From its humble beginnings as a makeshit backyard game, pickleball has catapulted into an international craze. The sport now features dedicated pro players, established leagues, and even celebrity investors. Add to that a fervent, if not obsessed player base, and it’s clear that its creators caught lightning in a bottle with its invention. Here’s the story of how it came to be.
How pickleball was invented
It was a lazy Saturday afternoon on Bainbridge Island in 1965. The summer smells of dried grass, ripening blackberries, and kelp on the beach permeated the air. Joel Prichard, a Washington State Congressman, and friend Bill Bell had just returned from playing a round of golf.
The kids were bored and nagged them for something fun to do. So, what did Joel and Bill do? They created a new game for the kids: Pickleball.
Out on an old badminton court that was on Prichard’s property, they invented a sport that combined many of the rules of badminton. They used ping pong paddles, a holey plastic ball often referred to as a whiffle ball, and a badminton net set at a height of 60 inches.
They then found that if they lowered the net to 36 inches, which was the height of Joel Prichard’s waist, it would allow for more directed shots. By setting the height to Joel’s waist, all he had to do was walk along the net to guarantee that it was at the correct height.
Refining the rules
A week later, Prichard and Bell introduced the game to their neighbor, Barney McCallum, and the three of them further refined the rules.
One of their early participants liked to run right up to the net and spike the ball. So, to stop this from happening, they made a line that already existed on the court, the short badminton serving line, into a no volley zone line.
Then, they argued about the scoring. They settled on a scoring system that resembled badminton.
That weekend, McCallum was inspired. He went home and drew out three designs on a piece of paper for new paddles. He felt that ping pong paddles were no longer going to work for this new sport. With his bandsaw, he cut out bigger plywood paddles for his friends to use.
The first designs were crude, nothing like the high-tech carbon fiber and honeycomb polymer creations commonly used today. These proto paddles, on the other hand, were flat and had no handle grips.
The size and shape however, has stayed virtually the same as McCallum’s initial designs and have led to the standards for pickleball paddle shape and size. These new plywood paddles may not have been as comfortable to hold, but they did the job.
With word about the game spreading, families came together all summer to play this new sport on the backyard court that was on Prichard’s property.
At the end of the summer, many of these families, including McCallum’s, moved back to Seattle. So, the game moved with them. They started playing on the street in front of McCallum’s house in the Queen Anne neighborhood. The street had a width of 20 feet, so this became the width of the pickleball court.
Over the next few years, the game began to start catching on, and in 1967, the first permanent pickleball court was constructed in the backyard of Bob O’brien’s house, a neighbor of Joel Prichard.
The court sits nestled under tall Western Red Cedar trees, just a few hundred yards from the shore of Pleasant Beach.
Tours led by the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum will take pickleball players there to see the court, the plaque, and if you are lucky, to hit a few balls on the court where it all started.
In addition, Bainbridge Island constructed the Founders Courts in August of 2020, a beautiful pickleball complex of six courts at Battle Creek Park. The project was funded through a collaboration between the pickleball community of Bainbridge Island, with funding coming from all over the Greater Seattle Area, and the Bainbridge Island Parks Department.
They employ a schedule of play there that includes open play, leveled play, and rated play. Check out their website at https://bipickleball.org/the-courts
How did pickleball get its name?
After hearing about the sport for the first time, many try and understand how it got it’s quirky name. As it turns out, this has been a somewhat controversial topic over the years. But we can clear that up.
Some of the founders’ neighbors have claimed that the sport was named after Pickles, the Prichard’s beloved dog who liked to pick up the balls in his mouth.
However, Pickles was not adopted until 1968, three years after the game was created. So it’s clear the pup’s name was inspired by the sport, not the other way around.
McCallum once claimed that the name “Pickle Ball” came from him telling his opponent, “I’ve
got you in a pickle.”
Joel Prichard was also once quoted as saying that they were just looking for a “nutty name” and that “tenny pong” was once a possible name for the sport.
In reality, it was was Joan Prichard that coined the name “pickle ball.”
Joan was from Marietta, Ohio and attended Marietta College, a school that prided itself on having one of the strongest crew programs in the country. Joan didn’t row, but she was a loyal fan of the crew races. Joan and Joel met in Ohio at Marietta College and later moved to Joel’s hometown, Seattle, in 1948.
The University of Washington also had an excellent rowing program and in the 1950’s and Joan would go to watch the annual regatta competitions on Lake Washington to support the visiting rowers from Marietta.
In these regattas, the best rowers from each school were pitted against each other. But, toward the end of the competition, the athletes that were the “spares” and didn’t make the varsity teams, also got a chance to race.
These “non-starters” would be thrown together to race for fun in the “pickle boat” race. Joan felt that the sport invented by Joel, Bill and Barney, threw together the leftover bits of ping pong, badminton and tennis.
So, she suggested they name the sport “pickle ball.” The name stuck, but was later changed to
the one word name, “pickleball”, by which it is known around the world today.
Spreading the word in the 70s
In 1972 a corporation was founded to help develop the sport. Then, in 1976 an article was published in the National Observer that described pickleball as “America’s newest racquet sport.”
Also in 1976, the first known pickleball tournament was held at the South Center Athletic Club in Tukwila, Washington. David Lester won first place in men’s singles and Steve Paranto took second place. The tournament attracted college tennis players, most of whom had never played pickleball before.
In 1977, Joel Prichard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum pitched in money for the first commercial pickleball company. They sold pickleball sets with 4 plywood paddles, a ball and a net for $29.50. Initially, money they raised was stored in a cigar box. But, the checks in the mail came pouring in.
McCallum also helped spread the sport by getting it into schools. They did pickleball demonstrations in local schools, but also traveled to the National Physical Education Recreation show in Kansas City, and recruited teachers to be pickleball advocates in their schools.
In 1978, a book titled “Other Racquet Sports” was published, which further helped to spread the news about Pickleball.
Growing the game in the 80s
In 1982, Sid Williams made significant contributions to the development of pickleball by organizing tournaments in Washington State. He also enjoyed playing in his own tournaments. Then in 1984, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (USAPA) was founded.
The mission of the organization was to advance the sport of pickleball in the United States. The first Executive Director and President was the aforementioned Sid Williams, who led the association from 1984 to 1998, a 15-year charge.
Perhaps one of the most important developments was the codification of the rules in Pickleball’s first ever rule book, published in March of 1984.
Also, in 1984, Arlen Paranto, father of Steve Paranto, who took second place in the first pickleball tournament and went on to become a national pickleball champion, created Pickleball’s first composite pickleball paddle.
Steve was a physical education teacher who applied some physics and analytical reasoning to discover that the wood paddles currently used for pickleball were far too heavy.
He compared the ratio of the weight of a tennis racquet to the weight of a tennis ball. He then compared this ratio to the weight of a wooden pickleball paddle to the weight of a pickleball. He determined that they needed to come up with a much lighter paddle material.
So, he talked to Arlen Paranto, his father, who worked as an engineer at the Boeing company building airplanes. Arlen created a pickleball paddle made out of layered honeycomb panels, which were used as floor materials and structural materials on airplanes.
With a lighter paddle, dinking became a much more successful practice in Pickleball, shots became more strategically placed, and pickleball rallies became longer. Arlen produced approximately 1000 paddles made with honeycomb/fiberglass and honeycomb/graphite cores.
Steve and Arlen went on to found the Prolite Pickleball Paddle company and were inducted into the Pickleball Hall of Fame for their work on the development of the pickleball paddle and in turn, the development of the sport.
Arlen eventually sold his Pickleball company to Frank Candelario, who succeeded Sid Williams to be the second USAPA Executive Director and President.
Going nationwide in the 90s
By 1990 Pickleball was being played in all 50 states. In 1992, pickleballs were being mass produced by Pickle-Balll Inc, using a custom drilling machine. The company was owned by McCallum, Prichard, and Bell, the founders of pickleball.
Then in 1997, at age 72, Joel Prichard passed away. In his professional career he was Washington State’s Lieutenant Governor from 1988 to 1996, but he will also be remembered as one of the founders of the game we love.
By 1999, with the advent of the internet, the first pickleball website, “Pickleball Stuff” sold pickleball paddles, balls, and gear. In addition, the website shared information about court locations.
Establishing the USAPA in the 2000s
In 2005, a new corporation, USAPA was founded. This time, the acronym represented the USA Pickleball Association. The corporation quickly became a non-profit, consolidated a database of places to play, and encouraged other websites to discontinue their own links and to use the consolidated database that became places2play.org.
In 2006, Bill Bell, another one of Pickleball’s founders passed away at 83 years of age.
Then, in 2008 the USAPA published the first “Official Tournament Rulebook”. This same year, Pickleball was included in the National Senior Games. Additionally, pickleball became a national phenomenon when it got coverage in a Good Morning America segment that included a live demonstration.
In 2009 the first national tournament was hosted by the USAPA in Buckeye, Arizona. The tournament attracted 400 players from across the United States and Canada.
Pickleball goes international
In 2010, the International Federation of Pickleball was founded to foster the development of the sport internationally.
By 2018, USAPA pickleball membership reached 30,000, there were 7,000 pickleball venues across the country and more than 21,000 courts to play on. The national championships were moved to Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indians Wells, California and attracted 2,200 participants. The event was live-streamed on ESPN-3 and there was a cash prize of $75,000 for the winner.
Then, in 2019 the third founder, Barney McCallum, passed away at the age of 93. Fortunately, he had the pleasure of seeing the sport he created become a national phenomenon. He attended the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships at Indian Wells in 2018 and watched with happy tears in his eyes.
The pickleball explosion and COVID 19
In 2023 Pickleball was described by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) as the fastest growing sport in the USA for a third year running. According to their report, there were 8.9 million pickleball players in the United States, with a whopping increase of 4.1 million players from the previous year in 2022.
Certainly part of the explosion in popularity can be explained by the relative ease of becoming adept at the game, and the relatively lower physical demands of the sport compared to tennis.
But one of the big reasons that pickleball grew so much in popularity at that time was due to the impact of Covid 19.
To limit the spread of the deadly and then little-understood virus, people around the globe were forced to quarantine for long periods of time, which caused loneliness and boredom, leaving many searching for new ways to have fun and socialize.
As it turned out, pickleball provided the perfect answer for many, offering a relatively safe outlet for friends to socialize, exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
Masked players ventured out onto the courts in droves for the first time to escape the isolation and began to fall in love with the sport. They found that they could play pickleball with very little direct contact with others. Even so, many wore masks and gloves to further minimize their exposure.
A pickleball tradition of tapping paddles at the end of a game as a sign of good sportsmanship was replaced with a simple waggle of the paddle to acknowledge a game well played.
Many of those players became hooked and couldn’t get enough of the game, and before you knew it, you started to hear the word pickleball from friends, family and in the media constantly.
Money starts pouring into pickleball
With the buzz around pickleball growing, it was only a matter of time before money started flowing into the sport by those looking to grow the game and make money in the process
In 2018 the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) was formed, and hosted its first pro tour the following year. PPA events feature the world’s top pros, which compete in bracket events for prize money and gold medals. Amateurs also have a chance to play with the top dogs by moving their way up through qualifiers.
In 2022, a different type of league, Major League Pickleball (MLP), was founded by billionaire Steve Kuhn, In MLP events, teams of players are drafted at the beginning of the season, and go on to face off against each other at various stops around the US.
Celebrity players and investors
Pickleball also began to attract the attention of celebrities, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Larry David, Melinda Gates, Jamie Foxx, Giuliana Rancic and George Clooney, among many others.
In addition, NBA star Lebron James, along with Draymond Green and Kevin Love invested in MLP Pickleball. Joining them in investing in Major League Pickleball was tennis player Naomi Osaka and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Shortly after Brooklyn Nets baller Kevin Duran purchased an expansion team, with NFL superstar Tom Brady buying his own expansion team.
Not only did these professional athletes choose to support the sport financially, but they are also playing it enthusiastically. In an Instagram video Brady says, “Look, I’ve been trying to find a way to extend my professional sports career, in my 40s, even into my 50s, 60s, 70s! As long as I can, right? And I think I got the answer,” he said. “Seems like everyone else has the answer too — pickleball!”
Kevin Durant and business partner Kleiman have also put out videos of themselves enjoying the game on the court.
The PPA and MLP merger
In 2023, the PPA MLP decided to merge under one parent company rather fight it out by poaching each other’s players with exclusive contracts. The consolidation of the two professional pickleball tours was motivated by a $50 million investment from private equity firm SC Holdings, along with team owners.
While the PPA is known for its bracket style tournaments and the MLP for its team-based coed league format, merged together, the unified professional field is marketed to meet both needs.
The holding company plans to streamline access for fans and provide more lucrative opportunities for players. The two unique formats of the PPA and MLP will be preserved, however.
In 2022, MLP was sponsored by Margaritaville, and was rebranded as MLP by Margaritaville. In 2023, the MLP expanded from 8 to 24 teams.
Pickleball’s founders had only intended to entertain the kids in the backyard, but instead created a sport loved by fans around the globe. It may have begun in Washington State, but it’s now an international phenomenon.
If you love the sport and love to travel, don’t forget to bring your paddle. You can play pickleball across the globe, from Thailand to Portugal to Costa Rica. And, because of the inherent characteristics of the game, it’s going to continue to grow.
1965 Sport was invented by Prichard, Bell and Barney McCallum
1967 First Permanent Pickleball Court on Bainbridge Island
1972 First Pickleball Corporation was formed by the founders
1975 Article Published about Pickleball in National Observer
1976 First Pickleball Tournament in Tukwila, Washington
1978 Pickleball mentioned in book about racquet sports
1982 Sid Williams starts organizing tournaments in Washington State
1984 United States Amateur Pickleball Association is formed & Arlen Paranto makes the first Fiberglass/Nomex Honeycomb paddle
1990 Pickleball has spread across the United States
1992 Pickle-Ball Inc. manufactures pickleballs
1997 Joel Prichard passes away
1999 First pickleball website sells merchandise
2001 Pickleball is played in Arizona’s Senior Games
2003 Pickleball is played in Canada
2005 USAPA United States of America Pickleball Association is founded
2006 Bill Bell passes away
2008 First official pickleball rulebook is published; pickleball is played at the National Senior Games; demonstration is aired on Good Morning America television show
2009 First national tournament in Arizona
2010 USAPA goes international with the creation of the IFP (International Federation of Pickelball)
2015 USAPA membership climbs to 15,000 members
2016 First US Open pickleball championship is played; Places2Play lists 4,600 locations to play
2019 Barney McCallum passes away; U.S. participation in pickleball grows to 3.3 million players; USAPA membership reaches 40,000.
2023 USA Pickleball, formerly USAPA, reaches 70,000 members; 8.9 million players in the United States; 11,000 locations to play listed in Places2Play.