What the Heck Is Pickleball—and Why Is Everyone Playing It?

Updated: Mar. 28, 2022

Everything you need to know to start playing the fastest growing sport in America.

Never heard of pickleball? Well, you’re probably not alone. But know that you’re missing out on one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S.

According to Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) in Surprise, Arizona, membership in their organization has grown tremendously in recent years–from 4,000 members in 2013 to 20,000 in August 2017. Here’s what you need to know about this growing sport.

Couple playing pickleballAhturner/Shutterstock

So what is pickleball?

In 1965, Congressman Joel Pritchard was entertaining friends at home. According to Maloof, “He had a badminton court, and the story goes that they couldn’t find the badminton equipment. So they got creative and hand-made some paddles. Then they experimented with a couple of different types of balls and settled on a whiffle ball. That’s how it started.”

And how did it get its name? It’s named for Pritchard’s dog Pickles, who kept stealing the ball!

But it wasn’t until 2005, when the USAPA was established, that the sport really began to take off. Some 20,000 people participated in the sport in 2017, up from just 4,000 in 2013.

How to play pickleball

Played on a court roughly one-third the size of a badminton court, pickleball uses a modified tennis-style net, wooden or graphite paddles, and a lightweight plastic ball. It combines elements of tennis, racquetball, badminton, and table tennis, which Maloof believes is one reason it’s become so popular.

“The skill set is so similar to pretty much any paddle or racket sport,” he explains. “If you’ve played tennis, badminton, racquetball, or table tennis, it’s going to seem very familiar. So the learning curve is almost non-existent. You can get on a court and play even if you’ve never even heard of the sport before.”

Why is pickleball so popular?

As well as being easy to learn, the sport can be played at almost any age. While many racket sports rely on speed and power, pickleball also requires finesse.

“There is definitely a strategy that is unique to pickleball,” says Maloof. “That enables players of all ages to play against each other and stay competitive.”

In fact, the USAPA National Championships has a category for both men and women over 85, with the oldest player over 100 years old. But the sport is also taught in schools and colleges, with the youngest USAPA member being just eight.

Why is it such good exercise?

Pickleball is a great sport for all-round fitness. It exercises all the major muscle groups, provides a cardio workout, and improves dexterity, mobility, agility, and balance. Because it involves bursts of faster movement, it also serves as a form of interval training.

Where can I play?

New courts are springing up all over the country. The USAPA website offers a ‘Places to Play‘ section which is adding around 90 locations a month, including both indoor and outdoor venues.

Otherwise, though, the game can be played almost anywhere there’s a hard, flat surface. With a portable kit and a roll of tape, it’s possible to set up a court on a driveway or backyard within 30 minutes.

Where can I buy the equipment?

Until recently, equipment was only available through specialist outlets. But due to the growing popularity, this has changed.

“Now there are over 70 manufacturers that are making paddles and balls, and they’ll be available like never before,” says Maloof. “We’re definitely excited about that.”