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Nov. 29, 2022

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Why is Washington’s pickleball so popular?

Sport’s appeal to all ages, low cost, ease of rules among factors

4 Photos
Amara Erickson, 5, left, smiles as she plays her first game of pickleball July 2 at Lakeridge Playfield in Seattle. Pickleball is the official sport of the state of Washington. The game was invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965.
Amara Erickson, 5, left, smiles as she plays her first game of pickleball July 2 at Lakeridge Playfield in Seattle. Pickleball is the official sport of the state of Washington. The game was invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965. (Daniel Kim/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Boom. Clap. Whoosh. Clip. Biff. Whap.

The sounds rattle around a sun-soaked concrete court next to Green Lake. The soundtrack, or perhaps drumbeat, of Seattle’s summers is becoming unmistakable.

More than 100 strangers have gathered on a Monday evening in late August to play one of America’s fastest-growing sports: pickleball.

Simultaneous games cycle in and out. Each takes about 20 minutes. Twelve courts are packed side by side at this venue. Four players to a court and two per side. Along the sideline a crowd of 50 players awaits — ready to rotate in. It’s a dazzling display of shuffling, swiping, swatting, serving and spiking.

Players are young and old. There are seasoned veterans and exuberant rookies.

It took tennis player Ross Mower — just days into his pickleball career — a couple games to get used to the rules.

Mower says the game is “a great mix of social interaction and a lot of really high-quality play.”

He added: “Someone even let me borrow their racket. It’s very welcoming.”

Zach Liebman, who joined the frenzy three months ago, calls pickleball “literally the perfect in-between between tennis and Ping-Pong.”

Liebman explains the surprisingly simple solution to the chaotic scene. Players waiting for a game stack their paddles next to the court based on their skill levels. Four paddles stacked together means a game is set, and the direction of the paddles dictates what kind of game you can expect. If the handle is facing the court, you’ll find advanced players, down the line for intermediate, and facing away is for newbies.

“My first time, I didn’t realize I joined an advanced game,” he jokes. “I just got my (butt) kicked.”

Among this symphony of sportsmanship, one thing is abundantly clear: This sport is for all. Players cite the low cost of equipment, minimal rules and ease on the joints and the social factor for the boom.

The sport can be played in doubles or singles, and is played with composite paddles and plastic balls with holes. Players hit the ball back and forth, with only one bounce allowed per side, while keeping it out of the no-volley zone or “the kitchen.” The first team to 11 points (winning by 2) wins.

You can’t go far without seeing, hearing or reading about the sport. And everyone is in on it. Storm guard Jewell Loyd likes to play before practice to stay limber, and former NFL star Drew Brees is an avid player and investor. It’s played from grade schools to prisons and everywhere in between. Heck, even Bill Gates is a self-proclaimed “pickler.”

Last year, the sport grew to 4.8 million players in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association — a participation growth rate of nearly 40 percent from 2019. There are two pro tours and a professional league, which was formed last year.

But the spike is mainly happening among casual players. In Seattle, courts are in high demand. Five years ago, only five courts existed across the city. Today, there are 77 and counting, according to Oliver Bazinet, a senior planner with the city’s parks and recreation department.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee dubbed pickleball Washington’s state sport, signing the bill on Bainbridge Island, which is where the story began.

As an ingenious accident.

Bainbridge Island roots

On a summer day in 1965, two pals, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard, returned home after golfing to find their kids lazing around with nothing to do. The men shooed the kids out the door and came up with an activity for the dispirited bunch.

There was a badminton court on a slab of concrete nearby that rarely was used. Bell and Pritchard searched for birdies and rackets but came up empty-handed. They improvised, and grabbed a Wiffle ball and a pair of Ping-Pong paddles. The group took turns swatting the ball over the net, blissfully unaware of the discovery.

The following weekend, Bill and Joel invited their neighbor, Barney McCallum, down to join a game. McCallum, an entrepreneurial man at heart, helped the pair craft a more detailed set of rules. The net was lowered, lines were drawn, and guidelines were set.

“It was purely a one-afternoon deal,” said Barney’s son, Dave McCallum. “Joel was a very charismatic, creative guy. And Bill Bell was equally as charismatic and an off-the-beaten path guy, and they started hacking around. There was no design at any time that they were going to invent a game — certainly not a sport.”

Over the following weeks and months, friends and neighbors filtered through the Pritchards’ yard to play and observe “the game” — as it was originally called. Whenever the balls started bouncing, people flocked to the court.

It was a hit with the neighbors, but McCallum said it didn’t gain popularity for years.

“The game spread very slowly,” McCallum said. “There was no explosion thing like what’s going on now. People would get introduced to it over on Bainbridge, then they’d go back into their neighborhoods in Seattle or somewhere or take it inside to a gym and have their friends play it.”

As for the name? Well, that’s up to interpretation.

The common belief is that the game was named after the Pritchards’ dog Pickles — a small, fluffy black dog — and that the ball happened to belong to Pickles. Pritchard’s wife Joanne said she named the sport after the pickle boat, which is the term used to describe the last boat to finish in a race.

Like the name’s origin, everything about this simple, silly-sounding Washington-born sport’s genesis in 1965 is preserved in memories. Scenes of watching the adults play heated games on “Court 1” tucked between overgrown bushes and underneath Douglas firs still run through Dave McCallum’s mind, but he cautions “none of this is written down.”

The three friends and founders have all passed, leaving Dave McCallum and the next generation of pickleball pioneers to take the game forward.

Spreading the game

Flash forward 57 years, and the soundtrack of summer beats on in Kirkland, as a class of eager intermediate players learns techniques for the all-important first three shots of a pickleball game. Roger BelAir instructs this group, along with several others throughout the Seattle area’s east-side neighborhoods during the summer months.

The adult students — mostly singles and couples breaking into the game — practice serves under the watchful eye of BelAir, who pauses the action for quick pickleball history lessons.

BelAir, 75, is a pickleball disciple. After a career in finance, the Edmonds resident picked up the sport and was hooked.

“I just loved it. They offered it to the local health club I belonged to. It’s fun, it’s easy to play, it’s easy on the joints. It’s very social as you know. … I started playing all the time just like so many other people playing these days.”

BelAir has taught the sport for six years and spreads it almost anywhere he’s allowed. That includes taking the game behind bars.

He has taught pickleball classes at correctional facilities across the country, including Rikers Island in New York, Chicago’s Cook County Department of Corrections and Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

BelAir said the idea was sparked in 2017 while watching a “60 Minutes” segment on Cook County Jail.

“I’m watching the segment and tell my wife, ‘These folks ought to be getting some exercise. They ought to be playing pickleball,’ ” BelAir said. “They could be learning some life skills like being a better teammate and learning from mistakes.”

After a letter-writing campaign, BelAir eventually got through. He visited the Chicago jail for what he says was “an incredible experience.”

BelAir met with two dozen incarcerated people in the maximum-security complex, and said initially they had little interest in him or what he was saying. But once they got to the court, things changed.

“There was a 180-degree transformation where they had absolutely no interest in anything I had to say, to listening to every word,” he said. “The best way I can describe it is they turned into kids on a playground. They were laughing, giggling, giving people high-fives.

“I’ve been back there three times. The last time I felt like a rock star.”

BelAir believes he can deliver a message with the basic rules, which he says can be picked up in about 90 minutes.

“I’m really trying to get them the benefit from exercise. I’m getting them to try to learn some lessons. But I’m also teaching them about rules and the importance of rules and getting along with one another.”

Pickleball has been a popular daily activity at Washington State Penitentiary and is played weekly at other local prisons, including Monroe’s Correctional Complex. Each prison has offered the sport for over a decade. While COVID-induced staffing shortages forced pickleball to stop at Washington State Penitentiary, the sport has resumed at local prisons since May.

A sport for everyone

Fran Myer wants everyone to try pickleball.

“If I can do it, anybody can,” she says.

In 2018, Myer became the first woman to be inducted in the 21-member Pickleball Hall of Fame, but she didn’t pick up a paddle until she was 42. She grew up in Seattle’s Chinatown International District and said the only athletic activity she did growing up was ballet. But she gave pickleball a try with friends at the University of Washington’s recreation center.

Now 76, Myer has three decades of pickleball and more than 200 tournament medals — including 84 golds — under her belt.

Her secret?

“I wasn’t very good, but I kept showing up,” she said. “I was so unnatural at the sport. I remember just telling myself, ‘Get the ball, hit it over the net.’ ”

In addition to her wins on the court, Myer is credited with creating pickleball’s first digital footprint. In 1999, Fran created pickleballstuff.com, which featured information about the sport, basic rules, places to play and became the first retail website for gear, including paddles and balls.

“I had this crazy business model. People would call and say, ‘I need this paddle,’ and I’d send it with an invoice and tell them, ‘If you like what you get, send me some money.’ ”

“People would say, ‘Wow, you’re so trusting,’ ” she joked. “The first order of $600 we sent out, we really held our breath.”

Myer’s driving ambition — like those of so many others — is to spread the sport as much as possible.

“I feel like the Forrest Gump of pickleball,” she said. “Nothing I’ve ever done with pickleball has ever been intentional. I just wanted to find a sport where I could feel healthier and more active.”

The hard work has paid off, and it’s allowing people of all age groups and athletic abilities to get out and compete.

“The benefit to me of pickleball is that the average person is just out there getting exercise,” said Scott Stover, who now lives at the property of pickleball’s original court with his wife Carroll — a cousin of McCallum.

About 17 percent of players are 65 and older, and 33 percent are under 25, according to Sports & Fitness Association’s 2022 report on the sport. Sixty percent of total participants are men and 40 percent are women, according to USA Pickleball.

“It’s just exploding. People play it, they love it. And they want to play it more,” BelAir said.

The explosion isn’t done. Seattle’s parks and recreation has plans to build dedicated pickleball sites with lights in the north and south, each site with a budget of about $1.6 million for eight courts and lights, according to Bazinet.

Even for the sport’s first ambassadors, the growth is staggering.

“Pickleball started here, but then we kind of turned our back and it kind of went away,” Stover said. “Then you find out, ‘Oh, people are playing in Florida, or California or Arizona.’ And you turn around and you think, ‘Wow, this is kind of a big deal.’ “

McCallum, whose father with Bell and Pritchard are honored on a plaque that sits next to Court 1, can only shake his head in disbelief of what his family helped create on that summer day in 1965.

“This whole thing was pretty much an accident,” he said. “I kind of shake my head, because it’d be hard to design something that works as well with as many attributes as pickleball.”

The soundtrack of summer beats on.

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