Pickleball Finds Its Purpose
Pickleball was invented by accident on bainbridge island Almost 60 years ago. it has become the nation’s fastest-growing activity.
By Jonathan Shipley June 23, 2022
Myth has it that the sport of pickleball — a game invented on Bainbridge Island back in 1965 by Congressman Joel Pritchard, businessman Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — was named after a dog. It wasn’t.
According to research by USA Pickleball Association, the dog named Pickles wasn’t born until 1968. Rather, pickleball was named after the “pickle boat,” a sailing term that refers to the last boat to finish a race. It was first played on a badminton court after Pritchard and Bell used ping-pong paddles because they couldn’t find rackets. The first pickleball court was built in the backyard of Pritchard’s neighbor.
Today, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America, with 4.8 million players and a two-year growth rate of 39.3%, due in no small part to the pandemic. Celebrities including George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen DeGeneres have all embraced it. There are pro tournaments and professional pickleball athletes with endorsement deals. Search “pickleball clothing” on Amazon.com and more than 5,000 results pop up. There are now more than 3,000 paddle manufacturers. There are pickleball-themed cruises.
Some even advocate that pickleball, described as a cross between tennis, badminton and ping-pong, become an Olympic sport. It officially became Washington’s state sport in March, and Gov. Jay Inslee was in fine form. “The first serve in pickleball is always made from the northwest corner of the court,” he said, “and this legislation plants those roots even deeper.”
The Seattle Metro Pickleball Association (SMPA) started five years ago, has 500 fee-paying members and is growing month to month. The sport has grown so quickly that the number of players far outweighs available courts, both nationally and in Seattle. At Green Lake Park in Seattle, where tennis courts have been converted for pickleball, it’s not unusual for 80 people to show up on a given day.
“Since I found pickleball, it’s the only game I play,” says SMPA President Frank Chiappone, who plays several times a week. “I’ve found my tribe. There’s a sense of community. You play and you laugh. The sport embraces you.”
Professional players compete for big money. The Association of Pickleball Professionals Tour features purses up to $125,000. The Professional Pickleball Association Tour has events like the Orlando Cup, the Toronto Open and the Foot Solutions Arizona Grand Slam. In Seattle, the annual Seattle Metro Pickleball Classic, unaffiliated with the pro tours, has a $12,000 purse. The July tournament features upwards of 500 players.
Much like tennis, pickleball players are ranked based on points earned according to performance. The No. 3 player in the world, Riley Newman, was born and raised on Whidbey Island. ESPN will televise the national championships in Florida this November. In five years, the USA Pickleball Association has gone from three employees to 21. It now counts 57,000 members, up 54% from December 2020. “That tells you something,” says Stan Upson, chief executive officer of USA Pickleball. “Pickleball is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Will the Seattle area, the birthplace of the sport, ever hold such illustrious big money tournaments? Probably not. The city is bound by land availability and financial constraints.
“Our focus is on healthy communities,” says Oliver Bazinet, senior planner at Seattle Parks and Recreation. “Our priority is community use. We want people to have the opportunity to play pickleball in their neighborhood. It’s an easy-to-learn, accessible sport and we want to give access to it.”
That means, in the near term, converting existing tennis courts to suit the needs of pickleball players. Currently, only parks in Maple Leaf, Laurelhurst and Lakeridge have dedicated pickleball courts. There are, however, pickleball court lines painted on 65 other tennis courts throughout the city.
The city is currently conducting surveys and evaluating sites to work pickleball into the existing infrastructure. A recent parks department survey garnered nearly 3,500 responses and highlights the growing pains the sport is experiencing. More than 80% of respondents are dissatisfied with the quantity of courts, and 66% are dissatisfied with the quality of those courts. Local tennis players are also unhappy. Sixty percent say pickleball has negatively affected them and more than half are having a tough time finding courts. About 30% find the pickleball court lines a distraction when playing.
Further, some local pickleball players aren’t particularly keen on the parks department. Seattle resident Nathan King even started a Change.org petition calling for a change in leadership. An advisory council meets regularly to discuss future plans.
“It would be great,” Bazinet says, “to build dedicated courts. It’d be great to have them be large enough to have eight to 12 courts at a single site. It’s a social game, and to have people drop in and play and rotate through, that would be ideal.”
Pickleball is often considered a game for the elderly, but that’s rapidly changing. According to USA Pickleball, the average age of a pickleball player is 38. Four-fifths of casual players are age 54 or younger.
“I play with 90-year olds. I play with 16-year olds,” Chiappone says. “It’s a sport where you can make friends.” He’s eager for the SMPA to sit down with Seattle officials to see what’s possible.
“We want pickleball to be as big as tennis,” says USA Pickleball’s Upson. “We want it to go mainstream. And we are getting there.”