Pickleball has nothing to do with pickles, but here in Wisconsin, it is a big 'dill'. Jokes aside, the once-niche sport has surged in popularity, especially here in Southeast Wisconsin.
According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the number of places to play pickleball in the country has more than doubled since 2010. One place which has played a part in this growth is ProLite, a company in Port Washington that's spearheading the effort.
Neil Friedenberg, owner and CEO of ProLite, says pickleball is a game that most people can pick up very quickly and believes it's making the leap across generations.
“It’s not ‘what is pickleball?’ anymore. It’s people saying ‘Oh, I’ve heard of that’ or ‘I played in gym class’ … It used to be thought of as that old person’s sport," Friedenberg says. "But now when they're playing it so early on in their lives in gym class, with friends, and even outside of class, now that there are places to play — that’s what’s happening — there’s a youth movement."
The sport dates back to 1965 when Congressman Joel Pritchard and friends created it almost by accident. After going to Pritchard's home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, they noticed their families were just sitting around. To curb boredom, they tried to find badminton equipment. When that failed, they made do with what was around: pingpong paddles and a perforated plastic ball.
Its origins of the game’s unique name, like many stories, have been embellished over time. Common lore is the game was named after the Pritchard family’s dog, Pickles. In reality, the game preceded the dog.
The name actually comes from a boating term, "pickle boat," which refers to the last boat to finish a race. Often compiled from a crew of leftover oarsmen, the pickle boats reminded the Pritchards of pickleball’s inception when the two friends cobbled together badminton racquets and a whiffle ball to invent a new game.
Pickleball can be simply described as a game of mini tennis, or giant pingpong, depending on how you look at it. Basically, it is a tennis-like game played on a badminton-sized court with a paddle that resembles a giant pingpong paddle and a plastic ball similar to a whiffle ball.
In 1984, ProLite was the first to make the composite paddle, which offers a lightweight alternative to the wooden paddle. A composite paddle reduces arm fatigue, providing more control, precision and power. ProLite is able to tailor their paddles to players’ individual needs and backgrounds.
“We like to match up paddles, weights, shapes, the playability and performance to someone in a background like racquetball, tennis, table tennis,” notes Friedenberg.
Because of the small size of the court, the lightweight paddles, and the simple rules of play, pickleball can be played by a wide range of people. But for a simple game, paddle science gets complex.
Materials such as graphite, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and polycarbonates each affect the ball a little differently, according to Friedenberg.
Pickleball has always been more than just a game for Friedenberg, so it’s no surprise he sees ProLite as an ambassador for the game. Recently, he made a trip to India, where he met with his friend Manish and his pickleball crew. They spent time traveling throughout the country, playing recreationally and putting on clinics in Mumbai and Jaipur.
The game is spreading throughout the world, he says, with pickleball tournaments in Finland, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, and other countries.
While pickleball has become a global endeavor for Friedenberg and ProLite, the game is growing back home in Wisconsin as well.
So far, the sport has largely been a suburban and rural phenomenon, but Friedenberg is optimistic that is changing.
Most racquet sports have a history of exclusionary policies that have made games like tennis a game for higher social classes and white people here in the U.S. He says since pickleball is a much newer game and has the potential to be a much more accessible sport.
“I see it growing. Right now, they estimate about 3 million people are playing this game. That's just an estimate," Friedenberg notes. "There's probably people playing off the grid here that are not accounted for ... 10 million people, within the next couple years, I think, is very realistic.”
Some of those players are picking up the sport at the Brown Deer YMCA, where Steve Smith teaches pickleball lessons. He also teaches classes for Milwaukee Public Schools’ active older adults program and his passion for pickleball is evident.
“I love pickleball,” says Smith. “My wife, her eyes glaze over when I start talking about it cause I get real enthused about it. Basically, it’s just a fun form of exercise … you know, it’s a fun game with a funny name."
In addition to the social benefits of the game, pickleball also provides players with various health benefits. According to a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, older adults who regularly play racket sports were 47 percent less likely to die of any cause and 56 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
Darlene Baker, who's 67-years-old, plays pickleball to help her cope with a form of tuberculosis.
“It helps my lung capacity. But I've known a lot of people that have various issues whether it's asthma or running or you know their hearts, a lot of heart issues, that play pickleball. Just for the health," she says.
While Baker comes for the health benefits, she stays for the company.
“The people are all nice,” she says. “I don’t care where you go. I’ve played pickleball in Ohio, Missouri, everywhere. People are nice.”
For some, pickleball is just a fun game. For others, it’s a form of exercise, playful competition and community. If nothing else, pickleball brings people from different generations together.