When the coronavirus pandemic first shut everything down in March of 2020, my wife Chelsea and I mapped out all the possible walking routes in our neighborhood to give us something to do while stuck in isolation. One of those routes took us past a house where we’d often hear the familiar thwap of wooden paddle connecting with plastic Whiffle Ball. These neighbors have a pickleball court in their back yard, and I found myself envious that they had an additional method for keeping themselves active and entertained.
Now, thanks to efforts centered in Mill Creek, pickleball has a chance to be more than just a backyard activity. It might just become the official sport of Washington State.
When the state legislative session opens Monday, issues such as homelessness, infrastructure and the pandemic will be at the front of the agenda. But also up for consideration is SB 5615. This bill, put forward by Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, proposes to make pickleball the official state sport.
Here’s the story of how an obscure sport finds itself of the cusp of joining the coast rhododendron (flower), willow goldfinch (bird) and “Washington, My Home” (song) as symbols of Washington State pride.
It all began last July with a column Chuck Wright penned in the Mill Creek Beacon. Washington doesn’t have an official state sport, and in the column Wright advocated for pickleball claiming that mantle. Wright cited how pickleball — a racket sport like tennis, except it’s played on a smaller court with wooden paddles and a Whiffle Ball — originated on Bainbridge Island, when Joel Pritchard, who became a prominent politician, and his friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell created the sport to occupy their kids.
“When I moved to Mill Creek in 1993, the house had a pickleball court,” Wright explained about why he wrote the column. “Our kids started playing pickleball and the seed was planted at that point in time. It grew and grew, and in June it blossomed. I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is Washington State’s sport, we need to have it identified as our state sport.”
It just so happens that Wright is a neighbor and friend to Lovick, so the subject naturally came up in conversation. It didn’t take long to convince Lovick, who’s a sports lover himself, to take up the cause.
“We have a state everything,” Lovick said about why he joined the effort. “We have a state flower, a state bird, all the things. Why not a state sport? It’s something everyone can play, at any age. And we need some fun things happening in this state and country. This is one of those fun things.”
So the concept and the legislator were set. What was missing was a bandwagon driver, someone from the local pickleball community who could ratchet up the enthusiasm and create a push. Enter Kate Van Gent.
Van Gent is pickleball fanatic, having taken up the sport at the beginning of the pandemic and quickly becoming someone who wins medals at local tournaments. In a moment of pickleball serendipity, Van Gent happened to be arriving home from a pickleball camp in late July when Lovick, who was doorbelling on behalf of Mill Creek City Council candidate Melissa Duque, was leaving Van Gent’s driveway after dropping off a flyer. A conversation ensued, in which it was revealed that Van Gent was a pickleball enthusiast, and a partnership was formed.
Van Gent, who’s a go-getter, became the primary promoter of the cause, helping put together a committee that included professional pickleball players Riley and Lindsey Newman from Whidbey Island, as well as Snohomish County Sports Commission executive director Tammy Dunn, to help craft a bill.
“We’re the birthplace of pickleball,” Van Gent said. “You wouldn’t believe the growth of it, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. If you look at the tours, there are 300 professional pickleball tournaments a year and there are people making their living off the sport. And in Joel Pritchard we have a six-term (U.S.) congressman and the 14th Lieutenant Governor of Washington who helped develop and spread the sport. We want to honor him and the other Washingtonians who helped grow the sport.”
The push to make pickleball the state sport isn’t just ceremonial. It’s also about economic opportunity. The hope is that if the bill passes, it would lead to upgrading the state’s pickleball facilities, which are in short supply. That in turn could lead to attracting larger tournaments to the state, along with the resulting economic impact.
Indeed, efforts are already underway to put Snohomish County at the front of that line. Snohomish County Council member Jared Mead is exploring the possibility of having a covered pickleball facility built at a Snohomish County park. This would be a facility capable of playing host to tournaments such as the USA Pickleball Pacific Northwest Regional Championship, which drew 890 players to Meridian, Idaho, in June.
“Pickleball is a big sport in the country and people don’t really notice that,” Mead said. “The state passing something like this would generate more publicity around the sport, and it would give Washington — and Snohomish County specifically — an opportunity to take advantage of it. We’re close to two airports, we have hotels, so if we invested in nice new courts we’d suddenly be a location for pickleball nationwide.”
The bill could move fast. It’s already scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Committee on State Government & Elections on Wednesday, with a committee vote scheduled for Friday. If it passes out of committee — a virtual certainty since committee chair Sam Hunt signed on as the co-sponsor — it’ll head to the full senate.
Lovick is confident the bill will pass the full legislature, but any assistance helps. The bill is open for public comment online, so you, too, can put your support behind the effort.
And maybe, by this time next month, pickleball will be moving out of the back yard and into a position of prominence in Washington, with Snohomish County serving as the hub.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.