About a month into the first pandemic lockdown last year, Mike Smith and his pickleball-playing friends desperately wanted to get back out on a court. Once small groups were allowed to gather outside again they did just that, finding an empty tennis court in Vancouver.
“We had to do something, but the right nets weren’t there, so we used my big cargo bike as a net,” says Mr. Smith, 64, a retired Vancouver firefighter. They parked the bike mid-court and got a game going.
Soon after, someone in Mr. Smith’s crew built a homemade pickleball net – the standard is about two inches lower than what’s used for tennis – because they were sold out everywhere. It turns out a lot of Canadians kept out of gyms were also turning to pickleball as a new pandemic-era pastime.
Pickleball Canada estimates there are 350,000 pickleball players in Canada, based on an Ipsos survey the organization commissioned in late 2019. Those numbers don’t include the hundreds of Canadians who have since picked up the sport as a way to keep fit outdoors during the pandemic while abiding by small-group guidelines.
“If you try it, you just love it,” says Mr. Smith, who discovered the game along with his wife while vacationing six years ago in Arizona and then again in Mexico.
An avid racquetball player most of his life, Mr. Smith now plays pickleball almost daily. He’s noticed huge growth even just over the past year, with snowbirds grounded in Canada and many others also looking for ways to get outside and get some exercise.
“It’s a great sport and so much better for older people because it’s not as strenuous and hard on the joints, compared to tennis, and it’s more social. It’s just more fun,” he says.
The pickleball play area is the size of a badminton court – four of them will fit inside a tennis court. Players use paddles to lob a small perforated ball back and forth and, because the ball is lighter and plastic, it doesn’t bounce as hard or as high as a tennis ball.
It’s also a game that is as easygoing or as intense as players want it to be, says Mr. Smith, who brings his 25-year-old autistic son to play, too.
“He goes up every day and he puts up his paddle and people are very friendly and they say come on in, play next,” he says. “It’s fantastic.”
Mr. Smith has also seen 80-year-old couples playing doubles and says it’s not uncommon to see men and women playing one another.
“It’s more a finesse game, where placing the ball is more important than hitting the ball hard,” he says. “Power is not part of the game, so mixed doubles is huge and women and men are very similar in calibre.”
There is now a professional league in the United States and Pickleball Canada says a few organizations are trying to get a pro tour in Canada. The Pickleball Canada National Championship is scheduled in Red Deer, Alta., in August and the association hopes to hold a tournament open to international players this fall if the borders reopen.
Not bad for a sport invented in Washington state in the 1960s by two families on holiday.
“They were vacationing and the kids were bored, so they invented a game and it grew from there,” says Jim Parrott, a Pickleball Canada board member and past president of the association. “It’s been around in the U.S. for quite a while and it was brought up to Canada by snowbirds.”
Over the past five years, baby boomer snowbirds led a massive surge in the sport but it’s not just retirees anymore, Mr. Parrott says.
“It’s very easy to learn – within a few minutes you can explain the game and they can have an enjoyable game within 15 minutes,” he says. “It’s gaining a lot of popularity with younger generations, as well. In fact, the best players in the world are in their mid-20s.”
One of the biggest challenges is capacity. The sport is growing faster than municipalities and private sports facilities can keep up with outdoor courts for summer and indoor for winter.
The City of Ottawa added 41 outdoor pickleball courts to its inventory over just the past two years due to demand. The plan is to eventually add pickleball lines (delineating the badminton-sized court) to all the tennis courts across the city, says Kelly Bean, manager of citywide sports for Ottawa Recreation, Cultural and Facilities Services.
Ottawa has 13 indoor locations with 61 courts and 79 outdoor locations with 177 courts, most of them shared for tennis and pickleball.
“The demand this year is already almost double what it was last year,” she says. “This past winter, pickleball players were even shovelling off our outdoor tennis courts to be able to continue playing and bringing their own pop-up nets.”
All of the city’s public courts now have signs saying the courts are for both sports with a place to hang rackets or paddles to reserve a spot, she says. Play is limited to 30 minutes if someone else is waiting and that’s helped ease the congestion, she says.
“Every second e-mail I answer right now is about pickleball. It’s definitely a growing sport and there is a lot of demand in the Ottawa area,” Ms. Bean says.
The question inevitably comes up, though: Why is it called “pickle” ball?
Mr. Abbott says one version says the game, a combination of several different sports, is named for a maritime “pickle” crew, a group of miscellaneous people pulled together to crew a ship.
The other says it’s named after a dog belonging to one of the families that invented the game.
“Whenever a ball went astray the dog would pick it up and bring it back,” he says. “I don’t know which one is true.”