By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
REGION – What has been termed the fastest growing sport in the US was founded outside Seattle. But its growth in New England as an activity, particularly popular for older adults, can be traced to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
“We were called the pickleball capital of Massachusetts because we were the first school to have it,” the retired physical education teacher Jay Schofield told the Martha’s Vineyard Times, where he was instrumental in offering the class in the 1980s.
The history of the curiously named racket game goes back only to 1965. But Massachusetts was not far behind. The Andover/North Andover YMCA had been an early promoter of the sport. It’s called the “birthplace of pickleball in the Merrimack Valley.”
Rapid growth of courts available
In Hanover, there’s a new indoor, first-of-its-kind, climate-controlled pickleball-only complex that opened last spring. And even more recently, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation broke ground in May for the state’s first official pickleball court. It’s at Fort Phoenix State Reservation in Fairhaven.
So, what is pickleball? It has nothing to do with pickles. It’s a cross between tennis and badminton. It uses a lighter racket than tennis and a ball with holes in it much like a wiffle ball. The courts are smaller than tennis and the games are shorter. All of that makes it easier for older people.
Almost a third of players are over 55
At least one study found that almost one-third of players, 30 percent, were 55 and older. All of this has led to its rapid growth. It grew in 2020 to 4.2 million players, an incredible rate of 21.3 percent from the year before, according to this year’s Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report.
It’s an easy sport for beginners. Anyone can pick it up in minutes.
An added advantage for it is good exercise, burning up about the same number of calories as playing tennis. But since the courts are smaller, badminton-size, they are much easier to navigate.
And that’s even more the case with doubles or two-person pickleball.
YMCAs across the country have been increasingly receptive to providing both indoor and outdoor courts, which are present in every state of the US. Courts can be found at parks, schools, community and senior centers.
All of this helped some communities, such as the Boston suburb of Randolph, to embrace it. A headline about the town of Randolph on the communitypreservation.org website proclaimed, “Massachusetts has Pickleball Fever―and CPA is the Cure.” The reference was to CPA (Community Preservation Act) funds to build three new outdoor pickleball courts at the Randolph Intergenerational Community Center (RICC).
Taking recreation world by storm
The sport termed “quirky” by the site has also been highly popular. “It’s taking the outdoor recreation world by storm,” it said. The Randolph courts were completed in 2019. Since then, a half dozen regular players expanded to almost 100, said Elizabeth LaRosee, the town’s director of library, recreation and community programs.
You might have expected the sport to have originated in a retirement state like Florida. And in some places, such as The Villages in central Florida, it is so popular the over 55-community has 46 dedicated courts.
But pickleball got its start at Bainbridge Island near Seattle.
Three local golfers, irritated by their families saying there was nothing to do there, took ping pong paddles to a badminton court and played a paddle game. Soon, others took it up as well.
There are two major contradictory stories of how it got its name.
The first and most likely account is that one of the wives of the three originators was a competitive rower in college. The sport reminded her of a pickle boat. It’s a derogatory term used for weaker, mismatched crew boat teams: pickle boats. The other story is that it was named after a local dog named “Pickles” who loved to play catch. Whatever the origin of the name, it’s clear that pickleball is here to stay.