November 27, 2022

How pickleball became America’s fastest growing sport

Naples, FloridaOn a sweltering August afternoon in the prison yard at Collier Juvenile Detention Center,…

Naples, FloridaOn a sweltering August afternoon in the prison yard at Collier Juvenile Detention Center, a young inmate swings a paddle and makes contact. Thwack! A perforated yellow ball soars over a net and high into the air, nearly striking curled barbed wire lining the top of a security fence. It drops well outside of an imaginary baseline. Point for the opposition.

“Don’t hit it too far, bro!” a teammate says as another playfully chases the one who smacked it out of bounds. The rest of the players burst into laughter, and so do the guards.

This scene explains a lot about why the sport of pickleball—a mash-up of tennis, badminton, and ping pong—is catching on across the United States: It’s competitive yet highly social, provides a great workout, and can be picked up quickly by most anyone, anywhere.

These juvenile offenders are new to the game, but their coach is determined to use the sport to help break down barriers and make a positive impact. “We want to keep our shots low,” says J. “Gizmo” Hall, a professional pickleball player and motivational speaker, as he tosses another ball to the next server.

In nearby Fort Myers, Hall and his mixed doubles partner Jennifer Schumacher are helping to build the first pickleball court inside a juvenile detention facility. He also hosts at-risk youth and their families at his home, a permaculture and pickleball farm in Goldvein, Virginia. He’s hoping to inject some diversity into the game.

“When I go to a tournament, and we’re talking about tournaments with upwards of 2,000 people, I can probably count on both of my hands the number of African American or nonwhite players that I come into contact with,” Hall says. “And I’m missing a finger on one hand.”

Hall’s backstory—like many of those he teaches—is weighed down with trauma. The child of a single mom, he says he was “raised by the streets.” He was expelled from seventh grade and later started selling drugs, then at age 20 he survived a shooting. Hall tells his audiences he’s grappled with mental health issues since he was young, and still does, but a paddle in his hand changed his life. Now he’s paying it forward.

“Pickleball is for everyone,” Hall says.

Where the game was born 

It’s a sunny afternoon in July on the polar opposite end of the nation—Washington’s well-to-do Bainbridge Island—where madrone trees cast shadows over the world’s first pickleball court.

The asphalt is cracked but that doesn’t faze the pickleball pilgrims who visit during organized tours. Some even get down and kiss the ground, says Scott Stover, who owns the property with his wife. It was here that Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a bill declaring pickleball the state sport of Washington.

Pickleball was born in 1965, after a group of children whose families were staying in summer homes complained about being bored. One boy’s father, the late Congressman Joel Prichard, challenged them to make up their own sport.

The children disappeared and their parents soon found them playing an unrecognizable game on Prichard’s badminton court, smacking a plastic ball back and forth over the net with a variety of racquets and paddles. The adults joined the game and Prichard and his neighbors—international businessman Bill Bell and envelope entrepreneur Bernie McCallum (both deceased)—started creating rules.

To keep the game fun for everyone, the men required an underhand serve. When a tall neighbor started spiking the ball at the net, they created “the penalty zone,” now called the “non-volley zone” or the “kitchen,” an area that can’t be entered unless the ball bounces inside it. “From day one,” McCallum told the author of the definitive book on the sport, History of Pickleball, “we fought the idea of big people, powerful people, dominating the game.”

Depending on whom you ask, the name either came from Prichard’s dog, Pickles, or his wife Joan. The way the game borrowed from several sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats.

What’s certain is that pickleball’s original fanatics all came from the same social circle, well-heeled Seattleites and government officials. Three-time Washington Governor Dan Evans built a court at the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia in the ‘70s, and “dinner at the mansion with pickleball” became a regular feature of charity auctions. Microsoft’s Bill Gates had a court at his childhood home, according to his blog, GatesNotes.

By the mid-70s the game spread to exotic places where early adopters vacationed, such as Maui and Indonesia. Seattle school districts implemented it within athletic programs. By 1975, Pickle-Ball Inc., was founded and starter kits that included paddles, balls, and a net were sold by mail order. In 1984, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association was created to grow the sport on a national level.

They put a paddle in his hand

Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in northern Virginia, Hall had never heard of pickleball. Nobody he knew had either. He didn’t really play sports and the person he looked up to at the time was the neighborhood drug dealer.

“He had a nice car. He had all the money. He had the pretty girls,” Hall says. “He seemingly was doing everything he wanted to do in life.”

One day, the police kicked in the dealer’s door and arrested him. Then, following a rowdy weekend with friends in Washington, D.C., Hall got into an argument that ended with bullets flying and a gun pointed at his face. He was shot four times—twice in his right leg, twice in his hand—and underwent nine surgeries. The loss of his ring finger serves as a constant reminder of his second chance at life.

Hall joined a volunteer fire department, became a certified EMT, went through the fire academy, and in 2015 was hired as an EMT with a Virginia fire department. As he worked out at a gym near the fire station one day, Hall heard an unfamiliar sound.

Thwack!

Several septuagenarian women were playing pickleball and offered to teach him. Hall declined but a few days later the ladies placed a paddle in his hand. He fell in love with the game. Six months later, he left the fire department to become a professional pickleball player.

“Once I step onto that court and start hitting that ball…I can only focus on what’s right here in front of me,” he says.

Pickleball mania

Hall is not alone in his passion for the game. A 2022 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association called it the fastest growing sport in America, with 4.8 million players nationwide (a near 40 percent increase from 2020). There are now an estimated 35,000 courts in the U.S., more than double the number from five years ago. Pickleball Central, the largest retailer in the U.S. for gear, was recently purchased by Tom Dundun, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, and LeBron James just bought a stake in a new professional pickleball team. Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and former world No.1 tennis player Kim Clijsters also have joined an ownership group that bought an expansion team for the 2023 Major League Pickleball season.

Networks like CBS, Fox Sports and the Tennis Channel broadcast pickleball matches, while the number of books, websites and podcasts on the sport continue to multiply. Some speculate the flourishing professional athletes seem destined to compete in the Olympics one day. 

(Read about an Olympic sport once called ‘snurfing’.)

Not everyone is a fan, of course. Just ask the tennis players furious about their courts being taken over, or the neighbors who find the incessant thwacks aggravating. Other public spaces are also being annexed by pickleball-mad aficionados, and sometimes the conflicts escalate. In April, Hall was surprised to receive an email from an attorney. “I was just like, wait, what did I do wrong?” he jokes.

The lawyer, Hollynd Hoskins represented Arslan Guney, a 71-year-old volunteer pickleball teacher whom friends nicknamed “the Mayor of Pickleball.” He had been arrested and charged with criminal mischief, a felony, after drawing lines for a pickleball court with a Sharpie on the floor of the Denver Central Park Recreation Center. Hoskins wanted to create a GoFundMe account to raise money to fix the floor. She contacted Hall because she wanted any extra funds to go toward pickleball programs for at-risk youth.

Hall told her about his plans to build the first dedicated pickleball court at Southwest Regional Detention Facility in Florida. Hoskins loved the idea, and after Guney settled with the city of Denver, $2,200 was left over for the detention center court in Fort Myers, which will be installed by the end of the year.

“I was glad that I was able to be part of the resolution instead of the problem,” Hall says.

‘It’s completely transformed our life’

Backed by towering conifers of Shoreview Park, the scene at the Seattle Metro Classic—the largest outdoor pickleball tournament in Washington— is jubilant. Balls thwack back and forth on 18 converted courts, the pickleball lines brighter than those of the tennis courts beneath. The competitors, product vendors and tournament staffers all seem to have a story about the impact of pickleball on their lives.

Marianne Johnson started the tournament with her husband Patrick in 2019, just five years after picking up the sport, which she credits for turbo-charging her social calendar. “It’s completely transformed our life. It’s transformed our marriage, our social circle…” says Johnson, a recreation specialist for the Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services Department in Edmonds, Washington. “We actually built a pickleball court in our backyard. We have pickleball parties.”

Washington State Senator John Lovick, who introduced a bill to designate pickleball the official state sport, is also in attendance. Pickleball helped him lose weight and get his blood pressure under control. “Win, lose or draw, I just absolutely love playing,” Lovick says.

Like Hall, Lovick wants to see pickleball become more accessible. While the cost of gear is relatively low—as little as $1 for balls and $15 for low-end paddles—Lovick plans to donate some of these items to the library near his house. “So just like a kid comes to check out a book, he or she can check out paddles and balls and bring them back a few days later,” he says. “The idea of getting more diversity in the game is wonderful.”

A new player emerges

Back at the Collier County Juvenile Detention Center in Naples, dark clouds have moved in over the yard and the young inmates are beginning to feel droplets on their arms and faces. The score is 7-7. Competition is heating up. There are four players on each side, instead of the usual two, but no one cares. The point is not to bog inmates down with more rules, but to get everyone involved and excited. It’s working.

“You can really bang the ball,” a lanky kid with hair pulled tight into six ponytails says to Hall. “You send it flying.”

“Y’all started slow but y’all turned up now,” Hall says.

“They are focused,” agrees one of the guards. “It’s wonderful to see them get passionate about it.”

When the score reaches 10-10, the pressure is on. The lanky inmate finds the zone, and on the final point, hits a winner down the line. He keeps running after the shot for a victory lap around the court, hooting like a bird. He’s in mid stride when thunder cracks and rain pours down. The soaked teenagers run for the door, laughing and trash talking, before the guards line them up for a search and escort everyone back inside.

“I appreciate each one of y’all coming out and trying this,” Hall calls after the juveniles as he takes down the net in the rain. He’ll leave the gear behind, so the players can practice on their own until he comes back.

“Anybody and everybody who wants to experience pickleball, they should,” Hall says. “If everybody played pickleball, imagine how much more of a peaceful place this world would be.”

Based in Northern California, Ashley Harrell covers the outdoors as an associate editor for SFGATE. She also writes guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kendrick Brinson is a freelance documentary, commercial, and editorial photographer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. See more of her work on her website or on Instagram.