The History of Pickleball: What’s Up With Its Name?

One of the most common questions that pickleball players have when they start playing pickleball is: why is it called pickleball? Unlike certain sports, like football or basketball, pickleball’s name doesn’t seem relevant to what the game actually is — but the history of pickleball can give us some clues. 

As strange as it may seem, the name “pickleball” ties into the sport’s origins. Although, fans can’t say for sure which origin story is exactly true. Keep reading for an in-depth look at the history of pickleball and where this competitive game got its name. 

Where Did Pickleball Originate?

Although there are now pickleball tournaments held globally, this sport is not a new game. It started out as a family game in 1965. On Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle in Washington state, on a sunny, Summer afternoon, three congressmen, Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell, came back from a round of golf to find their kids bored and in need of some entertainment. 

Their solution was simple: come up with their own game to engage their kids and keep them occupied throughout the summer. The three fathers were resourceful and used the tools at their disposal. That meant utilizing a badminton court, table tennis/ping pong paddles, and a Wiffle ball. 

Amazingly, it wasn’t long before friends and family began to catch on to the fun, and word-of-mouth about pickleball spread beyond Bainbridge Island. The more popular it became, the more pickleball evolved. For instance, rather than using table tennis paddles, people began to make their own pickleball paddles from plywood and a jigsaw. 

Why is it Called Pickleball? 

How did pickleball get its name? A few different theories exist. According to Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, she began to call the sport pickleball because it reminded her of the oarsmen on a pickle boat, who were leftover crew members from other boats. Like the leftover crew members, pickleball also used elements from sports like tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. 

However, one of the sport’s founders, Barney McCallum, has a different story. He says the name pickleball came from the Pritchard’s family dog, Pickles, who would run after the ball while they played. Pritchard’s dog was a good boy!

Since both claims come from the game’s founders or family members, it’s difficult to pinpoint which one is accurate.

It’s also important to note that there wasn’t an official name for the sport during the early years of pickleball history. It was only once it became popular that it needed an official name, and “pickleball” was used. 

What began as a creative way for a couple of families to kill time quickly evolved into something much more significant. At first, pickleball was just a family past-time for Pritchard, Bell, and McCallum, but two years after its creation, Joel Pritchard constructed the first permanent pickleball court in the backyard of a friend, Bob O’Brien. 

The History of Pickleball

By 1972, pickleball had gained traction in the Pacific Northwest, and a new corporation, Pickleball Inc., began to create custom equipment for the sport. The innovation meant that players no longer had to substitute table tennis paddles or create their own wooden paddles. 

In 1975, a National Observer article called pickleball “America’s newest racquet sport,” and the first pickleball tournament was held in 1976 at an athletic club in Tukwila, Washington. Most of the tournament players were college students who didn’t understand much about the sport but were eager to learn. 

Not only did this publicity jumpstart pickleball’s popularity throughout the country, but in 1984, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (USAPA) was established to further the sport’s growth on a national level. That same year, the USAPA published pickleball’s first official rulebook, making it easier for tournaments and organized clubs to standardize their gameplay. 

The rulebook has changed throughout the years as pickleball evolved. It contains information about which specific equipment to use and guidelines for gameplay. It even covers where to play. 

However, it wasn’t until 2009 that pickleball had its first national tournament in Buckeye, Arizona. The event brought almost 400 players from across the country. Two years later, the USAPA launched the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) to help the sport grow internationally. 

A few other noteworthy inclusions in the evolution of pickleball include Pickleball Magazine‘s launchand the first-ever US Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, FL, in 2016. The National Championships were the first time pickleball ever aired on national broadcast TV, and they’ve continued ever since. 

Final Thoughts

While not everyone may be able to agree on pickleball’s namesake, they can agree that it’s the fastest-growing sport in America. In a little less than 60 years, pickleball evolved from one family’s summer pastime to an international sport with millions of players. The history of pickleball is fascinating, partly because of its humble origins. But its climbing popularity shows just how much it’s caught on and transformed over the years.

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