Pickleball: The most popular sport you’ve never heard of?

Pickleball: The most popular sport you’ve never heard of?

From Downtown Albuquerque News

Photo by Ryan Lowery

When it comes to pickleball, chances are you either know exactly what it is, or you’ve never heard of it.

For those in the latter category, pickleball is a sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis. It is popular. Really popular, and that popularity is growing. With at least 17 formal places to play in Albuquerque currently, three new, dedicated courts are coming to Barelas Park as part of the city’s plans for a $1.2 million renovation (DAN, 7/19/21).

The park is not generally thought of as a destination green space, but the city is already planning on that to change with the first-come-first-serve courts.

“If the courts see a lot of use, and/or there are significant user conflicts, we would evaluate the need for a reservation-based system,” city spokeswoman Jessica Campbell told DAN.

The courts are even likely to host small pickleball events, she said, though three is probably not enough for larger tournaments.

Pickleball: A history
While many people are just learning about pickleball, the sport has actually been around for more than 50 years, beginning on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as the invention of a group of dads whose kids had grown tired of other games, according to the official history provided by USA Pickleball.

The imaginative dads – Bill Bell, Barney McCallum, and the then-future Washington Lieutenant Governor Joel Pritchard – found themselves at Pritchard’s house one day in 1965 looking to play badminton on his home court. But they couldn’t find the proper equipment that day and so settled for ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. Finding that the funky ball bounced well on the asphalt surface, they began crafting rules for their new game.

In 1972, the three sports pioneers turned their game into a company, and the new sport began gaining a national following.

Where exactly the name pickleball came from is still a matter of debate. Some say Pritchard’s wife, Joan, came up with the name as a reference to a “pickle boat,” a rowing term related to how oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Others say the name was derived from Pritchard’s dog, Pickles. But the family has shot down that theory repeatedly, noting that the dog joined the family a few years after the game was created and named.

Why it’s such a phenomenon
Mysterious nomenclature aside, these days pickleball is a rapidly growing concern. The number of American pickleball players grew to 4.2 million in 2020, according to USA Pickleball, a 21 percent jump from the previous year.

Locally, it’s the same story, according to Gary Rutherford, the “Albuquerque ambassador” for USA Pickleball and a vice president at the ABQ Pickleball Club.

“It is really growing fast here,” Rutherford said. “It’s a good way to get out, meet people, and have fun.”

Rutherford has been playing pickleball with the local club for just over a decade. When he joined, he was one of about 40 members. Today, there are 1,000.

The popularity of the game is helped along by its easy adaptability with existing infrastructure and close proximity to other sports from which it can draw crossover players: The game can be played on a standard tennis court, or on a smaller dedicated pickleball court. Players can alternately bring their own pickleball net to any tennis court and start competing in a matter of minutes.

“Players come from primarily tennis first, and then badminton, racketball, and table tennis,” Rutherford said. “All of those transfer over really well.”

The amount of actual exercise involved and the pace also seem to have reached a popular happy medium. Less strenuous than tennis or racquetball, pickleball values finesse over power and speed (one reason older players seem to like it so much) with players approaching the net far more often than in tennis. Rutherford compares the exercise level to a moderate hike or swim. Games take 15 minutes or so, which allows for multiple rounds to be played by a mix of players over the course of an hour or two. Rutherford said some people arrive at the courts in groups that play together while others mix in with players they might not even know.

For anyone looking to give pickleball a try before buying any equipment, Rutherford said many of the city’s indoor facilities have paddles and balls that players can use and that many sporting goods stores offer demo models of paddles that can be borrowed, giving players the chance to try out some different varieties before purchasing.

The city also offers two-week pickleball lessons at the Manzano Mesa Pickleball Complex.  Details on other court locations across the metro and more about pickleball in Albuquerque can be found at the ABQ Pickleball Club’s website.