Pickleball now has 4.8 million participants nationwide and a 39.3% growth rate over the last two years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2022 Sports, Fitness and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report. In fact, this badminton/tennis/Ping-Pong mashup volleyed itself into the top spot for fastest growing sport in the U.S. for the second year in a row.
“It’s social and extremely fun and easy for the whole family to play—everyone from a young kid to a grandma,” says professional pickleball player Parris Todd, a former competitive tennis player who switched to pickleball during the pandemic and hasn’t looked back. “Plus, the health benefits are not only the exercise, but also the joy it brings.”
Read on to learn more about the hottest sport on a court.
A Brief History of Pickleball
Pickleball was created in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, by Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. The three neighbors initially came up with the concept—using some old Ping-Pong paddles and a perforated ball on a badminton court—as a game to keep their bored kids busy on a rainy day.
But in a 2015 interview with the Pickleball Channel, McCallum (the last living pickleball creator at the time and who died in 2019 at the age of 93) explained that it very quickly became an adult activity.
“Well, frankly, the early kids got pushed out,” laughed McCallum in his Pickleball Channel interview. “We had no purpose … nobody said, ‘Let’s sit down and make this a game.’ There was no conversation like that—it was strictly for our own pleasure.” But over time—admittedly with quite a few arguments about rules and scoring—they eventually developed what is now called pickleball. And it took off in a way they never could have imagined.
By 1967, the first permanent pickleball court was constructed, and in 1972, the first corporation was formed to protect the creation of pickleball. By 1984, the USA Pickleball Association governed the sport. And today, what was once a rainy-day activity has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon.
Why the Sudden Peak in Pickleball Popularity?
What sparked the astronomical uptick in pickleball play? As a pandemic-friendly activity, COVID-19 didn’t hinder its growth at all.
“During the pandemic, many Americans were seeking ways to stay healthy and active near their homes,” says Laura Gainor, director of media relations for USA Pickleball. “Due to the pickleball court being a quarter of the size of a tennis court, it’s easy to create a court in your driveway, in a parking lot or within a gym space, so many people were introduced to the sport during those unprecedented times playing with their family of four in the driveway.”
But even before the pandemic, pickleball popularity was on the rise. In fact, the number of participants doubled in the last five years. Many players describe it as a great workout that doesn’t feel like a workout. Also, pickleball is purportedly easier on the body—especially the hips and knees—than tennis and other racquet sports.
The fact that anyone can play is a big draw, too. “The game is multi-generational, so we’re seeing grandparents playing with their grandkids and young adults in their 20s and 30s enjoying playing with their parents,” says Gainor.
What Equipment Is Needed to Play Pickleball?
Requirements for playing pickleball are minimal, but you do need some basic equipment to get started.
Pickleball is played with a flat paddle as opposed to a stringed racket as seen in tennis and badminton. Though the original paddles were cut out of wood by McCallum himself, today’s modern versions come in various sizes and thickness levels to accommodate your style of play. However, the paddle length cannot exceed 17 inches.
The ball used in pickleball is plastic and perforated with anywhere from 26 to 40 holes, similar to a wiffle ball. The holes create more drag and are a lot lighter and easier to hit than tennis balls. They’re also responsible for the slightly slower pace of the game. The size of the ball is usually 2.87 to 2.97 inches in diameter, and the ball must be a single color (save for any logos).
The sport also requires a 3-foot-long net that’s hung at a height of 34 inches in the center. You need a court space as well, which should be about 44 feet long and 20 feet wide.