Pickleball: A New Craze is Taking Place Off the Fairways
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato is credited with having written, “Our need will be the real cre-ator,” which morphed into the modern iteration, necessity is the mother of invention. Facing down the bored dispositions of several family members and friends lounging about on a summer afternoon on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell found it nec-essary to set about inventing a way to entertain their crew.
Searching for badminton equipment that could be used on the old badminton court on Pritchard’s property, none was found, so they scrounged up several ping pong paddles and a Wiffle ball, and on that dusty court in the summer of 1965, boredom was vanquished and pickleball was born.
As of 2019, more than 3.3 million Americans had taken up pickleball, according to the Sports and Fitness Association’s 2019 annual report, with numbers rapidly approaching 4 million today. The sport is on pace to grow by at least a half million players each year, and likely more. Pickleball statisticians and enthusiasts are predicting worldwide participation to be high enough for the sport to be an Olympic event by 2028.
Why has pickleball taken off?
“It’s a sport that’s not hard to learn,” said Vicente Ferrer, director of tennis at Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “In three lessons we can get you playing and having rallies. In tennis it takes you a lot longer.”
A little over two hours to the west, at Omni La Costa Resort and Spa’s Cliff Drysdale Tennis center in Carlsbad, Calif., senior pickleball professional and instructor Cammy MacGregor is also seeing pickleball growing by leaps and bounds.
“I offer a Pickleball 101 class, and its booked every Tuesday,” she said. “They may have never played, they don’t know any of the rules, some may have never hit a tennis or ping pong ball and are not athletic. Once they’re finished with the class, they are ready to go. They can find success very quickly.”
THE MANY BENEFITS
In addition to a short learning curve, pickleball provides a beneficial physical workout for a wide range of ages and abilities. Compared to tennis (which it often is, due to the similar look of the court and the use of a racquet/paddle and a ball), the court is smaller, requiring less range of motion and causing less stress on muscles, tendons and joints. The paddle is also lighter than a tennis racquet, and the ball travels slower and bounces higher. Pickleball also offers a varied pace of play, even within individual matches, and a 15-minute session can give the body some great exercise.
“It can definitely get fast, but it can also get really slow,” said Ferrer. “When you’re playing a match, you’re going to see a lot of rallies where it’s just bumped into the kitchen*. Then you’ll see someone hitting it a bit harder, and here we go. It gets really fast between the players, volley to volley, and then they go back to the dink**, and it slows down again.”
The cost to pick up the game is also appealing. Play requires a paddle and a ball, a court, a net and any comfortable athletic wear and shoes. The paddles are designed with some variability to meet specific needs, and the ball looks like a Wiffle ball. Both come at a reasonable price. While there are more than 30,000 permanent pickleball courts across the U.S., temporary courts are relatively easy to set up with a roll of tape and instructions available on the USA Pickleball Association website (usapickleball.org).
With her husband’s help, MacGregor spent two years converting tennis courts at Omni La Costa, until demand became great enough for the resort to add a few permanent pickleball courts. Their enthusiasm for the game and eventual realization that there had to be a better way led to the creation of their company, C & D Pickleball Nets, now the net sponsor on the professional tour (yes, there is one.) Their design provides portable, cable net systems that can be tightened like a tennis net.
The social aspects of pickleball have provided the greatest draw for new players and keep regulars coming back for more, said MacGregor.
“When you get 16 people on one tennis court playing pickleball, laughing and having a good time, that’s when it starts. We know if you play more than three times you’re going to be hooked.”
Pickleball has lit up the future of racquet sports, says Ferrer.
“A local couple put up their own money and resurfaced all the courts at a local tennis club that was struggling to survive, turning them into pickleball courts. Now their membership is thriving.”
In addition to full classes, clinics, and courts at clubs and re-sorts, players are regularly lining up for courts at local parks where players put their paddles on the fence and move them along until courts become available and it’s their turn to play.
The millions of pickleball players participating in Pritchard and Bell’s answer to boredom on Bainbridge Island proved that Plato was most certainly right.