Perhaps like many of you, I had no idea what Pickleball was. The name itself seems like a joke a middle schooler would makeup or some odd alternative to beer pong that some college students made up and got pickles banned from their dorm. It may be surprising to know that Pickleball is in fact a sport and a popular one at that! But what is Pickleball, how do you play, and most importantly, why “Pickle” ball? 

Three women playing pickball

I asked around town on who I should talk to and came across the name Ro Reddick, an official Pickleball ambassador for Jacksonville. She gave me the lowdown on this oddly named sport and answered several of my questions. At the current age of 63 years old, Ro made it clear at the start of our conversation that she is passionate about Pickleball. “I try to go anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week,” she told me, listing off several parks you can typically join a game. Now before we get ahead of ourselves, what exactly is Pickleball? Well, according to The 2019 Pickleball Fact Sheet:

““Pickleball is a court sport played on a badminton-sized court with the net set to a height of 34 inches at the center. It is played with a perforated plastic ball, like a wiffle ball, and composite or wooden paddles about twice the size of ping-pong paddles. It can be played indoors or outdoors and is easy for beginners to learn but can develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players. In addition, the game has developed a passionate following due to its friendly, social nature, and its multi-generational appeal.”

In other words, Pickleball is a fusion of tennis, badminton, and ping pong but those are just elements of it. The focal point is its friendly, community-driven nature. “It’s a social sport” Ro explained, having been involved with sports and competitions throughout her life. “Unlike other sports, it’s very much a people sport. You have open play days when any and everybody can play no matter their level. Open play is definitely the most sought after time to play because people want to mix and match who they play, which helps everyone get better. There are groups of people who compete in tournaments, but they are often at Baymeadows so places like Jarbo Park in Neptune Beach allow for amateurs to experts to play.” I wondered if there were cliques, but Ro assured me that most players are very welcoming and they often try to not play with the same person. During an open play day, you will play with everyone at least once as everyone gets scrabbled up. Standard play involves a 2v2 match though it is possible to run a 1v1 game but it can be rather difficult (we’ll cover the rules of the game later in this article). “Having 4 people on a court that isn’t huge, it’s very easy to talk to each other, not just your teammate. As a rule, you always introduce yourself before a match. That’s just standard. Everybody, for the most part, is just very supportive. You should talk to your partner while playing but not everyone is as verbal. If I see my opponent make a great play, I’m going to compliment them on it. It’s just something a lot of people do that I haven’t seen in other sports.” There are definitely people who take the game perhaps too serious for most casual players but from what I understand, at its core, Pickleball is fun, laidback, and encourages players to talk to each other. “You all feel part of something” When going to a new location, you don’t need to worry about a change in rules. Ro told me that she will often take off work to go to locations she hasn’t been normally able to visit and play in order to see how things are being run. The only difference seems to be how people alternate into the game. 

How big is Pickleball? How far does it go?

“It’s one of the fastest-growing recreational sports in America. There are over 2 million players”. According to the SFIA, or the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, in 2017 the estimated Pickleball players within the United States were a reported 3.1 million players in the US – an increase of 12% over the previous year. SFIA is the premier trade association for top brands, manufacturers, retailers and marketers in the American sporting goods and fitness industry 1906. In 2016, SFIA produced a detailed Pickleball Participation Report which provided the following details: 

• 1.57 million were “Casual” participants who play 1-7 times a year 

• 930 thousand were “Core” participants who play 8 or more times a year 

• The rate of growth in participation from 2014 to 2015 was 1.8%, from 2.462 million to 2.506 million (Note: this growth rate is likely underestimated since 2014 was the first year for including Pickleball in the SFIA report and the base number is open to question) 

Comparing Casual and Core participants: 

▪ Casual were 63% male and 37% female 

▪ Core were 73% male and 27% female 

▪ The age breakdown for Casual and Core are very different… with Core players being, on average, significantly older 

▪ ages 6-17: Casual 18.5%; Core 0.8% 

▪ ages 18-34: Casual 11.7%; Core 5.5%ages 35-54: Casual 29.4%; Core 19.2% 

▪ ages 55-64: Casual 7.7%; Core 31.8% 

▪ age 65+: Casual 5.4%; Core 42.7% 

▪ 13% of Casual participants and 75% of Core participants are age 55 and older 

▪ The 2.5 million participants represent 0.9% of the US population 

▪ The regions with the largest number of Core participants were 

▪ Pacific (CA, OR, WA) = 263,000 ▪ East North Central (WI, MI, IL, OH, IN) = 200,000 

▪ South Atlantic (FL, GA, SC, NC, VA, WV, DC) = 174,000 

Any citation of this data should reference the SFIA report as its source.

 “In Jacksonville alone, we have 11,000 seniors that play. It’s attracted to them, but it is meant for everyone. For seniors, those that can’t play tennis anymore, racquetball, etc. due to knees and hips, there is less space to cover. You have a partner to cover that space, only 10 feet wide. We have mid to late 80’s. Some in their 90’s but we also have some 10-year-olds that play fantastic. In St. Johns County, as an ambassador, last August we taught 30 middle school PE teachers how to play Pickleball in a smaller setting to bring it into the school. There are also a lot of high schoolers that like it because of its fast-paced. One of the women’s world champions for Pickleball is a 12-year-old girl and her mom! It’s definitely a sport for everyone to play”. Rather than being shaped by a sport-specific to seniors, Pickleball has aspects that everyone can appreciate. For seniors in particular though, it’s accessible for them and a way to be active. Despite physical limitations, seniors and so many other age groups are able to participate in this sport and enjoy the benefits from this ‘open to all sport’. . .This sport isn’t just played by seniors and young people though. It’s also played by handicapped individuals. I’ve seen someone with a prosthetic leg to my friend who is legally blind play Pickleball and love it!”

Brief History of Pickleball

 According to the 2019 Pickleball Fact Sheet, it was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, by three enterprising dads – Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum. Their children were bored with their usual summertime activities. It evolved from the original handmade equipment and simple rules into a popular sport throughout North America and is now taking off in other parts of the world.

I mentioned to Ro that I used to row in high school and she gave some enlightening facts about these two sports. “In crew, the backup boat/leftover rowers were commonly known as the pickle boat. That’s where the name came from. The people that created the game didn’t have all the pieces to a variety of games and the wife stated this hodgepodge of different games was like the hodgepodge of rowers in the pickle boat. Some have stated it was named after their dog but many disputes that because the dog was not around till sometime after its creation. It became a nice way to think about the game being named but isn’t the truth!”

Rules

  • The Court- A Pickleball court is 20’ x 44’ for both singles and doubles. The net is hung at 36” at the ends and hangs 34” in the middle. A non-volley zone extends 7’ back from the net on each side, commonly called “the kitchen.” Pickleball Lingo – The Kitchen/No Volley Zone
    “Get out of the kitchen!” Hardly ever called the no volley zone, a universal term.
    In 2017, USAPA and the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) co-produced and released an official Pickleball courts construction and maintenance manual for the industry.
  • The Equipment – Competitive paddles used in Pickleball are constructed from a high-tech composite, ranging in cost from $50-$150 each. An official Pickleball is made of plastic and is between .78 to .935 ounces and 2.874 to 2.972 inches in diameter. There are no color restrictions other than the ball must be a single, consistent color. The USAPA has tested and approved several outdoor and indoor balls for official tournament play.
  • Places to Play – Every US state and all Canadian provinces now have Pickleball venues. Senior residence communities, YMCAs, local community recreation centers, schools, and parks are just some of the places likely to have Pickleball courts. The USAPA compiles the most up-to-date and comprehensive listing of places to play on a new dedicated website: places2play.org. The known places to play a total of 6,885 at the end of 2018 represent an increase of 1,016 or approximately 85 new locations per month. “There are 4 permanent ones at Jarbo, Donner, and Baymeadows. We are trying, desperately, to get more. Last year, I got wind that the city was going to put down some lines on an unused tennis court. Guy I spoke to said we are putting down two courts in each quadrant of the city. We are putting permanent lines on the tennis court. Wait, you mean you’re making two courts from one tennis court? He said, no we are just putting lines for one, so you have to use the tennis court net. What good does one court do in the middle of a tennis court? Any open play day has 20 to 40 people, one will not help. This comes from a lack of understanding. If you just mark the court off, you can do to 2 to 4 Pickleball courts from a tennis court when done correctly but they put one in Mandarin and no one uses it.” 

How to Help Pickleball

“Call whoever is in your district, we need more public courts. There just aren’t many available to the public. It’s depressing seeing my friend post about new court openings. They just did one in St. Augustine; I think they have 8 now. Just over the line in St. Mary’s they have more dedicated courts after resurfacing them . . . If we had a good outdoor court; I want to have public lessons. I want to have an event and invite people to learn to play.”