Pickleball origins - why is it called pickleball?

picture of Brandon Mackie
Brandon Mackie

Updated on: Jun 10, 2022

Pickleball paddles, balls and a water bottle on top of a bag

Riddle me this: Where would you find two kitchens in a 20-foot-by-44-foot plot? Where would you meet ‘picklers’ hoping not to hit a ‘falafel’? Where could you see Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, and Jamie Foxx rubbing shoulders in shorts?

The answer? On a pickleball court, of course! Pickleball is everywhere right now, it’s a sport that seems to have appeared out of thin air to suddenly become a household name. The last three years have seen an astronomical rise in its popularity, with an estimated 5 million players in the USA today.

It’s the ‘fastest growing sport in America,’ according to the Economist, and has a serious chance of being included in the 2028 Olympics!

But where did it come from? Who invented it? And why? Was it an ancient Roman pastime, or another lockdown boredom-buster? What’s all the fuss about, and what does it have to do with pickles?

With these questions bouncing around in my mind, I set out to find out everything I could about this exciting sport and to pass on the fruits of my research to you, my fellow Pickleheads. Read on to find out all about the origins of pickleball.

What is pickleball?

OK, before we get ahead of ourselves, I think it’s a good idea to make sure we fully understand what pickleball actually is. Pickleball is a racket sport that combines elements of ping pong, badminton and tennis.

It can be played by two or four players, on a court that’s very similar to a badminton court—except that the net is lower, about waist height for an adult.

The paddles used are lightweight, flat and smooth, and are made of wood, plastic or composite. The balls are plastic and have holes (between 26 and 40 holes, to be precise).

That’s the setup; we’ll go into much more depth about rules and gameplay in future articles.

The history of pickleball

Graphic detailing why pickleball is called pickleball
  • Summer 1965: Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell invent the first version of the game in their backyard. A week or two later, Barney McCallum comes on board to help develop and hone the paddles and rules.
  • 1967: The first ever official Pickleball court is built: on Bainbridge Island, in the yard of a neighbor, Bob O’Brian
  • 1972: Pickleball Inc. is founded, by Joel Pritchard,—among others—to help supply the growing demand for the best pickleball paddles, balls, and nets.
  • 1976: Pickleball hits the media, with an article in Tennis magazine describing it as ‘America’s newest racket sport’. In the same year, the first-ever pickleball tournament is held in Tukwila, WA, just down the road from its home place.
  • 1984: THE USA Pickleball Association is created to promote the growth and participation in Pickleball across the United States. They also publish the sport’s first official rulebook. Also this year, a Boeing engineer, Arlen Paranto, makes the world’s first composite paddle from the ultra-lightweight materials used in aircraft flooring.
  • 1990: Pickleball has broken every state border, and is now played in all 50 states.
  • 1999: ‘Pickleball Stuff’, the first ever dedicated pickleball website, is launched.
  • 2005: USA Pickleball is formed. It maintains the official rules, sanctions tournaments, provides player ratings and organizes the annual USA Pickleball National Championships Tournament.
  • 2009: The first National Open Pickleball Competition is held in Surprise, Arizona.
  • 2010: The International Pickleball Federation (IFP) is created to perpetuate the international growth and development of pickleball.
  • 2022: Pickleheads, the digital home for Pickleball players, is launched. It’s the fastest way to discover local pickleball courts in over 4,000 cities.

Curious to learn more about pickleball’s fascinating history? Check out pickleball hall-of-famer Jennifer Pritchard’s book: History of Pickleball: More Than 50 Years of Fun! It's a great read!

When was pickleball invented?

Let’s start right at the beginning. It was the summer of ‘65. Far from the world of the swinging sixties and the California dreamers, a couple of middle-class dads in the Seattle area arrived home after a long day’s golfing.

They were spending their vacations with family in their summer homes on the idyllic Bainbridge Island, but one of the teenage sons was thoroughly bored.

Upon hearing this, the men, in typical dad style, bored him further by explaining how when they were kids they made up games to entertain themselves.

An image of a boat in the river by Bainbridge Island

Unconvinced, the teenager challenged them to prove it. Cue Hollywood montage of the dads rummaging through the garden shed, pulling out all the sports equipment they can lay their hands on, as their bemused families look on.

The family’s badminton court was chosen as the field of play, but no rackets presented themselves, so ping-pong paddles were subbed in, along with a wiffle ball. And the rest, as they say, is pickleball history…

The assembled families soon realized they were onto something, and spent the following weeks working out rules and fine-tuning the game.

They quickly decided to drop the net down from badminton height to 36” to allow shots to bounce—a major development for the game.

The surrounding community got in on the action and was soon hooked. Within a couple of years, one of the neighbors built a dedicated pickleball court, cementing (!) the game in the neighborhood tradition.

Who invented pickleball?

So who were these geniuses who harnessed their childlike creativity to create such a fun new sport?

They were not ‘normal dads’, but rather Washington state congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend, and successful businessman, Bill Bell.

The pair quickly enlisted help from their friend Barney McCallum—a man of great practical skill—and this trio became the founding fathers of pickleball.

The men’s families also played key roles in the early development of the game. They tried out different sizes and shapes of rackets, many of which were crafted in McCallum’s wood shed.

They also spent months trying out different rules and court configurations to perfect each aspect of the game we know and love today.


Brandon Mackie holding the Prince Response Pro pickleball paddle

Pritchard continued what was a very long and successful political career, while Bell and McCallum excelled as a businessman.

All three men were lifelong supporters of pickleball, remaining regular players into their old age.

Why is it called pickleball?

So where did the ‘pickle’ in pickleball come from? The story that’s often told is that the Pritchard family dog was called Pickles, and that he used to chase the ball around as they played.

However, in 2021 Wayne Dollard of Pickleball Magazine made it his mission to find out the true, definitive history, and uncovered a very different version.

The dog tale, it appears, was just a funny story that somehow became accepted as fact. Pickles the dog didn’t appear on the scene until years later, and was named after the sport, rather than the other way around.

To understand the true origins of the name, we need to know a little about the culture of the time—particularly around this community of wealthy Seattleites and their summer vacations on Bainbridge Island.

Among this set, rowing was a popular activity, and Joan Pritchard, Joel’s wife, had followed the regattas since her college years.

Two rowing teams in rowing boats

In college rowing, the phrase ‘pickle boat’ or ‘pickup boat’ refers to a boat whose crew is made up of the ‘leftover’ rowers—a crew thrown together from the non-starters of the various teams.

When the Pritchards came up with this made-up, impromptu game that used bits and pieces of equipment from other sports, the pickle boat race came to Joan’s mind. And that’s how ‘pickleball’ got its noble moniker.

When did pickleball become popular?

In the beginning, pickleball remained a fairly local sport, played mainly in the Seattle area. But its popularity grew organically in local communities by word of mouth.

Key to pickleball’s rapid spread is its inclusivity, as it can be played and enjoyed by everyone, from children to seniors.

In fact, Barney McCallum has explained in interviews that the game and its rules were designed with inclusivity in mind at all times. The aim was to encourage competitiveness while ensuring that physical strength didn’t become an unfair advantage.

In a 2010 interview, McCallum reminisces, “From day one, we fought the idea of big people, powerful people, dominating the game. This (the double bounce rule and the extended non-volley zone) put every size and shape (of person) right into it.”

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The game grew steadily in popularity over the years, spreading across the United States, and slowly making its way across the world.

The last few years, however, have really seen an explosion in the game’s recognition. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Topline Participation Report noted a 39.3% growth rate over a two-year period.

The game now has nearly 5 million players in the USA alone, and the International Pickleball Federation has over 60 members, with new nations joining every month. The global takeover of pickleball shows no sign of slowing.


The bottom line

So that’s my potted history of pickleball all wrapped up. I hope I’ve shed some light on its colorful history and given you a rundown of all the major pickleball facts.

If there are any questions you have, or anything I’ve missed out, write me a comment and I’ll be happy to answer!

And we’d love to hear your favorite pickleball words and phrases. We hope to write an article all about pickleball terminology in the near future. Until then, Pickleheads, get out there and get playing, and enjoy every minute!

About the author
Brandon Mackie
Brandon is an avid writer and co-founder of Pickleheads™. Once a competitive tennis player, Brandon can now be found these days honing his dinks on pickleball courts near Phoenix, Arizona.
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