Justin Burton first heard of pickleball last year while taking a tour of the YMCA of Glendale. He and his wife had recently moved to L.A. from Portland, Ore., and they were considering joining the gym. The guy giving the tour took Burton to the roof to show him the pickleball courts. At first Burton, 35, thought he hadn't heard right. Then he figured it must be "a weird regional anomaly." But Burton searched "pickleball" on YouTube and thousands of videos popped up.
"This is a thing," he realized. "There's an association. There's a structure." Burton resolved to give it a whirl.
In fact, pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. USA Pickleball Assn. membership increased 84% in the last 36 months. And according to USAPA President Justin Maloof, more than a quarter of the 3,000-plus places to play pickleball in the country are less than a year old. Players used to need to buy paddles and the hard plastic perforated balls online. Now retailers, such as Dick's Sporting Goods, have pickleball sections in most of their stores. There's even a popular website devoted to the game: pickleballchannel.com.
Pickleball got its start on Bainbridge Island near Seattle 50 years ago when two dads saddled with some bored kids decided to make use of an old badminton court. They didn't have badminton rackets, so they improvised with Ping-Pong paddles and a Wiffle ball. They lowered the net to 36 inches. The following weekend, another friend joined in and they came up with rules. The most popular theory regarding the name of the sport is that one of the founder's dogs liked to chase balls on the court and run off with them. The dog's name? Pickles.
Pickleball is no longer played with Ping-Pong paddles. Pickleball paddles are slightly larger and more square. But the games have much in common. They can be fast-paced and deliver a good workout. And the scoring system is very similar. Some pickleball aficionados tell newbies to think of pickleball like Ping-Pong, "but imagine you get to stand on the table."
Pickleball courts are about one-quarter the size of tennis courts. The main differences between tennis and pickleball are that in pickleball, you serve underhand, the ball has less bounce, there's no doubles alley (singles and doubles are played on the same-size court) and there is a 7-foot no-volley zone, popularly called "the kitchen," extending from the net. The ball can be hit in this area only after it has bounced.
Tennis players, such as Burton, a TV assignment editor, generally pick up the game easily. "When I first got started, I was addicted." He would play four times a week, often two hours at a time. He has since cut back to once or twice a week. But even those who had never played a racquet sport often get hooked.
"I could play every day," said Ashley Johnsen, 34. "I love the sport so much." The personal trainer started playing pickleball 21/2 years ago at Simi Valley's Rancho Tapo Community Park, where there is a vibrant pickleball scene. She recalls the first time she and her husband, who took up the sport around the same time, went out to find a pickup doubles game.
"We played against two older women," said Johnsen. "We were like, we got this. And guess what? They took us out."
In fact, one thing many players tout about the game is the ability for older and younger players to play together competitively, especially doubles, where there's less court to cover.
"It's more than just a power game," said Johnsen. "You've got to work on finesse and strategy. It became my quest to figure out the finesse side of it."
One reason for pickleball's meteoric growth is the association's ambassador program: more than 1,000 volunteers across the country. Their role is to recruit players, introduce them to the game and spread the pickleball gospel. But pickleball really sells itself. Maybe it's the social aspect or the fact that it is so beginner friendly. Whatever the reason, the sport does tend to breed enthusiasts.
"My husband and I joke around that if pickleball were network marketing, I'd be so rich," said Johnsen. "Everyone I introduce to the sport buys a paddle."
Want to try pickleball?
Here are some places where newbies are welcome. Times are approximate. Often during these periods, a Pickleball Assn. ambassador is on hand with loaner paddles and to give informal instruction. But if not, pickleball players generally are a friendly bunch, eager to spread the sport. Many players carry an extra paddle or two. Court shoes suggested.
Venice paddle tennis courts
Where: 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice
When: 8 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays
Rancho Tapo Community Park
Where: 3700 Avenida Simi, Simi Valley (a.k.a. Lemon Park)
When: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Manhattan Heights Park
Where: 1600 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach
When: 8 to 11 a.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays
Scholl Canyon Golf and Tennis Club
Where: 3800 E. Glenoaks Blvd., Glendale
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays
For more information, visit www.usapa.org/places-to-play-pickleball