Like jigsaw puzzles, grocery delivery and video conferencing, pickleball enjoyed a surge in popularity during the pandemic. An easy-to-learn activity that could be played outdoors while social distancing, pickleball saw a 21.3% increase in participation last year, according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association. By contrast, the oddly named sport had a total growth rate of 23% from 2016 to 2019.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by a Washington State congressman and his friends as a way to entertain their families over the summer. They improvised a game using Ping-Pong paddles, a perforated plastic ball and a badminton court — and new racquet sport was born. There is some debate over the origin of the name, though. Some say it was named after the congressman’s dog Pickle, while others believe it was inspired by an obscure rowing term.
There are now 4.2 million pickleball players in the United States. Like tennis, it can be played as singles or doubles; however, the court is smaller and the equipment is less expensive. The team that gets to 11 points first, with at least two more points than their opponent, wins the game.
Before the boom in 2020, pickleball had slowly but steadily been attracting new players across the county. Alex Taylor, recreation specialist at Bauer Drive Community Recreation Center in Rockville, recalls first hearing about the sport five years ago, when Pickleball ambassador Sylvia Bell demonstrated the sport at the White Oak Community Recreation Center for senior program managers and facility staff members. Montgomery County Recreation now offers pickleball classes and drop-in play at multiple facilities as well as an adult pickleball league.
“Anybody with any physical ability can play the sport,” Taylor says, “but I think it is also the socialization that comes with the sport that makes it so popular here in Montgomery County.”
It was also around that time, in 2015, that Rob Follit helped to found the outdoor pickleball group at the Old Farm Swim and Paddle Tennis Club in Rockville after discovering the sport in Naples, Fla.
“It’s grown tremendously,” he says. “We started with a handful of folks who were interested in the game, and it just builds year after year. We were up to about 100 participants last year due to COVID.”
Recognizing the need for more local pickleball opportunities, the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington launched its own program this spring. The Y will open more than 20 courts across the region this year, beginning with its locations in Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Silver Spring and Arlington, and plans for twice that number by the end of 2022.
“It is almost a sport that is made for the Y,” says Pamela Curran, executive vice president and chief operations officer of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. “The barriers for learning how to play and playing are not what you find with many other sports like tennis or golf, where you have to take some lessons to really be able to enjoy the game.“
Over 300 people attended June’s pickleball event at the YMCA on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, which featured an exhibition with Ben and Collin Johns of Laytonsville. Ben, a senior at the University of Maryland, is the highest-ranked men’s pickleball player in singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles. Older brother Collin, also a highly ranked professional player, is his doubles partner. Within a day, all of the Y’s pickleball offerings were sold out.
“I have never seen anything like it in the 15 years that I have been here,” Curran says.
While the Y is working to provide more classes, Montgomery Parks is also trying to meet the rising demand for places to play outdoor pickleball. There are now seven parks with hard-surface courts that have the correct dimensions for both tennis and pickleball — two pickleball courts can fit on one tennis court — and six more parks will create shared courts over the next two years. Additionally, dedicated pickleball courts will be built at Bauer Drive Local Park, Seven Locks Local Park and Columbia Local Park.
Private communities are also turning their underutilized tennis courts into shared courts, using services such as MoCo Pickleball to paint or tape pickleball lines.
Although it was created to be a multigenerational sport, pickleball especially appeals to seniors. Some are converts from the tennis world who are unable to cover the full length of the court anymore. Others are looking for an activity to stay active or meet new people. Keeping score offers folks the opportunity to keep their mind sharp as well.
Pickleball player and instructor Emer Daly of MoCo Pickleballs, who often teaches older adults, explains that pickleball players don’t need to be the fastest or the strongest. “It’s about who can place the ball smartly and who has a great soft game,” she says. However, if a 70-year-old player also happens to be athletic, “they can absolutely whip a 20-year-old around that court.”
—PJ Feinstein contributed reporting.
This story first appeared in our August/September 2021 issue.