It sounds like a bizarre, arcane game you made up with your friends on a lazy summer afternoon, which is appropriate because that’s pretty much what happened. Pickleball – a combination of badminton, tennis and ping pong – was invented out of boredom by three middle-aged buddies and their families in 1965, but the easily accessible game has garnered considerable popularity in recent years, especially among baby boomer retirees.
A primary reason for the sport’s growth traces back to its roots, that social aspect of friends coming together in competition, according to Roger Workman.
“You’re active, but it also gives you a way to interact with people. You have that common thread in your lives,” said Workman, one of the aforementioned retired baby boomers who took up the game. “I always joke – you can play pickleball for two hours and then talk about it for three.”
Workman is in charge of operations for theFirst Annual Arnold Classic Pickleball Tournament, which takes place March 6-8 and will serve as an introduction for many in Central Ohio. Pickleball is played with an overgrown ping pong paddle and a plastic ball on a doubles badminton court with a shorter net. Like tennis, players serve diagonally across the court, though the serve is underhand, and there are 7-foot non-volley zones on either side of the net where players can only hit the ball after it bounces. Scoring is the same as badminton – players or teams can only score while serving, and matches are best of three games to 11.
Though the sport is thriving particularly with the boomer crowd, Workman plays with a wide variety of pickleballers. He competes a few times a week with a group of people who are mostly above 50, but he also drives 60 miles one day a week for a game with players in their 30s and 40s. In last year’s national tournament, he played against a man who was 94; a few weeks ago, he attended a lunch celebrating the college graduation of one of his regular competitors, who is 30.
“Now that I’ve left the workforce, I wouldn’t have those kind of interactions if it weren’t for pickleball,” said Workman, who lives in the Houston area.
In addition to the friendships created through the sport, he attributed the popularity to the limited space requirements – four pickleball courts fit inside one standard tennis court – and it can be played indoors or outdoors. He also said that it’s easy for anyone with decent hand-eye coordination to pick up and enjoy, but it features intense action and nuanced strategy at the more experienced and competitive end of the spectrum.
Workman’s original goal for the Arnold Classic tournament was to recruit 100 players, but now he estimates it will probably be in the range of 140-150. Players can compete in singles, same-sex doubles and mixed doubles, and most participants play in two events. The tournament will be separated by skill level – each competitor is given a rating from 2.0 (low) to 5.0 (high) – and there will be five or six divisions. The top two skill levels will probably be combined into one division because most of the premier pickleballers are in the sport’s wintertime hotbeds of Florida and Arizona.
The diversion of elite talent points to another fact illustrating pickleball’s growing mainstream acceptance: some players are now able to make a decent living from endorsements and prize money at top-tier tournaments. But that won’t be the main reason that most pickleballers show up to the Ohio Expo Center in early-March.
“It’s funny, it’s not the sport—it’s the camaraderie.”
The First Annual Arnold Classic Pickleball Tournament will be held at the Buckeye Building at the Ohio Expo Center, 717 E. 17th Ave. For more information or to register for the tournament, visit arnoldsportsfestival.com/pickleball.