Why Is It Called Pickleball?

(Last Updated On: January 24, 2023)

If you went to a weird school as a kid you might have walked into the gym with a bunch of hollow plastic balls and nets one day for pickleball. Unless you later moved on continue playing pickleball as an adult, you probably just went on to never think about it again until you saw the name “pickleball” in a tweet or something. But now, pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport. So uh, maybe now’s a good time to think about it? Why is it called pickleball? The balls don’t even look like pickles.

What Is Pickleball, Actually?

Pickleball probably looks a lot like tennis if you don’t know anything about it; it’s often described as something between tennis, pingpong, and badminton. Courts (indoor and outdoor) are the size of a badminton court, which is much smaller than tennis, and separated through the middle by a net. Court dimensions are 20 by 44 feet, by the way. Games are played in singles or doubles (one or two players per side, respectively), like tennis. 

Where the lines are drawn on the court, though, are specific to pickleball. There’s a space on either side of the net where the ball cannot be hit unless it bounces first. 

Matches are normally best two-out-of-three games, where each game goes to 11 points. Per rally, only the serving side can score a point. 

On the “fastest growing sport” thing, pickleball saw a 21% growth between 2019 and 2020 and 14% growth between 2020 and 2021.The vast majority (like 70% of the sport’s 4.8 million players) are defined by USA Pickleball as “casual” players; that means they play less than eight times per year. People who play more than eight times per year are defined as “core” players, and this demographic skews older—over half are 55+. 

But why pickles?

While pickleball’s growth has been pretty recent, the sport itself has been kicking around since 1965. Not really as a sport sport though, pickleball began in Bainbridge, Washington as a children’s backyard game. Professional pickleball started kicking around in 2019, with the first professional league officially beginning in 2021. In 2022, pickleball was made the official sport of Washington state. So, cool? 

Anyway pickleball was created by a guy named Joel Pritchard and his friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell, in a story that doesn’t involve pickles at all. 

But at least it involves the ball being weird. Pickleballs are small, hollow plastic things with a bunch of holes in them. It makes them less prone to bouncing than tennis balls, and they also make a sharper noise when whacked by a racket. Which has been the cause for complaints in residential areas

All the holes in pickleballs are said to have given the game its name, for they reminded Joan Pritchard (Joel Pritchard’s spouse) of pickle boats. In rowing, the pickle boat is the last boat to finish the race, and apparently is often made up of leftover rowers. Funnily enough if you look up “pickle boat” you’re also going to be directed to pickleball, which probably means something about how often that term is used. 

Some allege that the name is owed to Pickles, the Pritchards’ dog. USA Pickleball (the guys who basically do pickleball in the US) was kind enough to do some digging into the family history and confirm the dog was named after the sport was created. They also claim the Pickles-the-dog story is owed to a journalist thinking the dog story fit better than whatever a pickle boat was. So we guess the moral of the story is to cite your sources? 

See if you know your pickled foods here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.