A Story of Unlikely Beginnings
Pickleball history is just like its name: full of surprises. An old badminton court, a pair of mismatched ping pong paddles, and a perforated plastic ball from who-knows-where. It sounds like an unpromising beginning. But this humble start turned into a sport that would be played by millions and beloved by children, youth, and retirees alike.
Backyard Family Time: Where Pickleball History Began
According to the USPA, Pickleball was invented when a group of neighbors bent their innovative minds to a problem many of us are dealing with today: keeping the family entertained. The kids were bored, there was nowhere to go, and they didn’t even have the equipment for a complete game of anything: just a few ping pong paddles, a badminton court, and a plastic ball.
That wouldn’t stop them. Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell took their kids down to the court to invent a new game. Although the original game was played with the net at badminton height, it didn’t take them long to discover a whole new dimension could be added by lowering the net to 36 inches. The hard ball would bounce off the hard asphalt and ricochet off in a very satisfying way.
Barney McCallum, the third of the founding trio, was introduced to the game shortly after. The three spent the summer of 1976 competing with each other and the neighbors, inventing new rules, and refining the sport. When the ping pong paddles that had been used were deemed ‘not good enough’, Barney went into his basement, took out his band saw, and cut new paddles out of 3/8” plywood. These would be the first dedicated pickleball paddles.
Everyone who saw a game wanted to play. And it wasn’t long before pickleball spread out from Washington State and began to be played across the country. In 1972, a corporation was formed to protect and promote the fledgling sport.
The Pickleball Name
But where did the name come from? There is disagreement on that point. According to Joan Pritchard, she named it after the pickle boat in crew: a boat full of the leftovers of other boats when oarsmen were chosen. A few years after the game was invented, the Pritchard family also adopted a fun loving dog they named Pickles.
Although Pickles was named for the game, many people felt it was funnier to say the game was named for the family dog. And that gradually became the semi-official story.
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Going Commercial, Going Big: The Beginning of Pickleball Growth
The way Barney McCallum tells it, he never wanted to go commercial. But people kept writing in, asking for balls, for paddles, for pickleball sets. He kept on cutting more paddles with his basement band saw and fulfilling more orders. Eventually, it became too much for one man to manage himself. The commercial side of pickleball began simply as a way to get people the pickleball equipment they wanted, and get them on the pickleball court playing.
In 1976, the first ever pickleball tournament was held in Tukwila, Washington at the South Center Athletic Club. Many of the players were college students who didn’t know much about pickleball. But the contest was fun for both participants and spectators.
Pickleball Growth Takes Off: New Paddles and a National Tournament
The USAPA was organized in 1984 to promote pickleball on the national level and soon had a rulebook published. 1984 was also the year that the first composite paddle was made. It was designed by Arlen Paranto, an Industrial Engineer who worked at Boeing. His paddles were strong and light, made of the same fiberglass/nomex honeycomb panels used in commercial airplanes.
In 2009 the first USAPA National Tournament was held in Buckeye, Arizona. Open to players of all ages, it was attended by more than 400 pickleball aficionados from 26 states and Canada.
Where We Are Today in PIckleball History
In 2015, Pickleball was recognized by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) as the fastest growing sport in the United States. A year later, in May 2016, another milestone in pickleball history occurred: the first professional pickleball tournament beamed on national TV. Finally, Pickleball was being watched in living rooms across America.
Big sports brands began to take notice. In 2017, Head Sports expanded 2 of their existing lines to include pickleball—Extreme (Tour, Pro, Pro L, Elite) and Radical (Tour, Pro, Pro L, Elite). The following year Prince entered the Pickleball marketplace by launching (in partnership with Paddletek) 5 pickleball paddles, Spectrum, Spectrum Pro, Response, Response Pro, and the Quantum.
The momentum and increased participation has continued with the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships in 2019. 2000 registered players competed for an $80,000 cash purse, and 200 hours of matches were live-streamed.
Today, you don’t have to go play on tennis courts. There are almost 4,000 pickleball play locations listed in the USPA’s central directory. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2019 Pickleball Participant Report, Pickleball has 3.3 million players just in the U.S. But Pickleball is no longer an exclusively American sport, and Pickleball clubs are sprouting all over the world. Canada and India both boast their own national governing body.
After all, neither a long history nor expensive equipment are necessary for a rewarding sport. All that’s needed is accessibility and fun—and those, Pickleball has in abundance.