According to lore, pickleball was invented in 1965. Three friends who lived on Bainbridge Island, off the Seattle coastline, needed a new summer diversion for their children. The game, it’s said, got its name one of the friends’ family dogs, Pickles.
Once you get past the strange-sounding moniker, you will find that pickleball is a highly competitive sport that is growing by leaps and bounds—and with its arrival this year at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the cross between ping pong and paddle ball has matured from a phenomenon into a serious revenue-generating sport.
“This venue that Desert Champions, LLC, has delivered for us is really legitimizing our sport,” said Indian Wells resident and pickleball pro Kim Jagd as we spoke onsite surrounded by this week’s championship competition.
In 2009, Jagd—pronounced “Jade”—retired as a coach with the UCLA women’s volleyball team and moved to Coachella Valley.
“It’s bringing a lot of attention to us that we would not have seen had we still been (playing) at a small RV resort,” she said.
Desert Champions, LLC, manages and operates a selection of sports and entertainment events and properties, the largest of which is the BNP Paribas Open, held every year at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Just prior to the start of this year’s Margaritaville USA Pickleball Championships, taking place through Sunday, Nov. 11, the operating partners announced a total purse of $75,000 would be awarded to winners of the professional draws at the Pickleball Championships.
“(That) makes it the largest purse of any pickleball tournament in the history of our sport,” Jagd said.
The sport is growing steadily in both in the U.S. and Canada, and is beginning to get a foothold in Europe as well.
“There’s now a Ryder Cup-style tournament taking place annually called the Bainbridge Cup where they play the Americans vs. the Europeans. It’s been held in Spain and Italy, and it’s going into its third year next year,” Jagd said. The 2019 version is tentatively slated to take place next July in Germany.
Other proof of international growth of the sport is reflected in the business expansion successes of Selkirk, the pickleball equipment company founded by brothers Rob and Mike Barnes, that fields the pro team on which Jagd plays. “They’re making inroads right now in a lot of countries like Japan, China and in Europe, too,” she said.
Just this week, after play in this year’s tourney had begun, ESPN announced it would be broadcasting coverage on ESPN3 channel from Nov. 8-11.
Will pickleball ever become a major spectator sport, or will it always just a fun, participant-focused game? Jagd thinks it will make the leap.
“It’s not like hockey. The average person is not a rec-hockey player. I’m not going to go put pads on, just because I watch the pros play,” she said. “But in pickleball, anybody can play this game at any level. You can have two knee replacements and a shoulder replacement, and you can still get out and play pickleball. So the game’s going to grow in terms of the number of people playing it and therefore understanding what’s (transpiring) on court.”
If you don’t want to relax at home and watch the matches, you can head over to the low-key, friendly, yet highly competitive scene unfolding daily at the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens. If you’re a veteran attendee of the BNP Paribas Open Tennis Championship, be prepared for fewer amenities, but a much more manageable crowd and parking realities. Today, you can watch Kim Jagd team with fellow Team Selkirk member Kaitlyn Christian (a 25-year-old tennis pro, currently ranked 50th in WTA doubles) as they battle in the 19-and-over women’s doubles open championship matches.
“Whether or not we win the open, we’re going to have a great time,” said Jagd with an enthusiastic smile.
For more information, visit usapickleballnationalchampionships.com.