Pickleball: How a Bored Teen Inspired His Dad to Invent Today's Fastest Growing Sport—In 1965
NOVEMBER 4, 2021
RICHLEGG/E+ VIA GETTY IMAGES
Pickleball may have only taken a hold of America in the past decade, but it dates back to the mid-1960s.
The latest sports craze that has neighborhood associations from Brooklyn to Great Britain reaching for a paddle isn’t a fresh take on fantasy football or some innovative P90X trend. Nor is it a "new" trend at all. It’s pickleball, a hybrid sport that borrows certain elements from tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. While it was originally created in 1965, it has seen amazing growth over the past decade.
The simple paddle game is played with what looks like a Wiffle ball the size of a baseball on a pint-sized badminton court over a tennis-like net. Only the serving team can score points. All serves must be made with an underhand stroke. And like most paddle sports, the object of the game is to score more points than your opponent.
While The Economist reports that general activity levels have remained relatively flat in the five years leading up to 2019, pickleball participation grew by an impressive 7 percent in that same time. And during the COVID-19 lockdown, the game's popularity surged: In 2020, The New York Times published an article that asked: "Is Pickleball the Perfect Pandemic Pastime?"
The answer would seem to be a resounding yes.
Since 2010, the number of pickleball courts has grown by an estimated 385 percent worldwide, and the Pickleball Participant Report claims that there are approximately 2.8 million active players in the U.S. alone.
Joel (front) and Frank Pritchard play a game of pickleball. Notice that Joel is wearing two different shoes. "That was just my dad," says Frank of his father's footwear. "He just didn't give a rip."
PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANK PRITCHARD
As the origin story typically goes, pickleball was invented to give some bored neighborhood kids something fun to do. But Frank Pritchard, son of pickleball inventor (and former Lieutenant Governor of Washington) Joel Pritchard, says that's not the real story.
"I don't think my father wanted people to know his child was a complainer, so that became the story," Frank tells Mental Floss. All these years later, the younger Pritchard is ready to come clean. The true catalyst for pickleball? Well, "it just started because I was being a sh*tty little kid," Frank admits.
It was a hot July afternoon in 1965 and 13-year-old Frank Pritchard was bored. So the teenager just sat and stared out the window of his family's Bainbridge Island summer compound—a series of buildings his grandparents had built in the 1920s—wanting nothing more than to be back home in Seattle, hanging out with his buddies. It didn't matter to Frank that the Pritchards' summer home, which was situated on an idyllic, evergreen-studded island in the Puget Sound, was a little slice of Pacific Northwest heaven. For an angsty tween who missed his friends, it was anything but. That afternoon Frank's father Joel, then a member of Washington's House of Representatives, returned home from golfing with his buddies Bill Bell and Barney McCallum to find his only son full of spiritless snark.
"I was whining," Frank says. "I told dad there was nothing to do." Wrong answer. "There was an unwritten law in my family about complaining—it wasn't allowed. Either do something about it or be quiet."
Suffice to say, Frank's dad wasn't having it.
"He said, 'When we were kids and we would come over here, we would make games up,'" Frank tells Mental Floss. "And I said, 'Oh really? Why don't you go make a game up!’ I was such a little brat."
Rather than argue with his teenage son, Joel took him up on the offer. "My father loved a challenge," Frank says.
IN A PICKLE
Pickles Pritchard is adorable, but not the inspiration for the word pickleball.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANK PRITCHARD
Joel picked up a plastic ball his son had been given for his birthday a month earlier. "Then he headed to the badminton court my grandparents had installed and strung the net lower, and finally fashioned crude paddles together," Frank explains. "My dad and Bill Bell started knocking the ball around. Then they got Barney McCallum, who lived down the beach, over to join them." And wouldn't you know it, Frank says, this weird game Joel and his buddies came up with was pretty fun.
A week of afternoon pickup games soon became a more competitive scene in the Bainbridge Island neighborhood, and before long everyone was building their own mini courts, half the size of tennis courts.
“About two years later, our next door neighbors, the O'Briens, put in a pickleball court and they’d have little tournaments,” Frank says. “Then Barney’s court was about six doors down.”
They had a game, but they didn’t have a name. Contrary to pickleball lore, this Wiffle ball, ping-pong, and badminton hybrid wasn’t named after the Pritchards' family dog, Pickles (they didn't get the pup until three years after the game was devised). Rather, the name was the work of Frank’s mother and her rather random appreciation for another sport—crew.
"It’s sort of convoluted," Frank explains. “My mom grew up in a small town in Ohio called Marietta, but it's a college and had a big crew program. She liked crew and when my father met her and they moved out to Seattle, UW had a big crew program. They had a term for a pickle boat, which is a boat filled with all the leftover rowers." Frank's mother suggested that since Joel's game "was a little bit of this and a little of that," according to Frank, "pickleball would be a good name.”
The name stuck. And somehow, through word of mouth—and within Joel’s political sphere and Seattle contacts—the game grew. McCallum saw the game’s promise and founded the original Pickle-ball company (which still exists today) to sell paddles, balls, and other game accessories. Daniel J. Evans, who served as Washington's governor from 1965 to 1977, had a pickleball court built at the Governor's mansion. (It was later removed by Dixy Lee Ray, his successor.) But Frank thinks the real tipping point was when pickleball found its way into elementary school gym classes.
“It got introduced to the schools," Frank says, noting that part of the appeal was likely because "It's very cheap to buy the equipment; you can play on a gymnasium floor, on asphalt, [or] any hard surface; [in] winter or summer; indoor or outdoor. It’s easy to pick up and play, and then probably a lot of seniors went to it because it’s not as grueling as tennis. It sort of sells itself.”
While pickleball has been gaining much more attention in just the past year, it got its first mention in The New York Times in 1978 in a story about a racket collector. But even with all the publicity over the years, Frank says its recent meteoric rise in popularity is truly something to behold—especially for a once persnickety kid who managed to inspire a sports craze by making a stink about being bored one afternoon 56 years ago. He just wishes his dad, who passed away in 1997, could have lived to see its success.
“My dad was kind of a frustrated camp counselor,” Frank says. “He loved getting people involved in games and playing. That always gave him a charge. The fact that it has given so much pleasure to people would just thrill him.”
FROM THE MAGAZINE
How Pickleball Won Over Everyone From Leonardo DiCaprio to Your Grandparents
The addictive tennis-Ping-Pong hybrid might be the last thing red and blue Americans can agree on. “I literally want every person in the world to play this game,” says one convert.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays every day—by his own rules, naturally. “It’s like a free-for-all,” one L.A.-based showrunner confides. Anyone hoping for face time with DiCaprio might end up waiting until he finishes on the court. It’s how things work in L.A. Mortals bide their time while movie star chases plastic ball with friends.
But DiCaprio is hardly alone in his obsession. Out of nowhere, pickleball is everywhere. This sneaky-fast amalgam of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong has been embraced by Larry David, Melinda Gates, Jamie Foxx, the Kardashians, Owen Wilson, Jillian Michaels, Zach Braff, and Giuliana Rancic. Pro athletes from Russell Wilson to Annika Sörenstam have mastered the dink and drive. Games break out in the Chicago Cubs bullpen. Reese Witherspoon mentioned pickleball in a birthday post to husband Jim Toth. George Clooney says his wife, Amal, routinely torches him on their home court in L.A. Joel Silver prefers to just watch. Survivor winner Tyson Apostol has parlayed his reality-TV fame into a career as a pickleball influencer.
At L.A.’s sprawling Riviera Country Club, pro Matt Manasse (a.k.a. “Pickleball McNasty”) has earned a reputation as the “pickleball coach to the stars.” Private courts are popping up around L.A. at such a clip that Ria Berkus jokes it’s the new Hollywood status symbol. On the other side of the country, pickleball is creeping into the Hamptons, with private lessons offered at the exclusive East Hampton Tennis Club. But there’s just as much enthusiasm for the sport at the YMCA down the road from my parents’ house in Georgia. There, sandwiched between Walmart and Zaxby’s, seniors gather every Thursday morning with a portable net and paddles intended for padel—a different sport entirely.
Between 2019 and 2020, pickleball participation grew by a staggering 21.3 percent. The Economist declared it “the fastest growing sport in America.” It’s hard to make sense of that kind of growth. We could theorize as to what’s behind its surging popularity or just accept that pickleball is really fun and move on. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates that 4.2 million Americans play at least once a year. That’s roughly the number of people in this country who play lacrosse and ice hockey combined. It’s also comparable to the population of Oregon—and greater than that of 23 other states. Schools across the nation are adding pickleball to their phys-ed curriculums. The stage is set for a vibrant youth movement in years to come.
The boom appears surprisingly democratic, as pickleball gains popularity across the socioeconomic spectrum. You can find courts at Carmel Valley Ranch outside Big Sur, California, and at La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Florida. How, at a time when America’s rich and poor experience increasingly distinct realities, can anything hover above the political fray? Perhaps a low profile is to thank. Fair or not, we’ve labeled the NFL conservative and the NBA liberal. I’ve been to two major pickleball tournaments and can’t remember if they even played the national anthem, let alone if anyone kneeled.
Simone Jardim, a 41-year-old mother of two and savage destroyer of anyone challenging her position as the top-ranked women’s player, ascribes pickleball’s ability to bring different classes together to its humble roots in public venues. “On the same court, you can have a millionaire with someone living paycheck to paycheck,” she explains. “No one’s interested in what you do for a living, only in how long you’ve been playing.” There’s an egalitarianism to pickleball you don’t often find in other sports. I’ve had my ass kicked by men (and women) in their 60s, I’ve beaten friends with private jets and current college athletes, and I regularly swap pickleball-related texts with a former U.S. president, the Australian rocker Alex Cameron, and a buddy who jumps the NYC subway turnstiles to save cash. It’s not a group text, but still.
Given pickleball’s explosive growth, it’s no surprise that the professionalization—and commercialization—of the sport is under way. Equipment and apparel brands, media companies, and pro tours are banking on the sport producing transcendent stars. A storybook contrast atop the men’s field promises hope of a breakout. Tyson McGuffin, the intense, charismatic, tatted-up pride of Idaho, was dethroned in 2019 by Ben Johns, who won the national men’s singles title as a junior at the University of Maryland after playing for only three and a half years. Johns’s play inspires and frustrates in equal measure, offering a reminder of both what is possible and how far you are from achieving it. His greatness feels effortless in the way a savant’s excellence often does. If McGuffin is Nadal, Palmer, and Ronaldo, Johns is Federer, Nicklaus, and Messi.
But greatness alone doesn’t cut it. The prize money in pickleball still can’t sustain a living. The 2021 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships in Indian Wells, California—arguably the sport’s biggest event—will feature a total purse of only $90,000. At the last games, the men’s and women’s singles champions each took home a modest $2,500 for their efforts. While Johns, almost certainly the world’s best compensated player, has estimated his current annual pay at a robust $250,000, most pros can’t sniff that sort of haul.
Teaching and sponsorships often provide the most reliable sources of income. Coach, promote, compete. It’s a grind even the top players must endure. Compare Johns’s earnings to his fellow niche-sport GOAT, disc-golf legend Paul McBeth—who recently nabbed a single endorsement deal worth a guaranteed $10 million—and you’ll see how far pickleball lags behind.
Even if other alternative sports, from darts to cornhole, enjoy higher paydays or more TV airtime, pickleball might beat them to the ultimate prize. In May, the Montreal Gazette noted that pickleball has been called the fastest growing sport in Canada. The International Federation of Pickleball currently boasts 60 member countries, and a swelling global presence has inspired enthusiasts to lobby the International Olympic Committee for inclusion. A dream that might have appeared farcical only a few years ago suddenly feels plausible. If break dancing can head slide into Paris 2024, there’s a banger’s chance pickleball can bring the dink to the 2028 Los Angeles games.