In April 2020, a few weeks after Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” mandate went into effect, Todd Wine and his friends headed to a vacant school parking lot in Ballard to do something a little out of bounds: play pickleball.
Wine had just received a net for his birthday and was aching to try the quintessentially Northwest sport sometimes described as “giant pingpong.” The issue? Sport clubs and courts around the city were locked down. So, paddles (and beer Koozies) in hand, Wine and his friends plotted out the lines of a pickleball court on the asphalt with white gaffer tape and started hitting the customary perforated plastic ball. The surface wasn’t perfectly smooth, but the ball bounced just fine — and Seattle Guerrilla Pickleball was born.
This was half a century after the game itself emerged, invented in a backyard on Bainbridge Island in the summer of 1965. Three dads came up with the game — basically, a spin on tennis and pingpong using a whiffle ball on a badminton-sized court — to keep their kids entertained. The sporty innovation (named after the Pickle Boat in rowing, for which oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats, although some claim a family dog named “Pickles” had something to do with it) took off and became a beloved Northwest summer pastime.
Now, the sport is booming, with demand for courts surging and big money flowing into pro pickleball, TV deals and gear. And, if Senate Bill 5615 succeeds this year in the Washington Legislature, pickleball could even become Washington’s official state sport.
These days, Wine and other Guerrilla Pickleball friends play on a “real” court in Georgetown, a city-operated tennis court transformed into four pickleball courts by setting up two portable pickleball nets (about 36 inches high and 22 feet wide) on either side of the tennis net. The group has grown into a few dozen people who play every week, if the weather allows.
“I think it’s going to be a very large sport in short order,” says Seattle Guerrilla Pickleball regular Fred Annett, as he gears up for a game on a cold and clear Sunday. Like many Seattleites, Annett got hooked on the sport during the pandemic. “COVID was hard on things, especially team sports — but pickleball actually grew,” he says.
The game — which is akin to tennis in spirit, though the ball, paddles and court size are different and the scoring is simpler — has a few key features that have made it especially appealing during the pandemic. It can be played outdoors, has a relatively short learning curve and, thanks to the tightness of the court layout, it’s easy to chitchat with people on and off the court.
In part because of these benefits, the Sport and Fitness Association last year declared pickleball “the fastest growing sport in America.”
The game has picked up fans abroad, too: “This past week, we went to Mexico,” one of the Guerilla players notes, as pickleballs are whacked back and forth on the concrete Georgetown court. “And we found a pickleball court there!”
In the past year, Tanzania, South Africa, Colombia and Russia, among other nations, have all joined the International Federation of Pickleball (founded in 2010 and headquartered in Arizona), bringing the total member countries up to 68 — a 360% increase since 2019.
“It’s gone from being a backyard sport to being played globally,” says Kate Van Gent, a pandemic pickleball convert and state Sen. John Lovick’s “pickleball liaison,” as she jokingly puts it. Van Gent is rallying support for the bill after a local columnist pitched Lovick, D-Mill Creek, the idea to make pickleball the Washington state sport. Just this month, the bill cleared a first hurdle in the Senate, and a Senate vote will be scheduled likely sometime in February.
“Through the bill, we want to grow the sport, honor the legacy of the sport’s founders [former U.S. Rep.] Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, honor Washingtonians who have helped grow and popularize the sport, and attract government and private investors to build pickleball facilities on par with California, Arizona and Florida,” Van Gent wrote in an email.
Van Gent took up pickleball in the early days of the pandemic, when her Pilates gym closed. “When they shut it down, I lost my social connection,” she recalls. A public Nextdoor invitation to play sparked her interest. Now, she’s hooked: “I went from sitting on my couch eating ice cream to winning a gold medal in women’s doubles at the Marysville City Pickleball League,” she says.
Lack of courts
The return happens in a fraction of a second. If you could watch it in slow motion, you’d see Tammie Luc lifting her arm and paddle up high, intercepting the yellow ball and — with just a flick of the wrist — smashing it over the net. “Too much!” Luc and pickleball partner Nicholas Nguyen both exclaim after the ball lands just out of court lines painted on the high-gloss gym floor of the International District/Chinatown Community Center.
A few minutes later, Luc repeats the move, sending the ball low and deep — right past the legs of her tall opponent as he heads closer to the net. It’s in. 6-3. “Nice shot,” Nguyen tells Luc, as they tap their paddles in congratulations.
Luc is a seasoned player who hits the court up to four times a week, she says, standing in the hallway to make sure we can hear each other over the grunts, cheers and ball percussion. She would play more if she could, but it’s hard to find good courts, Luc says, particularly in Seattle’s south end, which has historically seen underinvestment in parks and sports fields. Luc lives on Beacon Hill and often drives to Green Lake, Kirkland, Shoreline or Bellevue to play.
There just aren’t enough options in the south end, Luc and others say. A May 2021 petition to the Seattle Parks and Recreation department, signed by more than 800 people, even claimed “neglect” by the department, noting that “Southeast Seattle Pickleball players do not have access to any local outdoor playable courts.”
“Playable” is key here: While there are tennis courts south of Interstate 5, many are not set up for pickleball, Luc says. In some cases, players either bring their own nets or use the tennis net, which is wider and higher than a pickleball net, making it harder to play. Plus, some outdoor courts lack lights, ruling out evening play. And, Luc adds, “a lot of community centers have pickleball, but it’s catered to seniors because it’s from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” she says. “It’s not catered to the worker.”
Seattle Parks and Recreation has added more pickleball court lines to existing tennis courts across the city, and plans to line 4 more tennis courts for pickleball this summer, in part to address some of these criticisms and meet increased demand. (City of Seattle reservation data show pickleball attendance for outdoor city courts increased more than 20-fold from 2019 to 2021.)
Councilmember Tammy J. Morales, who represents South Seattle and the Chinatown-International District, also carved out an extra $50,000 in the most recent city budget for lining 25 more pickleball courts, noting that “funding would be targeted to low-income communities where there is a deficiency in pickleball courts.”
The parks department noted the location of the courts will likely be determined by a “pickleball study” currently underway, and that some of that funding could also go toward purchasing dedicated pickleball nets but likely not any new lights. (Morales did not respond to requests for comment.) The study should also help identify a location for a new outdoor facility with 12 to 16 courts.
Seattle is not alone in trying to make sure its infrastructure matches the growing demand: Across Washington, interest in the sport has soared, and cities including Shoreline, Bellingham, Kirkland, Bellevue, Pullman, Marysville, Edmonds and Mercer Island are adding lines to tennis courts, making dedicated courts and offering classes for first-timers. In Kirkland, the newfound popularity of the Everest Park courts has caused some parking challenges in the neighborhood, as well as noise complaints.
On a recent Sunday morning, Green Lake Park was still quietly waking up, with I-5’s white noise interrupted only by a pickleball’s plick-plock and the occasional “good shot!” or “beautiful play!” uttered by players. The thermometer had just climbed past 32 degrees, and parts of the lake near the courts were still frozen. It was so cold that steam came out of players’ mouths as they cheered each other on.
Clay Hess, a 60-year-old Boeing engineer, is one of the dedicated pickleball players who’s here at 8 a.m. every weekend. He drives down from Mukilteo to put his paddle on one of the four-paddle “‘stacks,” an informal way of signing up for the next group game. Asked why he likes pickleball so much, he doesn’t hesitate: “For me, the primary thing is the people,” he says. “Everyone is so happy coming out on the court.”
Also among Hess’ top reasons for playing: his health. Hess has diabetes and high blood pressure. “Within a year’s time, playing outside, I dropped my A1C, which is the diabetic measure for sugar, from a 13 down to a 6. That was huge,” he says. “My blood pressure went way down and back in the normal range.”
But, as Hess and almost any pickleball player will tell you: that’s more a lucky side effect than a fitness goal. The social aspect, the community and the “drop-in” play — whereby games happen with whoever is there at the time, strangers or pickleball acquaintances — is what makes the sport tick. Often, a pickleball player will bring an extra paddle, just in case a newbie shows up, and many old-timers are insistently welcoming. Nearly every conversation or interview for this story ended with an invitation (“Will you play with us?”) or assumption (“You’ll play with us, right?”).
“That’s part of why I say I love the people, because you’ll find people like my son — who plays at a [high-skill] 4.5-5.0 level — playing with people that are brand new, trying to help them understand and play the game,” Hess says.
Also part of the appeal: Most people can start playing right away, because pickleball is generally less technical than many other ball sports. “Anybody can pick this up in a heartbeat,” says Tuyen Nguyen, a Green Lake pickleball regular, who often helps teach people how to play. “Whereas if you’re playing tennis, you can hit one ball and then you’re chasing balls for a while. This is much easier,” Nguyen says. But he adds a word of caution: “To get better, it takes a lot of work.”
The game’s apparent straightforwardness belies the strategy, techniques and tricks that set excellent players apart from good players. Smashing or serving without sending the ball too far afield can be harder than it looks. Well-executed dinking — just barely getting the ball over the net — is an art. And deft players will often move their paddle just so, putting a spin to the ball so that it bounces differently than you’d expect, like a curveball in baseball.
“It’s a lot of finesse,” says Nhan Duong, wiping the sweat off his face after an intense match at the International District/Chinatown Community Center. “The older people tend to have a lot more finesse. They really tire your patience out. Because the young ones come in and they just want to slam and smack and everything. And then they get beaten because the older people just slowly get the ball back, and it’s just the perfect shot so you can’t do anything,” he says. “It’s a life lesson for patience.”
Also a question of patience: making it as a pickleball pro. “If you really want to advance and want to be a good player, it takes a lot of time, dedication,” says Devin Schmidt, a local player and pickleball instructor. Schmidt often competes in tournaments. Chances to compete professionally have increased tremendously in the past few years, another sign of the sport’s rise and professionalization.
In 2021, a new elite pickleball league launched in Texas, and this year, Spokane is hosting the 2022 Pacific Northwest Regional Championship. Many of the elite games are now broadcast, thanks to a recent partnership with Fox Sports, and a recent deal from the Professional Pickleball Association has opened the door for sports betting in pickleball. (Can we expect pickleball fantasy leagues next?)
Last year, Dundon Capital Partners — a Dallas-based private investment firm with holdings in NHL hockey teams, Top Golf and real estate — acquired a majority ownership of the Kent-based company Pickleball Central to “accelerate the growth and reach of America’s fastest growing sport.” Meanwhile, companies like Chicken N Pickle and Volli have zeroed in on the leisure market with dine-and-drink pickleball facilities.
“Investors and increased sponsorships means pickleball is getting attention,” Anna Copley, co-founder and chief operating officer of PickleballCentral.com, wrote in an email. “It’s no longer seen as a recreational activity for seniors in Florida, but a serious professional sport with athletic, exciting competition that’s fun to watch,” she says, adding, “We will see pickleball played competitively in high schools and colleges. We will see every park that has a couple of tennis courts convert one of those courts to four pickleball courts.”
But pickleballers have their eye on an even bigger prize: the 2028 Olympic games in Los Angeles. Some advocates hope that by then, pickleball will be officially recognized as an Olympic sport. A long shot, perhaps. But Pat Murphy, president of the International Federation of Pickleball, the world governing body of pickleball, is hopeful. “We believe that pickleball has a very good opportunity to become an Olympic sport because of its exploding popularity and rapid growth,” he says.
Regardless of the recent boom, there’s a list of hurdles to leap over before the International Olympic Committee will even consider official recognition. The sport needs to be played actively in 70 countries (the current tally stands at 68) and meet a host of other requirements. Murphy says he’s taking things step by step. Just as with pickleball, patience and preparation are key. It’s just a matter of keeping your eye on the ball — and smashing it when the time comes.