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Pickleball is Exploding as a Popular Sport

Invented by golf fathers to occupy bored children, pickleball has grown into a game for all ages.
Michael & Sherry Martin
Invented by golf fathers to occupy bored children, pickleball has grown into a game for all ages.

Since its creation in 1965, the sport of pickleball has gained a huge following among players of all ages, but still has room to grow.

A sport born in Washington state in 1965 has crept across the country in the following decades, and it has blossomed in popularity to the point where national championships can be seen on YouTube and sports channels. It’s pickleball, and it’s been described as a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong.

First, let’s get the name out of the way. According to University of South Carolina Sport and Entertainment Management Professor Andy Gillentine, the origin of the name is a little vague, but the most plausible source is that it came from the idea of the “pickle boat” coming from crew (rowing) competitions where spare rowers from various teams would be cobbled together to make another “pickle boat” to compete with their own teams. A more fun story is that “the family at whose home the game was invented had a dog names Pickles, and every time the ball was hit out of the court, Pickles would retrieve it. Fun, but not true. Though the family had a dog named Pickles he said, the dog wasn’t acquired until a couple of years later.

Pickleball was invented by a man who came home from golfing to find his kids bored, and cobbled together a game with found equipment. The game evolved from a badminton net, a wiffle ball and ping pong paddles into the modern version with its own paddles, balls (both a hard wiffle-type and a softer ball are used) and court dimensions, which are smaller than a tennis courts. The game is very adaptable, said Gillentine. It’s an indoor or outdoor sport. “It can be played just by putting down tape on a basketball court. You can mark it off on an existing tennis court.” And, of course, specific, dedicated pickleball courts are now built as well.

The strategy of pickleball is different from tennis, said Dr. Karen Pettus, retired director of USC’s Student Disability Resource Center, who has transitioned from tennis to the new sport. “I’m used to playing very powerful…to try to hit it past somebody. And that’s really not the strategy for pickleball,” she said. “The strategy is to hit it very lightly and try to …force your opponent to make an error, where if you lob it over somebody’s head, you’re more likely to lob it out of bounds, and the error is on you.” Especially if the wind catches the ball during an outdoor game, an event that has caused much laughter in Pettus’s and Gillentine’s groups.

Though invented for children, pickleball is played by all ages, and has found favor with many seniors because there is not much running, as tennis requires. Gillentine listed other reasons for its appeal: “The games are short. In roughly 15 minutes, you’ve finished your game.” That makes it easy for large numbers of people to rotate in and out of games. And large numbers of people are attracted to the game, which makes it a very social activity.

“It’s the social value as much as anything,” asserted Pettus. “The number of people that we’ve met in the past three months outside of our typical circle has just been phenomenal. There’s this caring in the community about other ppl I think is just as important (as the sport). Because I’m finding that…when I was working, that was a family for me, that was a community that I had. And so this pickleball group fulfills that need for community, and that need for fellowship and friendship.”

Pickleball players are passionate about the game. They’ve filled many local recreational facilities and are lobbying for more courts, even traveling to neighboring towns to play (Columbia residents Gillentine and Pettus often play in Camden). Mt. Pleasant city athletic division chief Nat Hansen said his department has worked to meet the demand.

“In the town of Mt. Pleasant in the past four years, we have added 12 indoor courts, and eight outdoor courts.” Though they’re not dedicated courts, he said, but “shared courts in a gym that also has basketball and volleyball, or it’s on tennis courts that obviously has tennis…the fact remains in that short amount of time we’ve added 20 courts.”

In a surprising twist of circumstances, Gillentine said the COVID-19 pandemic has actually helped increase the popularity of pickleball. The sport saw a more than 20 percent increase nationally in people playing over the last year, he said, “because now they had time, and they wanted to be outside in the fresh air. You can maintain that social distance.” Ironically, “all the things that we needed that were taken away from us in the pandemic, this game really offered. So it grew.”

That growth has fueled hopes that the game created by golf fathers to occupy bored children will someday become on Olympic sport.

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.