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Across the Aisle | Pickleball Draws Political Players From Both Sides of the Net

Showing bipartisan teamwork, Washington state makes the popular paddle game its official sport.

By Eric Peterson  |  April 4, 2022
Jim Honeyford Washington
john lovick washington

Maryland was the first state to have an official sport. The year: 1962. The sport: jousting.

In the years since, Alaska chose dog mushing, Minnesota picked ice hockey and North Carolina went with stock car racing. And, as of March 28, Washington state has adopted its official sport: pickleball, invented in the mid-1960s by then-Washington Rep. Joel Pritchard and friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell at Pritchard’s Bainbridge Island cabin in suburban Seattle.

After its invention, pickleball mania quickly spread across Puget Sound to Olympia, the capital, where Pritchard introduced it to fellow legislators. By the mid-1970s, it had gained traction outside the Evergreen State; by 1990, there were pickleball courts in all 50 states. There are now more than 4.8 million pickleball players in the U.S.—up 600,000 from 2020—according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Washington Senate Vice President Pro Tem John Lovick (D) sponsored the bill to make pickleball the official state sport at a friend’s suggestion. A pickleball neophyte when the measure got its first reading in January, Lovick charged ahead and shepherded the bill through the legislative process.

It’s Official: A Few More of Washington’s Designated Symbols:

  • Amphibian — Pacific chorus frog, designated 2007
  • Fossil — Columbian mammoth, 1998
  • Oyster — Olympia oyster, 2014
  • Vegetable — Walla Walla sweet onion, 2007

“This is my 15th year in the Legislature, and I have never sponsored anything that has generated so much attention, so many positive vibes,” he says.

It’s a notably egalitarian sport: It’s fun for all ages, the court is small enough to fit in most any backyard, and two paddles and a ball can sell for as little as $20. It also spans the political divide.

“You need something like this every once in a while in the Legislature to get bipartisan support—a fun bill,” former Sen. Jim Honeyford (R), a co-sponsor, says.

For the pickleball-curious, here’s how it’s done: Drop a badminton net so the top is 3 feet from the ground and play with solid paddles and a whiffle ball in lieu of rackets and a shuttlecock. Two or four players can play. Each side must let the ball bounce before hitting it back over the net. The first side to hit 11 points wins the game.

Because it involves a whiffle ball, players can’t be timid. “You’ve got to be able to hit the ball hard. Nobody plays golf to putt,” Pritchard told the Washington State Oral History Program. The Republican later served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms as Washington’s lieutenant governor.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed Lovick’s bill March 28 on Pritchard’s original pickleball court on Bainbridge Island. Lovick and several representatives of the USA Pickleball Association, the sport’s governing body, attended.

“It was an honor to travel to Washington and Bainbridge Island as Gov. Inslee and Sen. Lovick signed the bill to make pickleball the official state sport of Washington,” says Stu Upson, CEO of USA Pickleball. “As the sport has seen exponential growth over these last few years, it’s incredible to be able to pay tribute to the original founders, Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell, and say thank you for introducing us to the sport of pickleball. The game has truly been life changing for so many people.”

Honoring the Game’s Inventor

Lovick has caught the pickleball bug himself. “I had not played until I sponsored the legislation, and I’m addicted to it right now, totally addicted,” he says. “I played 14 games one weekend. I was probably a week and a half healing from the soreness of it.”

Not that a few aches and pains are going to stop him. “I might go out and play a game of pickleball this afternoon,” Lovick says with a laugh. “I’m telling people Washington state is the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks—and now, pickleball.”

Honeyford says he got involved to put the spotlight on Pritchard, who died in 1997. “My wife plays bridge with his son, and I thought I just had to (co-sponsor the bill) to honor Joel,” he says. “He was quite a man. He had a key (to the Capitol) so he could get in and run the steps to the dome. That’s a good climb!”

It all adds up to a recipe for positivity, Lovick says.

“We need some sunshine, and I think pickleball is bringing sunshine to us,” he says. “I always like to quote something I heard before: During a pandemic, we can live in a cave or a cocoon. And I prefer a cocoon, because we’re going to come out vibrant, and this is what pickleball is doing for all of us. It’s making us more vibrant. We’ll come out of this enjoying the game and having fun.”

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelancer.

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