John Sperling had no interest in playing a game called pickleball.
A former tennis pro living in Florida, he had a simple reason for his reluctance.
“‘Nope, I’m not going to do it,’” Sperling said. “’Silly name.’”
Eventually, he caved into the persistent urging of a friend and gave pickleball a shot. Within two minutes of playing, he was hooked on what has become one of the fastest growing sports in the country.
Sperling now plays professionally, winning a gold medal at the 2017 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, Florida. He travels around the country introducing pickleball to communities, and he was among six professional players in Blount County last week conducting a pickleball clinic on the campus of Maryville College.
“The growth of the game is exploding now,” Sperling said. “It’s everywhere. Every unused tennis court is turning into pickleball.”
There are an estimated 3.1 million pickleball players in the U.S. — an increase of 12% from the previous year — according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association 2018 Pickleball Participant Report. East Tennessee is no exception to this trend.
Mary Clor, ambassador of USA Pickleball Association in Knoxville, estimates there are between 75-100 avid pickleball players in Blount County. Many of them belong to the local Smoky Mountain Pickleball Club, which was founded in 2013.
One of those members is Jean Terry — a Maryville resident and club regular. Terry was in attendance at the clinic at Maryville College, which was conducted through a Sarasota, Florida-based organization called Suncoast Pickleball Association.
“What I’ve found is you either hate it or you’re addicted to it,” Terry said. “There’s no in between.”
Terry was the latter. She said she plays pickleball at least once a day through the club. Smoky Mountain members gather at the Bassel Courts in Alcoa as well as the Everett Rec Center and Fort Craig Boys and Girls Club in Maryville.
“It’s a fun group, and there are a lot of different levels,” said Rosemarie Cirina, another club player from Maryville. “I’ve golfed and played tennis and basketball in my past, but I really didn’t know what pickleball was, so this has been a wonderful experience.”
Played with paddles and a plastic ball with holes, pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. It can be played with doubles or singles and indoors or outdoors on a 20-foot by 44-foot badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net. Games are typically played to 11 points and must be won by two.
According to USAPA, Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island just off of Seattle, Washington, by Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum. The three dads developed the sport to give their kids a different kind of summertime activity.
Pickleball has become popular throughout the U.S. and Canada while growing internationally as well, with many European and Asian countries adding courts.
As for its silly name, it is believed the game was dubbed after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it.
“The big question everybody always asks is, ‘If we had to do it all over again, what would you name the sport?’” Sperling said. “No one comes up with a name that’s better.”
Pickleball is gaining momentum particularly among older generations for a variety of reasons. Among those include health benefits that come with being active as well as the sense of community.
Because of the smaller-sized court, pickleball pro Gigi LeMaster said it offers more of an intimate experience among players. LeMaster is a four-time U.S. Open Champion and 12-time national medalist.
“We’re so close to each other and the court is so small, so we’re all ribbing each other and talking to each other,” LeMaster said, noting tennis is more of a quiet, serious game. “I think it’s the social aspect and it’s very easy to learn, so people can play at any level.”
It’s also a sport that can be played between a wide variety of different age and skill levels. Sperling said it’s not uncommon to see a teenager play against a someone in their 70s or 80s. That’s because the smaller court makes it easier to keep the ball in play, and the light-weight ball deters the game from getting too fast paced.
“The rules of this sport were originally designed to make it so that the playing field was leveled,” Clor said. “It’s not a total equal playing field, but it’s a darn close one.”
Pickleball’s rise in popularity has started surpassing the accessibility to courts. Stephanie Lane — a pickleball pro out of Nashville — said she travels across the state to play because of the court shortage in Tennessee’s capital.
“All we want to do is take existing courts that are run down and change them over to pickleball,” Lane said. “Instead of a graveyard, it will be busting and vital and energy everywhere.”
Pickleball enthusiasts find ways around the problem either way. Sperling said it’s not uncommon to see players use tape to turn tennis courts into makeshift pickleball ones.
“That’s how much love and passion people have for the game — they’ll do it every single time and they don’t care,” Sperling said. “It’s a neat little niche sport that’s growing by leaps and bounds.”