America’s New Pastime: Exploring the History of Pickleball

A pickleball court

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There’s a good chance you or someone you know plays pickleball. The sport has recently risen in popularity as people want to get fit and have fun. Why has it become so popular? First, it’s critical to understand the history of pickleball. Here’s a rundown of this half-century-old sport and its outlook for the future. 

What Is the History of Pickleball

Learning the history of pickleball requires a trip to Washington’s Puget Sound. The Pacific Northwest is an excellent summer destination if you want to escape the blistering heat of the desert. However, some days bring boredom, as one family found. 

Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell were looking for something to do on a weekend in 1965, so they gathered their families for badminton. They couldn’t locate the shuttlecocks typically used for the game, so they had to improvise with unorthodox choices. Can you play badminton with a tennis ball?

The families tried to play badminton with a Wiffle ball, a ping-pong paddle and other sports equipment. However, none of their options compared to the old Cosom Fun Ball. This toy was a step up from Wiffle balls and helped establish the history of pickleball.  

Making It Official

After a few years, Pritchard and his cohorts decided to create an official sport by founding Pickle Ball, Inc. By 1972, the team filed trademarks for pickleball and sold paddles to people interested in the sport. While young people play pickleball, adults can enjoy the slow pace and have fun on the court. 

Pickleball slowly rose in the Pacific Northwest as people played in backyards and organized community leagues. By 1976, the sport was ready for its first official tournament. Pritchard chose Tukwila, Washington, to host the first pickleball championship.

As the game spread nationwide, the ’80s and ’90s saw more growth opportunities for pickleball. For example, the Arizona Senior Olympics promoted the sport and encouraged older adults to participate. This demonstration proved pickleball wasn’t just a young person’s game. 

A pickleball racket and ball sit on the court.

Awaiting the Pickleball Boom

The sport saw a slow rise for the rest of the 20th century. When did it see its most considerable boost? The modern history of pickleball starts around the COVID-19 pandemic. People had to stay inside or do physical activities with limited social interaction. Fortunately, pickleball came to the rescue. 

Pickleball is easy to set up in your backyard or a local park. Paddles, balls and a net are the only required gear to start a friendly game. The simple setup meant people could play with their household members without worrying about bumping into strangers. 

The first two years of the pandemic saw incredible growth for Pickleball, surging 40% between 2020 and 2022 due to nationwide restrictions. How much did it grow from 2016 to 2022? Experts say pickleball participation increased by 650%. 

Turning Pro

Local tournaments are fun, but how do you stack up against the best players from other states? One way to find out is to establish a professional league. The first league originated in 1984 when organizers founded the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (USAPA). 

Pickleball’s most prominent association is the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), home of the sport’s top competitors like Ben Johns. The world’s best pickleball player focuses on weight training, dynamic movements and cardio to prepare his body for competition. 

While the PPA doesn’t have lucrative media rights deals, pickleball has entered the mainstream by having TV slots. You can catch matches on ESPN, YouTube, PickleballTV and other streaming platforms to watch the week’s tournaments. The sport’s rise will only grow its visibility and viewership. 

How Popular Is Pickleball in 2024?

Person holding a pickleball paddle and ball on the court.

The pandemic has wound down, but pickleball has continued its rise in the sports world. People worldwide are building new courts and picking up paddles for the first time to join the fun. How many people are playing in 2024? Research shows the game is here to stay. 

The Association of Pickleball Professionals says 48 million American adults have played pickleball in the last 12 months. This number reflects a 35% rise since August 2022, when the researchers found 36 million adults played the sport. 

A consistent rise could mean pickleball becoming more prominent in the community and sports. For example, high schools could start pickleball teams and compete in state-sanctioned tournaments. Could the sport rise to the level of amateur tennis? 

Olympic Considerations

Bridge during the night in Brisbane, Australia

The history of pickleball could become more storied if you see it at the Olympics. Advocates of the sport tried to earn a competition in the 2024 and 2028 games but fell short. What does this mean for the future? Hope isn’t lost, so a 2032 bid in Brisbane, Australia, could be the answer. 

How can a sport become a part of the Olympics? The Olympic Charter says you need male participation in 75 countries and four continents or 40 countries and three continents for women. While it has international appeal, pickleball isn’t quite there.  

The World Pickleball Federation (WPF) says 60 countries on six continents play the sport, falling short of the 75-nation threshold. Most member nations are from Asia and Europe, so more work is necessary to gain momentum worldwide. 

Are There Health Benefits to Pickleball?

Person holds a pickleball paddle and ball while approaching the court.

Pickleball has seen an incredible rise because it’s easy to play. Due to its accessibility, you may see co-workers, family members and neighbors on the local courts. One positive attribute of pickleball is the physical health boosts. Any excuse to move your body is good for your fitness.

Each match requires running around the court, thus increasing your heart rate and physical activity levels. Experts say pickleball improves heart and lung health because you breathe hard and burn calories. Pair the sport with a healthy diet to aid your weight management tactics. 

Another crucial benefit of pickleball is improved coordination. You need solid balance to remain on the court without falling, so the sport teaches your body to monitor itself. Great pickleball players know how to play in the kitchen without committing a violation. 

Helping Seniors Get Fit

Staying in shape becomes more difficult as you age. Your body slows down, so finding physical activity is crucial. Pickleball is a terrific sport for older adults because it requires movement but is mostly safe. You may see seniors play in their backyard or at a local YMCA. 

One significant benefit of pickleball is its flexibility. You can play the sport inside or outdoors, allowing older adults to stay cool during hot temperatures. Seniors are more vulnerable during heat waves, so letting them play in air-conditioned rooms is advantageous.

Pickleball became popular during the pandemic because you could play it with close friends or family. However, the game has evolved to be fun with strangers and new company. If you see people playing in the park, ask if they want to start a doubles game for friendly competition.

Embracing the History of Pickleball and the Sport’s Future

Basketball, baseball, football and hockey are America’s four biggest sports. Could pickleball be the fifth game to captivate TV sets nationwide? The history of pickleball dates back to 1965, but its meteoric rise has come recently. The game’s accessibility makes it easy for anybody to pick up a paddle and play. 

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