Feature Article - February 2020
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Start Small Grow Big

How to Build a Thriving Pickleball Program

By Chris Gelbach

Facility Considerations

Starting with temporary courts in a gymnasium or with other temporary courts can be a great way to get started and generate a core user base for a pickleball program, but players are also becoming more discerning about where to play as their options expand.

"We're seeing more and more pickleball players now who just a short time ago were fine playing on temporary courts but now … if there's an opportunity to play on permanent, dedicated courts as opposed to temporary courts, we're seeing people migrating to those types of facilities," Maloof said.

While experts say it's fine to start small with temporary courts or tennis court conversions, they often recommend the opposite if building a permanent facility. "It's kind of like putting a deck on your house," Murphy said. "You want to build it as big as you can. You don't want to build it small and wish you'd have built it bigger. If you're building an indoor facility, you want to build it as big as you can."

Even when building outdoors or converting tennis courts, it's great to have the ability to expand to more courts later. "We have 24 courts and I think the city [of St. George] is wishing that we would have built 12 more," Bullock said. "If you have the opportunity to do so, build as many as you can."

At a minimum, Bullock said that a facility with at least eight courts gives you the flexibility to run leagues, larger clinics or even little tournaments. "With four courts, you're limited," Bullock said. "You just handcuff yourself to not being able to do anything other than drop-in play."

Whereas the typical model for larger facilities was once one of gradual growth with more and more courts added over time, Maloof is now seeing more construction of facilities with 24 or 32 courts right out of the gate that are intended as tournament venues. "The balance there is what happens the rest of the year?" Maloof said. "Do you have a user base that will sustain 24, 32 or 40 courts just for things like league play and open play?"

When building a permanent facility, Maloof also recommends being conscious about creating the right court sizes for different purposes, including a minimum for recreational play of 30 by 60 feet, larger courts for competitive play and tournaments that are more like 34 by 64 feet. "The more space you have, the better, obviously," Maloof said. "A preferred professional or championship court would be 40 by 70 feet."

Players typically prefer courts that are either fenced in or netted to prevent stray balls from adjacent pickleball courts from constantly disrupting play, and this is particularly important for tournament play. Larger, longer courts are beneficial for tournament play as well as for teaching courts so you can gather more people near the baseline when teaching clinics.

For further details, Maloof recommends "Pickleball Courts: A Construction & Maintenance Manual" from the USAPA and the American Sports Builders Association. The manual includes chapters on planning and building courts, adaptive and wheelchair pickleball, fencing, lighting, court accessories and amenities, and ongoing court maintenance.

When considering amenities, you can't go wrong by providing options that account for and cater to the social nature of pickleball. These include benches and other seating areas for both players and spectators to watch, and things like seating under shade structures or shade trees in warmer climates. Players also appreciate having plenty of places to hang bags and racquets.

For facilities that will host tournaments, other amenities are also critical, including sponsor and vendor spaces near the courts. "If you keep your sponsors and vendors happy, they're going to be more apt to return and maybe return in a bigger way next year," Maloof said. Power to the courts and wi-fi in the facility are also important.

Tournament venues should also offer plenty of restrooms near the courts, locker rooms, lighting on the courts to accommodate tournament play that can extend into the evening hours, and concessions areas. "Having food service on site during tournament play is critical," Maloof said. "If your venue does not have concessions or these amenities, you're going to have to bring it in. For tournaments, these players are there all day."

For effective tournaments, a quality sound system is also extremely helpful. "When you're running a tournament, you're constantly announcing the next matches and you've got to get that information out to the players to send them out to the right court," Bullock said. "Otherwise, it just takes forever to run a tournament."

A Bright Future

As pickleball started its rapid growth in the 2005 to 2010 timeframe, it was added in a lot of 55-plus communities, golf and RV resorts, helping to cement its reputation as a sport for seniors. It has also attracted seniors in many of the gymnasium venues that have embraced pickleball during daytime downtimes that would otherwise go unprogrammed. The sport's appeal to this crowd remains and is one key to its passionate user base.

"The biggest thing with this sport is the friends that are made," Murphy said. "It's mostly because 70% of the players are over 55 and they have the same interests, they're active, and they are into the same things. So the friendships that are made are off the charts. I've never seen anything like it."

At the same time, experts note that another unique attribute of pickleball is the fact that players of all generations can enjoy playing it together. And, as more and more full-time venues are being created that offer regular night and weekend play opportunities for working professionals, the sport is starting to skew younger. Other types of venues, like the chain of restaurant/bar/pickleball facilities Chicken N Pickle, which started in Kansas City and will be in five cities soon, are also exposing the sport to a new crowd.

Bullock saw 70 to 80% seniors in his programs five years ago, and now it's about 50 to 60%, with significant growth in interest from those in the 30-to-50 age range. And Wampler is seeing ages go down in tournament play. "Five years ago, I would be playing tournaments and I would be the youngest in the room by decades," Wampler said. "Now, there are 18-, 20-year-olds playing tournaments at a pretty high level."

In Naples, Reader is likewise coaching some younger players and has built partnerships with organizations like Latchkey Kids and the Special Olympics as part of a broader youth outreach. But significant barriers to bringing younger players into the sport remain, since pickleball isn't yet played much as a sport at the high school or collegiate levels.

But it is also popping up in new venues that are able to accommodate it along with several other sports more effectively—including one called Court 16 in Long Island City that features a textured glass surface with LED floor lighting that can be switched to switch the lines from tennis to basketball to pickleball to volleyball with the touch of a button.

"And then with drop-down curtains, they have the ability to run a combination of those," Maloof said. "They could have one basketball court, three volleyball courts and six pickleball courts all going on at the same time."

As a greater variety of new full-time and flexibly innovative facilities pop up, the sport seems poised for ongoing growth and expansion into new demographics—mostly because many people who play it think it's fun. "I'd say out of 100 people that I teach, 80 to 85 of them stay with it," Murphy said. "It's unbelievable." RM