When it’s wet and windy, they play at the Dancel YMCA. When it’s warm and sunny, they play at Atholton Park or on the Oakland Mills tennis courts. When they travel, they seek out pickup games. Wherever they are, whatever the weather, Howard County pickleball players are gonna play, play, play.
“It’s infectious,” said Charlie Brown, director of the pickleball program at the Dancel YMCA in Ellicott City. “Once you get on the court, and if someone sort of knows what they’re doing and you explain what to do, you start enjoying it very quickly. It’s quick gratification.”
Invented in the 1960s, pickleball is a cross between ping-pong, tennis and badminton. Players — typically teams of two — stalk a court about half the size of a tennis court, using flat, lightweight paddles to hit a hollow ball punctured with holes. Games go to 11 points, but the winning team must win by 2. It’s quick, requires less mobility than tennis and is a cinch to pick up — making it more than a little addictive.
“It’s an easy one to learn,” said Janis St. Clair, whose husband Duane founded the Howard County Pickleball Association in 2016. “ A game lasts anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes at the most, and you can sit and rest between matches. We find it’s a very social game, too, because as you’re waiting your turn for the next court, you socialize. There’s so many advantages to it and it gives us all some exercise. We just enjoy it so much.”
They’re in good company, as pickleball’s popularity is exploding locally and nationwide. The USA Pickleball Association (the sport’s national governing body) boasted 22,321 dues-paying members in 2017, an increase of 5,526 over the previous year — or an average of 460 new members per month. The Howard County Pickleball Association has 160 members, but estimates that there are between 400 and 500 active players in the area, according to Ken Greco, the group’s second vice president.
Howard County Recreation and Parks hosts a robust pickleball program, with adult lessons, drop-in play at the North Laurel Community Center and the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex, tournaments and — new this year — youth lessons. Registration for this spring’s adult lessons opened on a Friday and were almost full by the following Tuesday, according to Amanda Bartell, who oversees the program.
“It’s definitely blowing up very quickly,” she said. “It’s good for adults and seniors because it’s a smaller court, which makes it good for kids as well. It’s more compact and it may make it easier for them to play. It’s a fun game, it gets them out there, it’s easy to play and easy to pick up.”
At the Dancel Y, thrice-weekly pickleball clinics routinely pack the house, Brown said.
“My courts are packed. I would say that our center is probably the pickleball epicenter of the county,” he said. “We’re almost at the point where recruitment is almost a problem, because we don’t have the space.”
Birth of a sport
Pickleball came into being in 1965 outside of Seattle, when former state Rep. Joel Pritchard came home from a golf game to find his family bored and restless. Pritchard and a friend tried to get a badminton game going but couldn’t find the shuttlecock, so they used a wiffle ball instead and lowered the badminton net to compensate for the difference in aerodynamics.
According to legend, the game’s name came from the Pritchards’ dog Pickles, who would chase the ball during games. Pritchard’s wife later disputed that account, saying that she’d coined the term in honor of the “pickle boat” in crew, where oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of the other boats.
Whatever its origins, many players consider pickleball’s name the worst thing about the sport.
“I wish it was a different name,” Brown said during a phone interview. “My wife is driving right now and she also says it’s a terrible name.”
Rob Schmidt, an alternative education teacher and member of the Howard County Pickleball Association, said a new moniker could potentially make it even easier to recruit new players.
“I think pickleball is going to explode, I really do. Even faster, if they’d change the name,” he said. “If the name was thunderball or something, I think people would go nuts for this game.”
At 53, Schmidt is one of the county’s younger players. He picked up the game eight years ago while visiting some of his parents’ friends in a retirement community in Florida.
“I got a little bored hanging out with them and went down to the athletic area and these people were playing this game I had never seen before. We describe it sometimes like playing ping-pong, but you’re standing on the table,” he said. “Someone asked me if I wanted to play and I was instantly good at it because I had all this other experience.”
The sport hadn’t spread north at that point, so Schmidt didn’t play for awhile after returning home. And then, out of nowhere, some of his friends began playing outdoors at Oakland Mills.
“So I just started playing,” he said. “I had summers off because I’m a teacher and I was playing five times a week. It’s become my passion.”
‘This is awesome’
The sport is popular enough now that finding playing partners is easy pretty much anywhere. The St. Clairs, for example, make it a point to seek out new pickleball courts whenever they travel.
“It’s always fun to join up with other groups who are playing, and it’s not hard at all to find them because they’re popping up all over the country,” Janis St. Clair said. “We’ve played down in the Keys in Florida, several places in the mainland of Florida up the Gulf Coast, in Georgia and in Palm Springs.”
Brown and his wife do the same, but if they can’t find a ready-made court, they’ll just bring their own.
“Last year my wife and I took a cross-country trip to Mount Rushmore. We heard there was good pickleball in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, so we rented a motel room there, got up the next day and played pickleball,” he said. “When we go on vacation we also bring our portable pickleball court, and then the whole family can play. If there’s a parking lot where we are, we chalk it out and everyone runs around playing pickleball.”
Because most pickleball enthusiasts can’t stop talking about pickleball, interest in the game spreads largely by word of mouth. The sales pitch is usually successful, Schmidt said.
“There isn’t a person I’ve introduced it to who says anything other than, ‘This is awesome,’” he said. “I’ve been obsessed and I talk it up. I push it on people, for sure.”
Though players approach the game of pickleball with gusto, few in Howard County are competitive about the outcome of individual matches. It’s a fun activity, Brown said, but it’s more of a social one than a hardcore athletic pursuit.
“If you ask me five minutes after I played, ‘How’d you do in the last game?’ I’d say, maybe, ‘I won, but I can’t remember the score,’” he said. “It’s just fun. There’s not a lot of pressure.”
Not that onlookers should take that as an opportunity to belittle the game.
“I have a friend who’s a tennis player and was putting pickleball down, and at the end of the conversation I couldn’t believe how defensive I was,” Schmidt said. “I’ve gotten pretty sensitive.”