In A Pickle
Fast-growing game loved by (almost) everyone
By R.E. Graswich
As an old sportswriter whose tastes favor unfashionable games such as boxing, horseracing and indoor track meets, I was suspicious when I heard people talk about pickleball.
What’s that? I figured pickleball involved cucumbers and suburban backyard parties and lazy summer afternoons. A silly fad.
Then I began to get emails from pickleball devotees inviting me to play. The emails bubbled with enthusiasm and fellowship. The authors insisted I’d love their little game. I normally respond right away to emails. These I deleted.
A couple of months ago, I heard a sports club in Roseville was ripping out seven tennis courts and replacing them with 24 pickleball courts. Seriously? I’ve hung around sports clubs and know they don’t demolish prime real estate for fun. There has to be long-term economic benefits, supported by data.
I figured either tennis was succumbing to the death grip that snuffed the life from boxing, horseracing and indoor track, or pickleball was legit. Whatever the truth, it was time to check out pickleball.
The first step was to find somewhere to watch the game. As luck would have it, there were tennis courts near my home, and one day I noticed people setting up a small net across one of the courts. The net was perpendicular to the regular tennis net, bisecting the court.
I’d seen this setup before, when coaches teach children how to play tennis. But these weren’t children. They were many decades beyond drinking age—old enough to remember when prizefights, horseraces and indoor track meets were big deals.
A young man—apparently a coach—demonstrated various moves and a few strategies. With minimal fuss, the group began to play and was soon batting a plastic ball over the net with oversized pingpong paddles.
The crowd was far more animated than most tennis players who tend to approach their sport with joy of a parole board. These pickleballers wanted to have fun. They weren’t obnoxious, but neither were they slaves to traditional courtside manners and decorum. I was intrigued.
My second step was to check out pickleball history and equipment. Turns out I was right about the summer backyard origins, but wrong about pickleball being a new fad.
The game was invented in 1965 by a Washington state politician named Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell when their kids got bored with badminton at Pritchard’s estate on Bainbridge Island.
From that inauspicious start, pickleball percolated on the extremities until around 2010. Then it began to gain favor as an activity for older people.
In recent years, the game has, as fans say, exploded. Participation topped 3 million in 2019. National pickleball championships became destination events. A pickleball hall of fame was established—a sure sign of something.
As for equipment, it’s cheaper than golf. The composite paddle resembles a rectangular frying pan. The ball is neon plastic with holes. Nets can be folded up and carried home. Footwear is sensible. Headbands are optional.
Finally, I checked with the Roseville tennis club that’s building pickleball courts. Mark Tappan of Spare Time Sports Clubs was happy to explain the goals for his Johnson Ranch facility: “This will be a regional pickleball center, the second largest in California after a club in Newport Beach.”
He says, “The beauty of pickleball is how easy it is. You can play in no time. You don’t need coaching. When you start out, you’ll always find someone who will help you out. It’s an extremely social sport.”
Spare Time has six clubs in the Sacramento area, Elk Grove to El Dorado Hills. Tennis remains the cornerstone, but Spare Time sees a big future in pickleball.
“It’s not as staid as tennis and we have to be careful to keep those members happy,” Tappan says. “They aren’t happy about losing courts, but pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. right now.”
Sorry I deleted those emails. Where do I sign up?
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.