Feature Article - February 2020
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Start Small Grow Big

How to Build a Thriving Pickleball Program

By Chris Gelbach

Introducing Pickleball

While pickleball is growing rapidly, the fact remains that many people do not know how to play it—and won't feel comfortable showing up for open play without a proper introduction to the game. For departments that don't have in-house expertise in the sport, Maloof recommends reaching out to a local USAPA ambassador. "We've got over 1,900 now nationwide and they're all volunteers, they're in all 50 states," Maloof said. "There's an ambassador search feature on our website by city or zip code."

These ambassadors can help give you a sense of the local pickleball landscape and assist with initial outreach clinics to teach newcomers the basics of the sport—one of the keys to launching a new pickleball program successfully.

"The rules of pickleball are kind of goofy, so sometimes it's a barrier to just say, 'We're offering pickleball on Tuesdays, now come join us,'" said Wampler. "They don't want to just show up not knowing how to do it."

For this reason, it's important to offer free clinics that are explicitly marketed as teaching beginners who have no prior experience in the sport how to play. St. George's Bullock prefers to do this with a four-week "learn to play pickleball" class covering everything from pickleball rules and scoring to volleying, ground strokes and serving.

"And once they get done with the learn-to-play class, you've got to have something else for them to go into," Bullock said. "Otherwise, they'll just go into drop-in play, which is fine."

In providing these open-play opportunities, Wampler recommends starting with two or three days a week with each session being in that two- to three- hour range. Maloof noted that it's also important to maintain consistency in scheduling. "Where we have seen situations where programs may not have taken off, it's because the times are changed," Maloof said. "Establishing a set schedule for pickleball really gives the program an opportunity to grow and build."

In St. George, Bullock oversees the 24 outdoor courts in its main pickleball facility. The city doesn't charge court fees for this drop-in play, so the only revenue they're bringing in is through programming such as classes and leagues, which are very popular and run by skill level.

"So, once they're done with the learn-to-play class, they can go into a low-level pickleball league and go play and they can play pickleball with their friends and take classes, private lessons, go play tournaments, all that kind of stuff," Bullock said. "But you've got to have a way for new players to come in. If you don't have a way to catch them, you're going to lose them."

Programming for Success

Beyond learn-to-play classes, some successful pickleball programs also incorporate options like skills and drills classes, clinics and bootcamps. Leagues are integral and most likely to be a success when they are carefully assembled to group players together by skill level. "It's no fun to win 11 to 1 and it's no fun to lose 11 to 1," Murphy said. "But if you can get a good competition, that's the key."

To foster better competition, facilities such as the Pickleball Academy of Southwest Florida in Naples, offer ratings clinics that gauge player skill levels and help determine the right tournaments and leagues for players to join. The academy also offers a wide variety of clinics, many of them designed for specific ratings levels, to help each student advance beyond their current skill levels. With Naples billed as the "Pickleball Capital of the World," the academy also offers two- and three-day skill camps that people often schedule as part of their Florida vacations.

"We have people from all over the world come and train at our facility—it's just amazing," said Reader. As a leading tournament facility, the academy's facilities at East Naples Community Park also host the Southern Tropics Tournament Series that includes the Florida State Championships in December, the Winter Classic in January and the Southern Tropics Tournament in March. The site also hosts the Minto U.S. Open Championship in April.

In St. George, Bullock feels that putting an emphasis on tournament quality has been critical to his program's success. "The first pickleball tournaments I ran, I was spending hours and hours just making sure I got this right—because I knew if I got it right and made it fun, players would come back," Bullock said.

One popular yearly tournament, the Fall Brawl, had 200 participants in its first iteration and has grown to more than 800 participants this past year. "What I like to do is theme our tournaments. The Fall Brawl is a boxing theme and we have a little pickleball guy with boxing gloves and we take our award area and we decorate it," Bullock said. "I've always thought that running a tournament and putting on matches is the easiest thing to do. I feel like we needed to go above and beyond."

Other tournaments and programs try to bring different groups together, including a mixer program that pairs male and female players and a variety of fun family tournaments. "One of my favorites is called the Generation Gap tournament where you have to have 20 years between partners, so it forces the adults to play with their kid or the grandparent to play with a kid," Bullock said. "We do a lot of fun stuff like that."

Ultimately, many pickleball experts and programmers see programming as the key to pickleball success. "The biggest problem that some cities make is they just put courts up and think, 'If I build it, they will come,'" Murphy said. "It's a little better now than 10 years ago, but you have to promote the game. You have to give beginners' lessons and get people into it. Word-of-mouth is great, but if you just build it and leave it there, people won't even know what it's for."