A year ago, Jennifer Shane’s teenage son asked, “Mom, do you have any friends?”
The optometrist, now 54, paused. As a single mother and business owner, her friendships were lacking—but since she started playing pickleball in October 2022, her friend network has grown immensely.
“Sixteen of my friends are from pickleball,” she said.
According to Shane, some wonderful people she’s met while playing the sport get together off the court as well.
“I’m dating a pilot,” said Shane. “And one of my pickleball friends is also dating a pilot. So when they are out of town, we get together outside of pickleball.”
The social benefits of the sport appear to be one of the many reasons pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.—and has been for three years in a row. According to the 2023 Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) Pickleball Participation Report, 36.5 million people played at least once in 2022. That’s 14 percent of the adult population.
“It’s addicting,” said Shane. “You’re doing something fun that doesn’t feel like exercise.”
Pickleball was invented by three friends—Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCullum—on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, in 1965. The game is a cross between tennis, badminton and ping-pong and is played by people of all ages.
“You see people from age 7 to age 90,” said Shane. “I was once in a match that spanned over three generations.”
Brandon Mackie, co-founder of Pickleheads, an online platform that helps players find courts, organize sessions and connect with local play, said the sport’s popularity “exploded during the pandemic.”
“Many Americans were looking for responsible ways to socialize and stay active,” said Mackie. “But that was only the beginning. Pickleball’s growth has continued even as lockdowns have ended and normal life has resumed.”
The magic of pickleball, according to Mackie, is that “it’s easy to learn, but hard to master.” Shane also mentioned that the sport requires a “very low investment” compared to other sports. The average cost for a pair of paddles and balls is around $40. Indoor courts usually charge a small fee to play, and outdoor courts are usually free.
The rules of the game are simple: One round up to 11. Points are scored on the serve. Must win by two. The most confusing part is the scoring, which has three numbers instead of two. For example, instead of a score of 1-2, it’s 1-2-1. Since both players on a team serve, the last number indicates which player is serving: player “1” or player “2.”
As far as play goes, it’s more about the volley back and forth between players than hitting the ball as hard as possible.
“The game is not supposed to be won with the serve,” said Paul Kocher, former president of Truckee Meadows Pickleball Club (TMPC). “You want to rally the ball back and forth and have fun. It’s not a Roger Federer, 130-miles-per-hour-serve type of thing.”
The court is 20 feet wide by 44 feet long, and the game is usually played as doubles, i.e., two on two. However, according to Kocher, “singles is starting to grow in popularity.”
Another appealing aspect of the game is that it’s played year-round. When the weather is warm, players can use a number of the outdoor courts, and when it’s cooler, they can play indoors.
“We play outside unless it’s below 45 degrees,” said Reno pickleball player Susan Volinkaty. “That’s when the balls start to crack. Forty-five or higher, we’re outside, so long as the courts are dry.”
Some of the top places to play pickleball in Reno are Cyan Park, Plumas Alpine/Reno Tennis Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows and Hidden Valley Regional Park. For an extensive list of local courts, visit the TMPC website.
Along with supplying players with court information, TMPC organizes local fundraisers, cleans up parks and helps restore courts. The group also works with the Boys and Girls Club and teaches people who want to learn how to play the game.
“We’re always striving to help promote the city and build new places to play,” said Kocher. “We want to give back to the community.”
Locals who want to find or host meetups can do so on the Reno Pickleball Facebook group. Mackie’s website, Pickleheads, is another resource for finding courts and games, locally and nationally. Mackie also recently launched the Pickleheads mobile app, which lists 12,000 courts in 5,000 cities across the U.S. and Canada. The app allows users to find nearby games, join groups and organize games.
Regarding the name of the sport, there are two stories explaining why it’s named “pickleball.” One is that it was named after a dog named “Pickles” who would go get the ball. Another has to do with the game reminding one of the sport’s founders of a “pickle boat,” which is a term from rowing used to describe a motley crew of rowers put together at random to compete in races.
“One guy is going with the dog, and another is going with the pickle crew,” said Kocher. “Google it, and come up with your own opinion. Does it really matter?”
Many players take their paddles with them while traveling. Between them, Shane, Kocher and Volinkaty have played in California, Florida, Mexico and South Dakota. Kocher even played on a cruise ship.
“Most places have drop-in play, meaning you can show up without making prior arrangements,” said Volinkaty. “Put your paddle in the rack, and wait for your turn to play. Very appealing.”
As pickleball continues to grow in popularity, Kocher said it may one day become an Olympic sport. According to the Olympic Charter, for a sport to be accepted “it must be widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents, and by women in no fewer than 40 countries and on three continents.”
“If we have breakdancing, we can probably have pickleball,” said Kocher.
Locally, the pickleball scene is strong: The TMPC has more than 850 members, and more people playing. This is great news for the sport and community; however, there is some concern that the increasing number of players may jam the courts.
“It would be great to have a complex with 20 or 30 courts in one area with lights on that would be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” said Volinkaty. “A facility like that can bring in huge tournaments to the area—a great moneymaker for the city.”