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Sports are a great way to get active, get healthy, create camaraderie, and have fun. But chances are you may not have heard of one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. Here are some hints: it’s played on a court, it features exciting serves and volleys, and it can be played as singles and doubles competitions.

You probably guessed tennis, right? Or perhaps badminton. And, in a sense, you’d be correct with either answer. The sport that’s blazing trails all over America is pickleball, a combination of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong being played at over 21,000 pickleball courts in almost 6,000 venues across the country.

The game was actually invented several decades ago. In 1965, friends Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum created pickleball on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as a fun summer activity for their kids to play on Pritchard’s badminton court. It wasn’t played with a pickle, though: they originally used makeshift Ping-Pong rackets (hand-sawed
by McCallum) and cut some holes in a plastic ball. The next week, the trio made rules, and a new racquet game was born in a backyard.

So what’s with the name? Legend has it that pickleball was simply named after the Pritchards’ ever-present dog, Pickles, who would scurry across the court to steal the ball before hiding it.

A Pickleball Playbook

In this sport, played on a 20-foot by 44-foot badminton-sized court, players use large paddles to strike a perforated hard plastic ball across a net that’s 34 inches high in the center and 36 inches on the ends.

A key distinction, however, is that pickleball courts have a restricted area that extends seven feet from the net on both sides. Unless the ball is hit in one of these areas, playfully called the kitchen, a player cannot enter it without penalty. Using Ping-Pong rules, games are up to eleven, and you must win by at least two; however, only the person or team that’s serving can score points. The end result is much closer back-and-forth action—and a world of fun.

Just as important, there’s much less space to cover, especially if you play doubles—so the sport is enjoyed by pickleballers of all ages. In fact, according to a 2016 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), over 75 percent of all core pickleball players are estimated to be fifty-five or older.

The game is gaining traction with younger fans as well, with almost 20 percent of casual players being between age six and seventeen. In addition, the sport’s official governing body, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), offers grants to its members for providing pickleball equipment to high school physical-education classes and after-school programs. The sport is popping up in high-school physical-education curriculums and in colleges across the country.

A Healthy Habit

Not surprisingly, pickleball is also uniquely designed to pump up the health benefits—especially for older adults—while minimizing risk. There’s a lot less running than tennis, so knee problems are lessened, and casual games often take less than a half hour, so it’s not overly strenuous.

Science is starting to back the sport’s health benefits, too. The team at Mueller Sports Medicine found that pickleball is not only a heart-healthy activity for older adults but also builds strength, improves brain function, and reduces stress. Similarly, a research team at Western State Colorado University concluded that middle-aged and older adults who played the game regularly showed better blood pressure and improved their cardiorespiratory fitness. A Japanese study also found that pickleball may be good for warding off depression in older people.

It makes sense that pickleballers tend to be happier because a key denominator is social interaction—it’s easy to make connections while having fun, especially when players are often in close proximity and in close communication during the game, as pickleball warrants. Whether you’re twenty, fifty, or seventy, you’ll likely find yourself forming friendly, if not competitive, relationships.

The Popularity of Pickleball

Interest in this unique sport continues to skyrocket. According to the SFIA, over 2.8 million Americans play pickleball as of 2017, and the USAPA counts its membership at over 22,000 enthusiasts. The organization’s national tournament, which first took place in 2009, was broadcast nationally in 2017, with the championships airing on CBS.

Upping its game the following year, the USAPA partnered with Margaritaville as the 2018 title sponsor, moved its USA Pickleball National Championships to prestigious Indian Wells Tennis Garden, and agreed to have it broadcast live on ESPN3. The event featured a record 2,200-plus players from the United States and around the world and a
$75,000 total purse for the pros—more than double the winnings from the previous year. (As a bonus to fans, the cost to enter was free for all events other than a small ticket price for the championship matches.) Last year’s participants were as young as eight and as old as ninety and included several professionals from other sports, including former pro golfers and tennis players, Tiger Woods’ former instructor, Hank Haney, and former Team USA gymnast Roxanne Pierce.

Pickleball: A Game for All

Pro or amateur, core or casual, young or old, pickleball is that rare sport that is truly made for everyone. You don’t need a ton of equipment or money to play it, and odds are you’ll find several pickleball courts in your area.

Just as important, the social benefits and health benefits can’t be beaten—no matter your age. Like millions of others have already discovered, you’ll be amazed by the exhilaration of the action, the bonding you’ll experience with fellow players on and off the court, and just how quickly you’ll get hooked on this game with the funny name.

For more info, visit usapa.org

Photography by: Propickleball / Carl Schmits