The 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.
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
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.”