A Brief History of Pickleball

Although it was invented in the mid-1960s, the buzz around pickleball has only just begun in the last couple of years. Let’s walk through a brief history of pickleball and how it’s become the fastest-growing sport in North America.


The Origins of Pickleball


In 1965, Washington Congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell returned to Pritchard’s Bainbridge Island home one summer Saturday to find their families bored. Pritchard’s property had an old badminton court, but without any badminton equipment or a full set of rackets, they couldn’t start a badminton game. Instead, they improvised with ping-pong paddles and perforated plastic balls.


They played a game with the badminton net at a height of 60 inches, volleying the ball over the net. Yet, as the weekend progressed, they noticed that the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface. This resulted in the net being lowered to 36 inches.


The following weekend, Pritchard and Bell introduced Barney McCallum to the game at the same court. Using the badminton rules as their guide, the men created rules for the game. Their ultimate goal was to create a new sport that the entire family could play together.


Just two years later, in 1967, Bob O’Brian — Pritchard’s friend and neighbor — had the first permanent pickleball court constructed in his backyard.


How Pickleball Began to Grow


Over the next few decades, pickleball slowly picked up speed. In 1972, a corporation was formed to protect the creation of pickleball.


The National Observer published an article about pickleball in 1975, and Tennis magazine published an article in 1976 about “America’s newest racquet sport.”


That same year, the first known pickleball tournament was held at the South Center Athletic Club in Tukwila, Washington. The participants were primarily college tennis players who knew little about pickleball. To prepare for the tournament, they practiced with large wood paddles and softball-sized plastic balls.


In 1982, Sid Williams — known as a pickleball pioneer — began to play and organize tournaments in Washington state.


In 1984, real progress was made for pickleball as a sport. The U.S.A.P.A. (United States Amateur Pickleball Association) was created to organize and perpetuate the growth and advancement of the game on a national level. They published the first rule book in March of that year. Sid Williams served as the first Executive Director and President of the U.S.A.P.A from 1984 to 1988. His successor, Frank Candelario, served until 2004.


Arlen Paranto, a Boeing industrial engineer, created the first composite pickleball paddle made of fiberglass/nomex honeycomb. This material was originally used in commercial airline floors. He made around 1,000 paddles before selling the company to Frank Candelario.


In 1990, pickleball is officially played in all 50 states. Joel Pritchard passed away at the age of 72 in 1997. While he served as the Washington State lieutenant governor for 8 years, he is better known for creating the sport of pickleball.


In 1999, Pickleball Stuff — the first internet website pertaining to the sport — launched and provided players with information, equipment, and products.


Pickleball in the 2000s


At the start of the new millennium, pickleball had a good foundation. The last several decades had created the sport, published a rule book, brought it to all 50 states, and established tournaments and unique equipment.


In 2001, the game of pickleball was introduced for the first time in the Arizona Senior Olympics. To that point, this was the largest event ever played.


In 2005, a new corporation for the sport — USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) — was founded. Their website activity continued to increase, signaling the popularity of pickleball, and they created a single reliable source for players to find sites to play. This website still exists today — places2play.org.


In 2006, Bill Bell, one of the original founders of the sport, passed away at the age of 83.


The USAPA established the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) to help foster the growth of pickleball worldwide in 2010. Five years later, USAPA reached 10,000 members for the first time. Additionally, Places2Play continued to grow and completed 2015 with 12,800 indoor and outdoor courts.


In 2020, USAPA officially rebrands to USA Pickleball, which aligns more consistently with other US sports governing bodies.


Final Thoughts


Last year, in 2021, USA Pickleball reported reaching the 50,000-membership milestone and ended the year with 53,000 members. This was a 43 percent increase from the previous year and the largest single growth year to date from the organization. They credit their significant jump in popularity over the last several years in part to media exposure with several national news segments and top-rated publications highlighting the sport.

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