Meet the American who founded pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the nation

Joel Pritchard, WW II veteran, was a congressman from Washington state; NFL legend Drew Brees is among sport's new investors

Joel M. Pritchard was in a real pickle. 

The Seattle businessman, Washington state Republican legislator and father of four was enjoying a summer day after a golf outing at his home on Bainbridge Island in 1965 when his peaceful idyll was interrupted by his restless children.

He and his buddy Bill Bell sought to calm the tempest with an afternoon of activity on the local badminton court. 

One problem. They couldn’t find the right equipment for a proper game of badminton — or so goes the origin story of pickleball, the tale recounted by many of the burgeoning sport’s enthusiasts.

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Pritchard (1925-1997), a World War II U.S. Army veteran, leaned on his military training to calm the kids. 

He improvised, adapted and overcame. 

Joel M. Pritchard in 1969, while serving in the Washington state senate. Pritchard served for more than 30 years in Washington politics while also working as a business executive and founding pickleball in 1965. 

Joel M. Pritchard in 1969, while serving in the Washington state senate. Pritchard served for more than 30 years in Washington politics while also working as a business executive and founding pickleball in 1965.  (Washington State Legislature)

He and Bell cobbled together a makeshift game on the badminton court with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball — a Wiffle ball, or something similar. 

With pal Barney McCallum, they created the rules a few days later. 

Pickleball was born in Pritchard's backyard. 

The sport "combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong," says USA Pickleball, the sport's governing body.

The name pickleball may sound funny. But the sport is no joke. 

It's "played both indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net … with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes."

The name pickleball may sound funny. 

But the sport is no joke. 

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Pickleball is the fastest growing participation sport in America, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). 

It’s also enjoying a sudden influx of big money and big interest from big personalities. 

Drew Brees (left) announced his ownership investment in the Major League Pickleball team the Mad Drops in July 2022. Entrepreneur Steve Kuhn (right) founded the league in 2021. 

Drew Brees (left) announced his ownership investment in the Major League Pickleball team the Mad Drops in July 2022. Entrepreneur Steve Kuhn (right) founded the league in 2021.  (Major League Pickleball)

"We see pickleball as an incredible medium that brings people together, connects communities and promotes a healthy and active lifestyle," Major League Pickleball’s newest team owner, former NFL star Drew Brees, told Fox News Digital. 

The future Hall of Fame quarterback and Texas native announced his ownership stake in the Mad Drop Pickleball Club in July. 

The organization’s other investors include Los Angeles Lakers co-owner Jim Buss.

The Austin, Texas-based Mad Drops are one of 12 clubs — soon to be 16 — in Major League Pickleball, the league founded last year by entrepreneur Steve Kuhn. 

Recent investors include celebrity entrepreneur, social media influencer and NFT apostle Gary Vaynerchuk.

"The opportunities to grow Major League Pickleball and the sport through our coed professional team events and fan engagement are endless," said Brees.

The sport is even spawning a new American lifestyle in Texas and other pickleball hotspots.

Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith in action as they hit the pickleball during the Red Rock Open Women's Doubles Championship at Little Valley Sports Complex in St. George, Utah, on April 10, 2022.

Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith in action as they hit the pickleball during the Red Rock Open Women's Doubles Championship at Little Valley Sports Complex in St. George, Utah, on April 10, 2022. (Nils Nilsen/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Courtside Kitchen, a massive pickleball concept restaurant, opened in Fort Worth last summer. It boasts 7,500 square feet of indoor dining and 23,500 square feet of outdoor space devoted to eating, drinking and pickleballing. 

"The sport of pickleball has captured the hearts of Fort Worth’s active community," raved Restaurant News last year while announcing the new concept eatery. 

A ‘more focused’ soldier

Pickleball patriarch Joel McFee Pritchard was born on May 8, 1925, in Seattle to Frank and Jean (McFee) Pritchard, a longtime Washington family. 

He enjoyed a distinguished political career of nearly 40 years representing Washington as a state legislator (1959-71), as a U.S. congressman (1973-85) and, finally, as its 14th lieutenant governor (1989-97). 

Before he served the people of the Evergreen State, he served Uncle Sam. 

U.S. servicemen and Japanese women dancing at the Oasis nightclub, Tokyo, 1945. Joel Pritchard, Washington state politician and creator of pickleball, served in the U.S. Army occupation force in Tokyo after World War II. 

U.S. servicemen and Japanese women dancing at the Oasis nightclub, Tokyo, 1945. Joel Pritchard, Washington state politician and creator of pickleball, served in the U.S. Army occupation force in Tokyo after World War II.  (Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Pritchard was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943, at age 18, at the height of World War II

He shipped out to the Pacific Theater where, among other stops, the teenager saw combat in the Battle for Cebu City in the Philippines.

"His division was scheduled to be in the forefront of a planned invasion of Japan," reports HistoryLink.org, a repository of Washington state history, in an extensive biography of Pritchard. 

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American war planners expected up to 4 million U.S. casualties and 10 million civilians killed in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Pritchard, like most GIs in 1945, certainly feared the worst. 

The atomic bomb eliminated the need for a much deadlier invasion.  

"When Japan surrendered, Pritchard was instead in the forefront of the postwar occupation," states HistoryLink. 

"He recalled ‘block after block of nothing’ in bombed-out Tokyo. He remained in Japan for about six months, helping build an airfield and traveling as part of an Army basketball team."

A pickleball sits on the court next to the net at the newly opened West Reading Pickleball Courts in West Reading, Penn., on Friday, June 25, 2021. The West Reading Pickleball Association held an intro to pickleball clinic for people new to the sport. The venue has a SportCourt athletic surface.

A pickleball sits on the court next to the net at the newly opened West Reading Pickleball Courts in West Reading, Penn., on Friday, June 25, 2021. The West Reading Pickleball Association held an intro to pickleball clinic for people new to the sport. The venue has a SportCourt athletic surface. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Sgt. Pritchard was discharged from the Army in 1946, with a world of experience under his belt at just 20 years old. He returned from his wartime experiences "more focused," his brother Frank was quoted as saying. 

He attended Marietta College in Ohio with the hopes of playing football — and never lost his thirst for competition. 

"He was at Marietta for less than two years when he decided to marry Joan Sutton, whom he had met at Marietta. In 1948, they returned to Seattle and started a family," reports HistoryLink. 

Gary Vaynerchuk, chief executive officer of VaynerMedia, speaks during the Annual Non-Fungible Token (NFT) Event in New York, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. The celebrity entrepreneur and social media influencer invested in Major League Pickleball in 2022.  

Gary Vaynerchuk, chief executive officer of VaynerMedia, speaks during the Annual Non-Fungible Token (NFT) Event in New York, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. The celebrity entrepreneur and social media influencer invested in Major League Pickleball in 2022.   (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Pritchard landed a job at Griffin Envelope Company, where he worked for nearly 25 years before retiring as its president in 1971. 

The Pritchards raised four children, Peggy, Frank, Anne and Jeanie. Turns out those kids would prove essential to the pickleball origin story. 

‘Pickleball is here to stay’

Pickleball grew slowly from its creation in 1965. In 2022, it suddenly seems to be everywhere, with a long list of stakeholders who are taking a bite at the pickle.  

Major League Pickleball, which pits teams against each other, is not the only game in town. 

New York City residents participate in a Pickleball game at William F. Passannante Ballfield, in New York City on May 1, 2022.  

New York City residents participate in a Pickleball game at William F. Passannante Ballfield, in New York City on May 1, 2022.   (Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The Association of Pickleball Professionals and the Professional Pickleball Association are competing tours that boast the best individual players in the game, while groups like Pickleball Trips brings travelers to hotspots for the sport around the world and speaks to the game's growing appeal as a lifestyle brand. 

"Our mission is to combine [a] one-of-a-kind travel experience with world-class pickleball instruction," states the Pickleball Trip website.

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Former professional pickleball player Stacie Townsend chronicles the latest in pickleball news on her blog, ThePickler.com, while fans follow pickleball’s social media trends via influencers such as @thedinkpickleball on Instagram, which boasts more than 100,000 followers. 

"It's pretty wild right now," said Townsend about the sudden upswing in a sport she picked up just five years ago. 

"It's social, it's competitive and it's easy to learn. Anybody can play and anybody can excel at it pretty quickly."

Her own story is proof: "I went from a complete amateur to a pro in a year and a half, two years. In what other sport can you do that?"

The sport's universality for men and women has helped fuel pickleball's dramatic recent upswing in popularity. 

Pickleball is also the only sport in which men and women compete against each other on equal footing on the same court — and make equal money, said Anne Worcester, a business analyst for Major League Pickleball. 

"Sponsors love that aspect, partners love it, fans love it, investors love it," she said.

The sport's universality for men and women has helped fuel its dramatic recent upswing in popularity.  

Pickleball rackets at the Arroyo Seco Racquet Club in South Pasadena, California, on Saturday, July 23, 2022.

Pickleball rackets at the Arroyo Seco Racquet Club in South Pasadena, California, on Saturday, July 23, 2022. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

"Pickleball continues its incredible rise, becoming the fastest-growing sport over the last two years, with participation seeing a 39.3% growth," the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported in February.  

The organization estimates that up to 8 million Americans play pickleball regularly. 

Major League Pickleball founder Kuhn plans to see that number grow to 40 million pickleball players for 2030. 

"Pickleball is here to stay," said Worcester.

‘A fun-loving extrovert'

Joel Pritchard died on Oct. 9, 1997, in his Seattle apartment, after facing several bouts of lymphoma. He was 72. 

Washington state Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard (left) and Secretary of the Senate Gordon Golob in 1990. Pritchard created pickleball, the fastest growing sport in America in 2022. 

Washington state Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard (left) and Secretary of the Senate Gordon Golob in 1990. Pritchard created pickleball, the fastest growing sport in America in 2022.  (Washington State Legislature)

"One of the lions of Washington’s modern Republican Party, Pritchard occasionally tweaked his own party and earned admiration for working with colleagues from both sides of the political aisle," the Spokesman-Review wrote in his obituary. 

It added that "he was a fun-loving extrovert who loved a good joke or war story."

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Among other accolades he was given, the state of Washington named the Joel M. Pritchard Building on the State Capitol campus in his honor. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. 

"Pickleball has brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people."

"He invented pickleball," the Spokesman-Review Tribute noted in passing, at a time when the sport was something of a curiosity. It was, in 1997, merely a footnote in the life of one of Washington’s most notable politicians. 

Pickleball looks now, 25 years after Pritchard's death, like it will be the accomplishment for which he is best remembered. 

Major League Pickleball named its championship trophy the Pritchard Cup, "the most coveted trophy in pickleball," while the origin story of Pritchard's island home is now deeply ingrained in the culture of the sport.

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"A couple of dads with bored kids — and they created something that just exploded," said The Pickler blogger Townsend.

"Pickleball has brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people."

Larry Fink of Fox News Digital contributed reporting to this article. 

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