Pickleball—an addictive mashup of tennis, badminton, and ping pong—is seemingly everywhere these days, and played by seemingly everyone.
There are now a whopping 4.8 million players in the U.S. (a number that’s almost doubled in the past five years), and professional competition is booming around the world. Broadcasters are televising pickleball matches. There are pickleball themed weddings, and celebrity endorsements, and lengthy think pieces about the sport showing up in prestigious magazines. In March, Washington governor Jay Inslee declared pickleball the official state sport.
The future of pickleball is lucrative. Its past, however, might hold its real value. Pickleball, at heart, is a homegrown game that celebrates fun, community, and inclusion. It is also a spiritual pursuit that brings people together and provides meaning beyond what most of us expect to get out of a sport. And on Washington’s Bainbridge Island, where the game was invented, it functions in some ways like a religion, providing fans a way to connect with its creation.
Like many successful religions and spiritual pursuits, pickleball’s origins are personal and human-scaled. In the mid 1960s, the story goes, some dads vacationing on this small island across the Puget Sound from Seattle needed to entertain their bored children. They improvised a new game using materials they had on hand—a badminton net, a wiffle ball, some ping pong paddles.
Because the sport is easy to learn and master, and traditionally not too expensive to play, regular folk take to it. It’s a famously friendly engine of social cohesion, bringing neighbors together and providing informal community bonds through park-based pickup games. In a society more apt to play individualized sports or focus on personal training and exercising, as sociologist Robert Putnam discovered, pickleball—which is primarily played recreationally with doubles—brings teamwork back into vogue.
I first played pickleball when I was living on Bainbridge Island during the pandemic; a friend unexpectedly invited me to join their game because they needed a fourth player. I’ve been playing ever since.
The way pickleball is played in a lot of places today, it is hardly recognizable as an improvised pastime. But every year at Bainbridge Island, locals, sport preservationists, and die-hard players gather for the Founders Tournament at Battle Point Park, a commemoration of pickleball’s historic origin—just down the road from the very court where the dads and kids first put paddle to ball.
This continued effort to preserve the old beginnings and on-the-ground ethos of the game reflects a human impulse that religion scholars have studied for decades. In the mid-20th century, Romanian thinker Mircea Eliade first observed how much people love to re-create creation stories throughout history.
Eliade, an interpreter of religious rituals best known for his 1957 masterwork The Sacred and the Profane, was interested specifically in the ways humans reenact religious myths. Around the globe, Eliade noticed rites of passage—including baptisms and other ceremonies surrounding birth—and recognized that these rituals imbued life with meaning. Ancient people oriented their lives through rituals that recapitulated the emergence of the world, giving certain days and time periods heightened meaning.
We still do this today. Each year, millions of Americans, whether they consider themselves religious or not, participate in New Year’s celebrations: marking a new beginning of time with renewed commitments to improve themselves, make better decisions, or simply be a better person. They watch the famous ball drop in Times Square, counting down to a reimagined creation spark. Such rituals, according to Eliade, are essential to human life. They forge purpose out of mundanity, and are universal around the globe.
As pickleball is inexorably sucked into America’s sports-industrial complex, the annual Founders Tournament, which I attended in August, offers a chance to reenact another creation, with equally powerful impact.
The tournament partnered with the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum to offer visits to Court One, the original backyard spot where the game first began on a badminton court. There, we learned about the founding story of pickleball, including its odd name, and were able to hit a few balls so we could proudly state we’d played at the sport’s axis mundi—the earliest center of the pickleball world. The other visitors—who came from as far away as Hawaii and Georgia—and I, just like pilgrims to other sacred sites such as Stonehenge or the Camino de Santiago, consulted historical notes and took pictures.
Eliade’s work focuses on the grander creation of the cosmos. Still, he would have recognized our visit to pickleball’s origin site as representing “the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, ‘in the beginning’” (as he wrote in The Sacred and the Profane).
The Founders Tournament begins with a wooden paddle tournament, which emulates the earliest version of pickleball. Meshing 1960s equipment with the contemporary-style tournament weaves together the past with the present. Like Muslims who mimic the Prophet Muhammed’s actions during the Hajj, or Jews holding the Passover Seder to remember the liberation of Jewish people from Egyptian rule, these reenactments make the historical event real in the present-day world.
As entrepreneurs and fashionistas monetize the super competitive version of pickleball, people on Bainbridge Island are concerned about preserving a welcoming ethos around the recreation sport. They work to enshrine within the sport on the island opportunities for all people, of all skill levels—as the game did in its early days. Bainbridge Island locals are becoming pickleball evangelists, proclaiming the good news: Anyone can play pickleball, and all are welcome.
If he were here, Eliade would get what they’re up to right away. He argued, after all, that annual returns to origin stories allow people to “endure great historical pressures without despairing…or falling into that spiritual aridity that always brings with it a relativistic or nihilistic view of history.” In preserving the old beginnings of pickleball, the residents of Bainbridge Island, too, are remembering a beautiful past to work toward a rich future.