Like any other sport, pickleball has a history behind it. Today we shed some light on how the sport came to be back in the 1960s and how it transitioned into the popular sport it is today.
The 1960s: The Beginning
Pickleball was first invented back in the summer of ‘65 by Joe Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum on Bainbridge Island, Washington. One day after returning from a game of golf, Pritchard, and Bell found their children bored on a Saturday afternoon.
Since the property had an old badminton court, the duo tried to set up a badminton game, but couldn’t find the shuttlecock or the wooden paddles. So, the two men used a random assortment of equipment to improvise a new game. They lowered the net, used a Wiffle ball instead of a shuttlecock, and fashioned paddles out of nearby plywood. And thus the game of Pickleball was born one summer day out of some boredom and ingenuity.
The following weekend, Pritchard and Bell introduced the new sport to McCallum. As the summer went on, the trio modified the game rules and equipment to be more consistent, incorporating rules from badminton, tennis, and racquetball. Their stated purpose was to create a game that the entire family could play together. During this time, McCallum created some of the first genuine Pickleball paddles by hand out of plywood.
The first rules of Pickleball were a bit different than they are today. Originally, the net was set at 60” and the rules allowed for volleying at all parts of the court. After some trial and error, the trio of men lowered the net to 36” and implemented the “no-volley” zone seen in Pickleball courts today, bringing the sport closer to the form we know today.
Sources on the origin of the name “Pickleball” are conflicting. Some claim that it was a reference to the Pritchard’s family dog named “Pickles” or that it came from the term “pickle boat.” According to Joel Pritchard’s wife Joan, the name Pickleball was chosen after she said the development of the game reminded her of the Pickle Boat in crew where sailors were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
The game grew in popularity on the island as the trio introduced it to friends and family. In 1967, Bob O’Brien, a neighbor, and friend to the Pritchard family created the first dedicated Pickleball court on his property. In the same year, Pickleball started to spread its way off Bainbridge Island after Pritchard introduced the game to Dan Evans and Slade Gorton. A bit later, Gorton built a Pickleball court at his house which brought the game to mainland Washington.
In 1968, Pritchard along with several of his friends created Pickle Ball Inc. the world’s first Pickleball Organization.
The 1970s – 1980s: Spread and Formation of the USAPA
The 1970s saw the transition of Pickleball from a backyard activity to a legitimate sport played nationwide. In 1975, the National Observer did a piece on Pickleball drawing it into the public spotlight and in 1976, Tennis magazine published an issue calling Pickleball “America’s newest racquet sport.”
In the same year, the very first official Pickleball tournament was hosted in Tukwila, Washington. David Lester won the Men’s single division and Steve Paranto came in second. Most of the participants in this first official tournament were college tennis players trying their hand at a new sport.
Pickleball continued to grow in popularity through the 70s until 1984 in which the USA Pickleball Association was founded. The stated goal of the USAPA is to “perpetuate the growth and advancement of pickleball on a national level.” The USAPA published the first official Pickleball rulebook in 1984 and Sid Williams served as the head of the organization until 1998, after which Frank Candelario took over until 2004.
Before the 80s, most Pickleball paddles were made exclusively from wood. In 1984 a Boeing industrial engineer named Arien Paranto invented the very first composite Pickleball paddles. These paddles were made from fiberglass panels used in the structural system of airplanes. Compared to the dominant wooden paddles at the time, Arien’s composite paddles were much lighter and more durable. Arien made over 1,000 composite paddles then eventually sold his company to Frank Candelario, the future president of the USAPA.
The 1990s – 2000s: Pickleball Goes National
By the 1990s, Pickleball was played in all 50 states. Pickleball courts became a relatively common sight at community and fitness centers. The sport saw a boom of popularity with older players, who favored the low-impact sport over more strenuous sports like tennis. Throughout the first part of the 1990s, Pickleball became a household name in the states.
Unfortunately, in 1997, the father of Pickleball Joe Pritchard passed, but not before his sport had become a national phenomenon. Popularity in the sport continued to grow through the early 2000s, and in 2008, the USAPA published the first official Pickleball Tournament Rulebook. A year later in 2009, the USAPA hosted its first national tournament in Arizona that allowed players of all ages to compete. Donald Paschal took home the gold in Men’s singles with Erik Gertler coming in second. The team of Donald Paschall and Dan Gabanek secure the gold in Men’s double and Tim Hatzenbeler and Brett Raymond took the silver in the same category. Vicki Foster won the gold for women’s singles and Diane Shanklin and Susan Berkens took home the gold in women’s doubles.
The 2010s – Present: A Nationwide Phenomenon
The 2010s have only seen more growth in the popularity of Pickleball. In 2015, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association named Pickleball as the single fastest-growing sport in the US and the USAPA created their first juniors program for players age 7-19 in 2016.
As of 2019, Pickleball is being played by over 2.5 million people nationwide, Over 4,000 Pickleball locations exist in the country with several international competitions taking place around the world. Pickleball remains popular as a low-impact way to exercise and the popularity of the sport is expected to keep growing in the coming years.