Wendy Siegel had never played a sport in her life.
The 53-year-old mom of three was bored. It was the first summer of the pandemic, and everything was closed in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. A friend recommended they try pickleball — a racquet sport played on a smaller tennis-like court.
“I honestly had never played any kind of sport,” Siegel said. “It was totally new.”
It took several lessons to learn to hit the ball, which is slightly larger than a tennis ball and made of plastic. But Siegel was hooked after her first class and kept at it. Having now played regularly since August 2020, she says she’s improved.
“I feel pretty good about myself going out there,” Siegel said. “Now, I like to call myself Sporty Spice.”
Siegel is one of more than a half-million people who have picked up a pickleball paddle since 2020, according to the latest data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And while some started playing as a safe pandemic activity, the sport has been growing in popularity for years, with participation doubling since 2014. It was even named the official sport of the state of Washington in March.
“The pandemic certainly helped accelerate the growth of the sport, but it was growing very steadily before that,” said Stu Upson, the CEO of USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., responsible for the rules, rulebook, some tournaments and promoting the sport’s growth.
About 17 percent of players are 65 and older, while a third are under 25, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Pickleball Report, which surveyed 18,000 Americans on their participation in 100 sports and activities.
Upson suspects the sport has grown because it’s easy to learn. “When people try it and then they start playing, they don’t say they just play — they say they were addicted to it.”
According to Upson, pickleball was created in the 1960s by two families who lived just west of Seattle, on Bainbridge Island. The families, Upson said, invented the game out of boredom, using the badminton court and net, a perforated ball and table tennis paddles they had on hand. The game was supposedly named after one of their dogs, Pickles.
Today, pickleball is a mix of tennis, pingpong and badminton. The ball itself has circular holes in it, while the paddle — about the size of a table tennis paddle — is rectangular.
Players hit the ball back and forth along a 20-foot by 44-foot court — about a third of a tennis court. The games, which go until one side reaches 11 points, usually last 15-25 minutes and have a steady pace that can pick up fast as volleys go back and forth, not unlike tennis. But while a tennis player may try to whack the ball as hard as possible, a skilled pickleballer will use slight movements to control the lighter, plastic ball.
The pickleball paddle may have started out as one used for table tennis, but companies such as Joola are looking to cash in on the pickleball craze with paddles specific to the sport.
The company has manufactured table tennis equipment for close to 70 years, and this is the first time the company has branched out into a new sport, said Richard Lee, Joola’s president.
“As a table tennis purist, it was never really in my mind to get started in the sport,” Lee said. “Finally, last summer, we gave it a shot with Covid and absolutely fell in love with it.”
He said that he heard about a pickleball court being built behind their Maryland offices and grabbed some paddles to give it a try. There were two people already playing, pickleball star athletes Ben Johns and his brother, Collin, who explained the game to Lee and his friend.
“We had no idea who they were, and just saw two young guys going at it at a really fast pace and just playing amazingly,” Lee recalled. “We saw what the sport can be like.”
Ben Johns, a senior at the University of Maryland, is ranked No. 1 in the world for doubles, mixed doubles and singles by the Professional Pickleball Association. Collin Johns is ranked 6th in doubles.
Joola announced a sponsorship deal with Ben Johns this month.
The 23-year-old has played tournaments with Michael Phelps, the former Olympic swimmer, and Larry Fitzgerald, the ex-receiver for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. (Phelps and Fitzgerald faced off against each other in a tournament in January.)
The social aspect
As the sport grew in popularity, players took to social media to set up matches, creating a sprawling network of pickup groups on Facebook and WhatsApp. A Facebook group for players in Chicago has 3,100 members, while one in northern Seattle has more than 2,000 members.
Fitness centers have begun to offer classes and install pickleball courts, even setting up friendly competitions between other athletic clubs. And specialty venues — like Chicken N Pickle, which has six locations across the country, including one in Kansas City — boast food, drinks and pickleball courts for families and friends to play and socialize.
Seattle resident Ben Winston learned to play pickleball in a decidedly nonfancy location: an elementary school parking lot, with a portable net and chalk to mark the lines.
He and his wife moved to Seattle in the months leading up to the pandemic. Then lockdowns hit, and with the encouragement of a friend, the two formed a pandemic “pod” with the friends they played with in the parking lot.
Since graduating to actual courts, Winston, who is 31, said he has played with a range of people: a former NBA player, a bus driver and people of all ages and skill levels. That’s part of what he likes about the game.
“I’m capable of getting my butt kicked by 70-year-old women,” Winston said. “They’ve been playing for a while, and they just have this craftiness and guile to them.”
He’s not the only player who finds himself playing older opponents.
Wendy Siegel embraced becoming a pickleball mom and said matches have brought her closer to her father, who still plays in his 80s.
Still, she has no problem besting a younger player and hanging out with opponents afterward.
“We’ve totally become friends,” Siegel said. “[I] go to their birthday parties — like their 40-year-old birthday parties.
“I’m 53. I feel like a total mom.”