Love pickleball? Find out places near you to play by joining Philly's pickleball community

The History of Pickleball: A Happy Accident 

In the summer of 1965, pickleball was invented on a shabby badminton court in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Several families were enjoying their summer on a shared vacation property. Two of the dads returned to the house after a day of golfing to find their families bored to tears. Imagine it: the times before kids had smartphones to fixate on during vacation.

In an attempt to cure their families’ boredom, Joel and Bill (we’ll learn more about them later) took the kids to play a game on the neglected badminton court beside the house. But nobody could find the shuttlecock or the rackets. No fun!

Makeshift Badminton Meets Ping-Pong

As fathers do, Joel and Bill encouraged their kids to create their own fun. Everyone wandered the property collecting toys and other sports equipment to devise a new game. Eventually, the families gathered some table tennis paddles (ping-pong) and a plastic Wiffle ball. With the badminton net set at its standard 60-inch height, they took turns volleying the ball back and forth. 

Because the plastic ball bounced so easily on the asphalt court, they lowered the net to 36 inches for a smoother toss. As the vacation carried on, the families took turns coming up with simple rules for the new game. 

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Who Invented Pickleball?

The two men credited for spontaneously inventing pickleball on their shared vacation were Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell. Joel Pritchard was a Washington State Congressman and his friend, Bill Bell, was a renowned businessman at the time. 

Barney McCallum, another friend and dad in the group, is credited in part for helping develop the rules on following weekends. When interviewed about how pickleball was created, McCallum replied, “It was strictly for our own pleasure.”

Months after vacation, Pritchard’s neighbor Bob O’Brian helped pioneer the game by becoming the first person to build a permanent pickleball court in his backyard. With Joel Pritchard’s large social circle and the neighborhood’s love for sharing the game, the sport quickly grew. 

Where did the Name “Pickleball” Come From?

Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, allegedly named the sport “pickleball” as a joke. In college, Joan was part of a rowing team—otherwise known as a crew. In rowing, there’s something called a “pickle boat”: one that consists of a thrown-together team of leftover oarsmen who didn’t make the competitive cut. 

To Joan, a sport derived from leftover materials was comical—a pickle. Hence, the name pickleball was born.

Some rumors claim the name stemmed from the family dog, Pickles, always trying to grab the ball as they played. But Pritchard and his family confirmed they didn’t get their pup Pickles until two years after the sport was invented. It does make for a cuter story, though!

Changes in Pickleball Equipment 

The equipment used in pickleball has been updated over the decades. It’s been said that the families who came up with the sport ended up building custom wooden paddles, as ping-pong paddles were too small. 

Standard Wiffle balls kept breaking on the cement and were eventually replaced by the Cosom Fun Ball. Today, pickleballs are still crafted after the Cosom Fun Ball with a few changes. Outdoor pickleballs have 40 holes. Indoor pickleballs have 26 slightly larger holes, making the ball quieter, softer, and less bouncy for indoor play.  

Fun fact: a Boeing Industrial Engineer, Arlen Paranto, developed the official pickleball paddle in 1984. 

Pickleball Gets Competitive 

In 1968, Pritchard and friends trademarked the sport, forming Pickle Ball, Inc. A few years later in 1972, they began selling pickleball kits containing wooden paddles and perforated balls so people across the U.S. could play. 

The first pickleball tournament took place in 1976 in Tukwila, Washington. Right after, tennis players started taking interest in pickleball after an article was published in Tennis magazine titled “America’s New Racquet Sport”.

In 1984 the official United States Amateur Pickleball Association was formed. The USAPA published an official rulebook that same year. 

In 2020, the USAPA was renamed USA Pickleball and is the non-profit organization that still regulates and promotes the sport today. 

A Nationwide Sport for Kids, Adults, and Seniors

By 1990, pickleball was officially being played in all 50 states. It spread mainly by word of mouth with no mass media coverage. By the early 2000s, it trickled over to other parts of the world.

The International Federation of Pickleball was formed in 2010. Participating countries included the United States, Canada, India, and Spain. Today, there are more than 60 countries present in the IFP, all of which push for pickleball to one day become an Olympic sport. 

In only fifty years, pickleball went from being a neighborhood backyard pastime to an international competitive sport. There are more than 50,000 pickleball members part of USA Pickleball today, and 2021’s Pickleball National Championship was the largest tournament on record.

Where to Play Pickleball Today

Now that you know a bit of the history of pickleball, where can you meet fellow athletes to play with? 

Currently, the U.S. Pickleball Association has more than 8,000 locations around the country where people can play. Its popularity has grown big time over the past several decades, and in 2022 it became the official state sport of Washington. Give it a try!

At eseo (every sport for every one), we combine the power of technology and the love of sports to match locals with social athletic opportunities. Join Philly's pickleball community to kball game near you!

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learn where pickleball came from, how it got its name, and where to play for fun. here’s everything you want to know about pickleball from 1965 to today.