Pickle Power! The family-friendly sport that’s taking over Utah
Jul 22, 2019 05:08PM
By Justin Adams
Pickleball players at Butler Park in Cottonwood Heights. (Justin Adams/City Journals)
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
You’ve probably seen them at a park near your house: miniature-sized versions of tennis courts filled with people smacking a yellow Wiffle ball back and forth. The courts (and the sport itself) seem to have sprung up overnight. If you haven’t played yet yourself, you surely know someone who does. Someone who has probably asked you with all the zeal of a missionary deployed by a crazed sport-religion hybrid: Do you play pickleball?
Interest in pickleball has doubled in just the last three years, at least according to data from Google Trends. A sport that most people hadn’t even heard of five years ago is now a third as popular as tennis and half as popular as bowling. It’s already far surpassed sports like disc golf and badminton.
While the sport is certainly exploding nationwide, nowhere is its popularity greater than here in Utah. More Utahns search for information about pickleball than residents of any other state, again according to Google Trends. Arizona is close behind, and most states’ interest in the sport is less than half of what it is in Utah.
So why is pickleball gaining popularity so fast? And why is Utah at the head of its growth? But most importantly, why is it called pickleball?
The game got its start in 1965 in Washington state, when Joel Pritchard, a state congressman spliced together a few elements from various sports during a hot summer weekend at his home on Bainbridge Island.
Pritchard’s backyard had a badminton court, but when he couldn’t find any badminton equipment, he instead grabbed some ping pong paddles and a plastic ball. Along with his friends and family, Pritchard developed a set of rules for this newly invented game over the course of that weekend.
As for how it got its name, legend has it that it’s named after the Pritchard family’s dog. “The Pritchards had a dog named Pickles, and you’re having fun at a party, right? So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball,” said Barney McCallum, one of the sports’ cofounders.
The sport grew slowly over several decades. By 2003, there were only 39 known places to play the sport in North America, according to the USA Pickleball Association website.
However, that same year the sport was added to the Huntsman World Senior Games, a multi-sport competitive event that draws seniors from all over the world to St. George, Utah.
“There were questions about whether a sport named pickleball would ever be the next big thing,” said Kyle Case, the current CEO of the event. “But we just decided to get behind it and see where it goes.”
It ended up going all over the country.
“Those players came from all over Utah but also the United States,” Case said. “They had a great experience then went home and taught their friends how to play. In a lot of ways, that first year in 2003 really created a big opportunity for it to spread.”
An old folks’ game?
The fact that one of pickleball’s first big exposures to the world came through an event targeted towards seniors is no coincidence. The mechanics and rules of pickleball create a sport that is accessible to just about everyone, including seniors. In return, the senior community has been a driving force in its growing popularity.
Because pickleball courts are a fraction of the size of tennis courts, players don’t need to cover as much ground, particularly since doubles is the most popular form of the sport. This allows players, who maybe aren’t as quick as they used to be, to still excel at the sport.
“What I find in my senior community is their mobility might not be there, but once they get to the line, they have all the motion they need,” said Linda Weeks, a Parks and Rec employee in Farmington who has been helping organize pickleball tournaments in Utah for years.
Weeks thinks the sports’ ability to cater to both the young and old is a big part of why it’s grown so fast in Utah, where there are big families who like to be outside doing activities together. In one recent tournament, Weeks said a grandmother and her grandson ended up taking second place. “I don’t know what other kinds of sports out there would lend themselves to that kind of generation gap,” she said.
Drew Wathey, a spokesperson for the USA Pickleball Association told the City Journals that demographics changes have a lot to do with the sports’ growing popularity. “Society is getting older. A lot of the baby boomers are hitting retirement age and they’re not able to be quite as active as they used to be, and pickleball is a natural transition,” he said.
The high demand for pickleball courts is visible all over Salt Lake valley. In Cottonwood Heights, three recently installed pickleball courts proved to not be nearly enough to meet demand and so three additional courts were just added. In Bluffdale, Salt Lake County’s Wardle Fields Park, which opened in 2017, included 16 pickleball courts, and in a possibly symbolic move, not a single tennis court.
“Sometimes sports run in cycles. Tennis has hit somewhat of a plateau,” Wathey said.
At the Huntsman World Senior Games, registrations for pickleball have surpassed that of tennis, according to Case. “Four years ago we opened up registration at midnight. Within two minutes, the pickleball registration was full,” he said. Because of that event, the Games have changed their registration process for pickleball to be more like a lottery.
The possibility of pickleball supplanting tennis is ironic, considering the overlap of the two similar sports. One of the first articles about pickleball appeared in Tennis magazine and some of the best pickleball players are former tennis pros.
Weeks agreed that pickleball seems to be putting a dent in the tennis community. A tennis player and coach herself, she said she knows several former tennis players who switched to pickleball as their primary sport. Pickleball also makes more sense when municipalities are trying to decide what amenities to include in their public parks, she said. “Some of those tennis courts that aren’t looking very good, it makes more sense to put in pickleball courts. They are more family friendly and don’t take up as much space.”
With pickleball quickly gaining ground on tennis, it may be only a matter of time before a pickleball equivalent of Wimbledon is broadcast on ESPN.
Is it possible that pickleball is a passing fad? A sport that spikes in popularity for a few years but eventually dies out leaving thousands of empty unused courts in its wake? Not likely, according to Wathey.
“I don’t really see a downturn for the sport anytime soon,” he said. “It’s incredible. More courts are being built, and we don’t see a plateau in that. They’re popping up all over the country.”
Another factor that will help the sport continue its rise is its affordability, Wathey noted.
Pickleball sets that include 2 to 4 paddles and balls range from $20 to $60 on Amazon, whereas a single high-quality tennis racket can easily run north of $100. That low barrier of entry combined with an ever-increasing supply of courts means more people are getting into the sport.
“I never would have guessed that it would have been to this extent already,” Weeks said. “I talk to people every day who say, ‘What’s up with this pickleball thing, can you explain it to me?’”