Wendy Siegel had never exercised in her life.
The 53-year-old mother 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 suggested they try pickleball, a racquet sport played on a smaller tennis court.
“Honestly, I’d never exercised before,” Siegel said. “That 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 on her first class and stuck with it. Now that she’s been playing regularly since August 2020, she says she’s improved.
“I feel pretty good walking out there,” Siegel said. “Now I like to call myself Sporty Spice.”
Siegel is one of more than half a million people to pick up a pickleball paddle since 2020, according to the latest data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And while some began playing as a safe pandemic activity, the sport has grown in popularity for years, with participation doubling since 2014. In March, it was even named an official sport for Washington state.
“The pandemic certainly helped accelerate the growth of the sport, but before that it was growing very steadily,” said Stu Upson, the CEO of USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body in the United States, which is responsible for the rules, the rule book, some Tournaments and responsible is promoting the growth of the sport.
About 17 percent of gamers are 65 and older, while a third are under the age of 25, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Pickleball Report, which surveyed 18,000 Americans about their participation in 100 sports and activities.
Upson suspects the sport has grown because it’s easy to learn. “When people try and then start playing, they’re not saying they’re just playing — they’re saying they were addicted.”
According to Upson, Pickleball was founded in the 1960s by two families living west of Seattle on Bainbridge Island. Families, Upson said, invented the game out of boredom, using whatever badminton court and net, a perforated ball, and ping-pong rackets they had on hand. The game was reportedly named after one of their dogs, Pickles.
Today pickleball is a mixture of tennis, table tennis and badminton. The ball itself has circular holes, while the bat – about the size of a ping-pong bat – is rectangular.
Players hit the ball back and forth on a 20-by-44-foot court—about a third of the size of a tennis court. The games, which last for a side to reach 11 points, typically last 15 to 25 minutes and have a steady pace that can pick up quickly when volleys go back and forth, much like tennis. But while a tennis player can try to hit the ball as hard as possible, a skilled pickleball player uses slight movements to control the lighter plastic ball.
The pickleball paddle may originally have been used as one for table tennis, but companies like Joola are trying to capitalize on the pickleball craze with paddles specifically designed for the sport.
The company has been making table tennis equipment for nearly 70 years, and this is the company’s first time venturing into a new sport, said Richard Lee, Joola’s president.
“As a table tennis purist, I never really thought about getting into the sport,” Lee said. “Last summer we finally tried Covid and absolutely fell in love with it.”
He said he heard that a pickleball court was being built behind their Maryland offices and grabbed a couple of racquets to try it out. Two people were already playing, pickleball star 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 a really fast pace and just playing amazing,” Lee recalled. “We’ve seen how sport can be.”
University of Maryland senior Ben Johns is ranked #1 in the world for doubles, mixed doubles and singles by the Professional Pickleball Association. Collin Johns is 6th in doubles.
Joola announced a sponsorship deal with Ben Johns this month.
The 23-year-old has played tournaments with former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and ex-NFL Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. (Phelps and Fitzgerald faced off in a tournament in January.)
The social aspect
As the sport grew in popularity, players took to social media to host games and created a widespread network of pickup groups on Facebook and WhatsApp. A Facebook group for gamers in Chicago has 3,100 members, while one in north Seattle has more than 2,000 members.
Fitness centers have started offering classes and installing pickleball courts and even holding friendly competitions between other sports clubs. And specialty venues — like Chicken N Pickle, which has six locations across the country, including one in Kansas City — offer food, drink, and pickleball courts where families and friends can play and socialize.
Seattle resident Ben Winston learned pickleball in a decidedly nondescript place: in an elementary school parking lot, using 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 pair formed a pandemic “capsule” with the friends they were playing with in the parking lot.
Since graduating from the courts proper, Winston, 31, said he’s 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 having my ass kicked by 70-year-old women,” Winston said. “They’ve been playing for a while and they just have this cunning and insidiousness.”
He’s not the only player playing against older opponents.
Wendy Siegel welcomed becoming a pickleball mom and said gaming brought her closer to her dad, who is still playing in his 80s.
Still, she has no problem beating a younger player and hanging out with opponents afterwards.
“We’ve become totally friends,” Siegel said. “[I] going to their birthday parties—like their 40-year-old birthday parties.
“I’m 53. I feel like a total mom.”