Things to do
Napa Valley's Fastest Growing Sport
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Smith


Published On: April 09, 2021

Across many media outlets,  pickleball  has been dubbed “the fastest growing sport in America” because it is easy to learn, appropriate for all ages, a social activity, and fun. It has attracted celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Serena Williams, and George Clooney.

While it is a terrific  recreational and social sport for families and friends, it has also evolved as a formidable competitive sport. Governed by the USA Pickleball Association, there are multiple tournaments held each year both within the United States: The U.S Pickleball National Championships, U.S Open Pickleball Championships, and numerous international championships.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three fathers on Bainbridge Island, Washington – Congressman Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum – as a game for their children to play one summer afternoon when they were bored.  They  improvised on an old badminton court with wooden paddles and a perforated plastic ball. After formalizing the rules, which  rely  heavily on badminton, the game needed a name. It was widely accepted that Pritchard named the game after his dog, Pickles.

Pickleball is a hybrid of three sports – tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It is played on  a  badminton-sized  court  with a net separating the two sides, using a paddle-like ping pong and  a  perforated ball reminiscent of a Wiffle ball. The game employs visual mechanics similar to tennis and is most commonly played in doubles format. An underhanded serve is delivered from one side of the court to the opposite service box, but  only  the  serving  team may earn points; the returners must break both members of the serving team before earning the right to serve themselves. The best thing about pickleball is that it is fun. It can be played by people of all ages at any skill level. Outside of a  court  to  play  on, the only requirements  are  an  enthusiastic desire to play, and equipment such as athletic court shoes, a paddle, and balls.

In Napa Valley, Pickleball is an especially attractive sport since it flourishes year-round due to the temperate Mediterranean climate. It has grown in popularity both in private clubs and on public courts located in the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. There are two public organized pickleball groups supported by the county’s park and recreation departments- Napa Valley Pickleball, led by Chairperson Susan Segal, and Yountville Pickleball, headed up  by Alan Tenscher, Steering Committee Leader. The groups often play together. It is also gaining interest in Calistoga and St. Helena. While clinics, tournaments, and Yountville’s indoor courts had to pause during the pandemic, outdoor play is available   at Las Flores Community Park in Napa and Vineyard Park in Yountville. All one must do is show up. “There’s a welcoming tradition in pickleball to show new people the game and bring them along to develop the level of skill or aspect of the game that holds their interest,” said Tenscher.

Pickleball is easy to learn. Both the Napa Valley and Yountville groups have players willing to teach those who are interested in participating. Those who love competition will enjoy the challenge of learning a new and exciting game. It is also interactive and social, so it easily draws in observers. In fact, many become obsessed with pickleball after a few matches. “I mean, who doesn’t want to have a good time being active and outdoors in the beautiful Napa Valley?” Segal exclaimed. At Las Flores Community Park, there are four courts with dedicated playtimes from 8:30 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Yountville’s Vineyard Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sunset seven days a week, where there are four state-of-the-art courts with a player-friendly, regulation-cushioned surface. Weekend mornings are an ideal time to attend and get a feel for the game or to introduce oneself to a local ambassador, group leader,  and  local  players  to be assigned a match at one’s level of play. Those who already play pickleball know to bring their own paddle, but local players will often loan paddles to guests without one.

Because of the sport’s increasing popularity in such a short period of time, Segal  explained it has   been   challenging to keep up with the demand  for  courts. This past year the Napa Valley Pickleball Group teamed up with  the  Napa  Parks and Recreation  Foundation  to  establish the Las Flores Community Park Pickleball fund for the purpose of receiving tax- deductible donations to finance  at  least two new hard-surface courts with eight dedicated pickleball courts. “Since the development of the fund, we are working towards the goal of getting them with everyone’s support. We hope that eight courts will be enough!” said Segal.

When one thinks of Napa Valley, the first activities that come to mind are wine tasting and fine dining. However, pickleball easily complements these experiences. It provides a welcoming, social, and active element to both the local and visitor experiences. Added Segal, “Pickleball has so much to offer. It’s a healthy lifestyle with a strong social component. Napa Valley is world-renowned for its wine. Why not pickleball as well?”