Feature Article - February 2020
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How to Build a Thriving Pickleball Program

By Chris Gelbach

The ongoing growth of pickleball continues unabated. According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the number of places to play pickleball has more than doubled since 2010, and the SFIA 2017 Pickleball Participant Report estimated that there are now more than 3.1 million players in the United States.

As recreation managers look to tap into this growing market and better meet the needs of patrons, the racquet sport can offer the advantages of being playable in a wide variety of indoor and outdoor environments without requiring a substantial initial investment.

"That's the beauty of pickleball—it can be played on really any type of flat surface, whether it be tennis courts, basketball courts, volleyball courts, even parking lot space," said Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association. "You don't need a special surface to install pickleball. There is certainly a temporary nature for pickleball where just utilizing any type of flat surface space, whether it's indoor or outdoor, you can have a court set up within a half-hour with just tape or chalk and a portable pickleball net for $150."

According to Maloof, this kind of setup can be a low-risk way to get a program off the ground and gauge interest in the sport before investing further. But Brian Murphy, co-founder of Mentor Pickleball in Mentor, Ohio, and a USAPA ambassador for Lake County of Ohio, cautions that there are still some requirements for making an initial pickleball experience a good one.

"Some people are so excited to do it that they don't really put it in a place that's decent for pickleball," Murphy said. "It has low ceilings, and the floor is not good. It's a catch-22. You want to do it, but you don't want to rush into something that's not the right thing for you."

In many cases, making the right choices initially can involve using existing gymnasium spaces during times of lower utilization or looking at temporary or even permanent conversion of underutilized tennis courts to pickleball.

"A lot of cities call me to find out how much it will cost to move tennis over to pickleball because they have all these tennis courts just sitting there doing nothing," Murphy said. "They either want to change it into a skatepark or pickleball, and they ask me how much it costs to flip it over. It's not all that expensive."

In Mentor, Murphy started the city's program in 2012 on a tennis court and then convinced the local parks department to convert two existing underutilized tennis courts permanently into six pickleball courts with netting in between each court. "It caught on and nobody was using the other tennis courts next to us, so two years later they gave me those and we had six more, and then three years after that they gave me the last tennis court so we have 15 outdoor courts now," Murphy said.

Ryan Reader, program director for the Pickleball Academy of Southwest Florida, oversees a dedicated facility in Naples that started with nine courts and is now being expanded to 65 courts. He's also seeing people become more willing to convert underused courts to pickleball. "We're like the capital of communities with tennis courts and golf courses, and all these people are at first hesitant to give up a couple of tennis courts," Reader said. "But then they play pickleball, and it's like, 'Alright, how many more tennis courts can we convert?'"

That's not to say that Reader or other pickleball pros are proclaiming the death of tennis. In fact, Wayne Bullock, head tennis and pickleball pro for the City of St. George, Utah, sees significant crossover between the sports, with a lot of seniors who are getting older or injured transitioning to pickleball, which requires less movement around a much smaller court. "I see a lot of seniors switch over from tennis to pickleball. I have seen some players come back to tennis. I've also seen quite a few players do both," Bullock said. "I preach that all day long. You can play tennis and pickleball."

Shane Wampler, a recreation supervisor at City of Omaha Recreation who has given presentations on pickleball, noted that in Omaha, the city is currently using about six different sites for pickleball, all of them on basketball courts. "As long as you have normal-size walls and it's not super tight, you can typically fit three pickleball courts on a full-size basketball court," Wampler said.

This can be a great way to get started, since many gyms are underutilized during the daytime hours and pickleball is a draw for retirees who are available at that time. Wampler noted that three pickleball courts can accommodate a group of around 20 without it being problematic, especially with a more senior-leaning group. "If you have a more social, senior-level crowd, they're not wanting to consistently play for two or three hours. They like that there's a break. They like that it's social," Wampler said. "If I have three courts, 12 people playing at a time, with five or six people sitting out, that's more their speed."