Long known as a game played by those in retirement communities, pickleball has taken off nationally as a fun sport for just about anyone, regardless of age or physical conditioning.
Pickleball mixes a little bit of tennis, badminton and table tennis for two to four players, who use paddles to hit a plastic-polymer ball back and forth while scoring points along the way. Pickleball courts are about the same size as badminton courts; its rules are similar to tennis.
Pickleball started more than 50 years ago as a children’s backyard game, but today it’s not unusual to find well-attended pickleball clubs and public courts. The Greater Tulsa Pickleball Club, founded in January, grew to more than 400 members in a matter of weeks. The Greater Oklahoma City Pickleball Club has more than 700 members after a few years in existence.
“I think it’s become popular because it allows everyone to compete at a fun level,” says Brad Merritt, president of the OKC club. “We mix ex-athletes with people who have never played any sport competitively in their life.”
Tulsa club member William Bartmann, whose older brother got him into the sport, plays four or five times a week.
“I tried it and I liked it,” Bartmann says. “It’s a great way to get some cardio in. I also like that there is a social aspect to it. Pickleball people are caring and want to help other players get better.”
Camaraderie also appeals to Merritt, who picked up the sport four years ago and kept coming back because it was fun and something to do with his wife. He met a lot of great people. Over the years, the couple built a court in their backyard and have held fundraisers for the Alzheimer’s Association as well as Wings, an Edmond organization helping the special-needs community.
“It’s a game with a lot of social interaction,” Merritt says. ‘People get to know each other. There’s a lot of laughter and encouragement. We build on that with the special events we hold.”
Tulsa club member Matt Mauldin started playing after one of his good friends convinced him to give it a try. He grew up playing tennis and liked the similarities between the two sports.
“The most interesting thing about pickleball is there are many different types of players and playing styles,” he says. “Unlike tennis, where the styles are more standard and conventional, you will see some very diverse styles and mechanics on the pickleball court, and I love that.”
Bartmann says the best players don’t necessarily have to be the fittest.
“Being in good shape helps, but it’s also someone who has good court awareness, someone who is good at the net and someone who has good hand-and-eye coordination that makes up the best players,” he says.
Pickleball should continue to grow. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, an estimated 2.8 million Americans play the sport.
According to the USA Pickleball Association, three dads on Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle, invented the game in 1965 and one of their wives, Joan Pritchard, started calling it pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
The association also says the sport is named for Pickles, a dog belonging to Pritchard and her husband, Joel.
Regardless of the origin story, Mauldin says playing a funny-named sport induces an odd reaction when people find out he plays.
“The confused look on their face is what I enjoy most about it,” he says. “The name just throws them off. It’s fun, and anyone I have introduced to pickleball so far has absolutely loved it.”