The fast-growing sport is a hybrid of tennis, ping pong, and badminton—and seniors are crazy for it.
At first, they went easy on me. I was a novice, so Donna, Carol, and Linda—all residents of Leisure World, a sprawling retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland—let me warm up with a few rallies, and encouraged me to practice my serve. After five minutes, they decided I was ready to play.
Carol, clad in a shimmering green and purple track suit, served. I returned, pleased to have already mastered the basics. Then Carol reached up and sliced the ball back over the net, expertly landing it just inside the line. “That was her kill shot!” said Donna, as I jumped and lunged to no avail.
I’d been invited to spend the morning with Leisure World’s pickleball club, which meets five times a week. The club is only a couple of months old; it started in August with 35 members, and now it’s up to 49. Donna Leonard, the club president, says other residents see them playing, find their curiosity piqued, and sign up. Members range in age from 50-something to over 80.
“It’s a very active, dynamic sport,” John Tremaine told me on a quick break from the action. Tremaine, who is 83, first played the game in Florida in 2008 and helped introduce it in the Washington, D.C., area. A former tennis player, he likes that it doesn’t give him tennis elbow and that it has a strong social aspect, since the players stand close together.
Despite its cobbled-together appearance, pickleball has a specific and well-attested origin story. The game was invented in 1965 by a U.S. Congressman, later the lieutenant governor of Washington state, Joel Pritchard. In an effort to stave off boredom one weekend, Pritchard and a friend took to the badminton court on his property, but they couldn’t find a full set of equipment, so improvised with ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball. They created rules for their new game and taught friends to play.
There’s some disagreement over how the game got its name, but the most common explanation is that it was named after the Pritchard family dog, Pickles.
Decades later, pickleball has caught fire, and is often touted as the country’s fastest-growing sport. That claim is hard to verify, but to listen to Justin Maloof, the executive director of the USA Pickleball Association (yes, that’s a thing), it’s hard to imagine otherwise. Maloof rattles off numbers over the phone: From January 2013 through this September, a period of 33 months, the number of places to play pickleball in the United States has more than doubled. There are now about 3,500, and the total is rising by an average of 72 new places per month.
“Around 2010 was when we really started to see a spike in the Sun Belt states: California, Arizona, Florida, certainly, and Texas,” Maloof says. “I think what’s happened is, as the sport has grown in those areas—and of course you get a lot of snowbirds being exposed to the game—they’ve taken the sport with them. It’s migrated back to their home communities back East and up North.”
Once you’ve played it, the attraction of pickleball—for seniors, especially—is clear. It’s fast-paced, low-impact, and as Maloof notes, familiar; anyone who’s played a racquet sport before can quickly get the hang of it. Because the court is small (it can fit into half or even a third of a tennis court), and doubles games are standard, players run a lot less than they would in tennis. Pickleball also can be played year-round, inside or out.
The game is spreading so fast that it’s having an effect on community infrastructure. Enthusiasts are lobbying parks-and-rec departments to provide pickleball facilities. After Surprise, Arizona, opened outdoor courts in 2012, officials from nearby Scottsdale visited to take a look. Now Scottsdale is building eight dedicated pickleball courts in the city’s Cholla Park.
In places where land is scarcer and retirees are thinner on the ground, pickleball is more likely to share space with other sports than get purpose-built facilities. Recreation departments can accommodate a pickleball league simply by striping lines on existing athletic courts. Montgomery County, Maryland, where Leisure World is located, has started adding pickleball lines to some public tennis courts.
If the game keeps growing—potentially beyond the senior demographic, a trend Maloof says he’s starting to see—thousands of tennis courts around the country could soon be used for pickleball. Some, perhaps, more for pickleball than for tennis.
Maloof even hears stories about people deciding where to retire based on the local pickleball scene. According to him, one of the sport’s official “ambassadors” in Phoenix gets frequent phone calls from prospective homebuyers, asking about different neighborhoods.
“Folks are calling specifically to find out if they have pickleball,” Maloof says. “If they don’t, they move onto the next location.” So if you see new lines appear on your local tennis court, you’ll know why.