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What is Pickleball and How Did it Get So Popular?

Photo of a pickleball and paddle on a court. Sports

With new complexes popping up across the country and televised tournaments on ESPN, pickleball seems almost unavoidable right now. So, what the heck is it and what are the rules?

We set out to answer a few common questions about the country’s fastest-growing sport below to help you catch up to the crowd. 

What Is Pickleball?

Pickleball is a racket or paddle sport, similar to tennis. It can be played indoors and outdoors by a set of singles players or two sets of doubles players. 

One of the biggest differences between pickleball and tennis is the dimensions of the court. A regulation pickleball court is 44 feet long and 20 feet wide, whereas a tennis court is 78 feet long, and 27 feet wide for singles matches or 36 feet wide for doubles. Pickleball also uses a distinct ball and paddle in competition. The ball is made of hard plastic which bounces less than a tennis ball and the solid paddle is a little larger than one you might use in table tennis. A regulation paddle’s combined length and width cannot exceed 24 inches. The net is 26 inches high on the ends of the court and 34 inches high at the center.

When Was It Invented?

Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., at the home of Joel Pritchard. He, as well as Barney McCallum and Bill Bell, are credited with creating the game and establishing its rules.

Throughout the next few years, word spread about this accessible new sport and Pritchard created the company Pickle Ball, Inc., to manufacture and distribute wooden paddles. He trademarked the name in 1972 and held the first tournament in 1976 in Tukwila, Wash. The United States Amateur Pickleball Association (U.S.A.P.A.) was formed in 1984 as the sport’s first governing body. It was reorganized in 2005 and is now USA Pickleball.

Why is Pickleball So Popular?

Pickleball initially gained popularity in schools and retirement communities due to its physical and social benefits. With its small court, the action is relatively contained meaning it does not require much movement. The sport saw another surge in participation during the COVID-19 pandemic as people looked for safe and socially-distanced activities to enjoy with friends.

According to a 2023 study from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), participation almost doubled in 2022 for an 85.7 percent increase year-over-year and a 158.6 percent increase in three years. By the end of 2022, there were more than 44,000 pickleball venues in the U.S. alone which equaled nearly 130 new locations per month.

What Are The Rules?

USA Pickleball and the International Federation of Pickleball worked together to formalize the rules of the sport like its use of side-out scoring, meaning that only the service side can score a point. When serving, a player stands behind the baseline on one side of the center line and attempts to land the ball in the opponent’s diagonal service court. Both volley serves and drop serves are allowed. 

In standard play, a singles player or doubles team must score 11 points while leading by at least two, in order to win a game. Some tournament games will require 15 or 21 points to secure victory.

Professional Competition

Though it is not an Olympic sport and is not included in the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), there are several professional organizations governing competitions. 

The Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) and Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) tours are the largest, but Major League Pickleball (MLP) made a big splash in 2021. It attracted funding from several big-name athletes like tennis player Naomi Osaka as well as Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes of the NFL. Several NBA players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kevin Love have also committed to buy expansion teams. The PPA and MLP announced a merger in September of 2023 to eliminate competition for players and better coordinate schedules.

USA Pickleball National Championships

Nov. 6 – Nov. 12, 2023

Each year, thousands of competitors meet at Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas, Texas, for the USA Pickleball National Championships. Players qualify through a series of “Golden Ticket” events including regional championships, the Diamond Amateur Championship or the National Indoor Championship. The tournament will take place across 68 courts and is projected to be the largest pickleball tournament of all time.

Pickleball Slam

Feb. 4, 2024

This innovative tournament pits some of the greatest tennis players against each other on the pickleball court for a $1 million purse. Pickleball Slam 2, which will take place next February at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla., will feature John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi and Stephanie Graf. Agassi teamed up with Andy Roddick to defeat McEnroe and Michael Chang in the inaugural Pickleball Slam event.

Buy Pickleball Tickets

Whether you want to catch a local tournament through the PPA or catch a week of competition USA Pickleball National Championships, you can find pickleball tournament tickets with TicketSmarter