Outside of the Box
Up-and-Coming Sports Programming Can Expand Your Reach
By Joe Bush
Pickleball has everything a parks and rec program director needs to be a safe, "experimental" activity.
The racquet sport does not need a dedicated court or a special surface, its equipment is inexpensive, it's easy to learn, can be as vigorous and competitive as its participants want, can be played outdoors or in, and appeals to all ages.
"That's been a driving force behind the sport—the accessibility and how easy it is to establish," said Justin Maloof, the executive director of the 10-year-old USA Pickleball Association (USAPA).
Pickleball has become so popular several years into its resurgence among recreation organizations that it no longer qualifies as an alternative sport. According to the USAPA, the number of places to play pickleball has doubled since 2010, to approximately 4,000. The USAPA attributes much of that success to the sport's popularity in park districts and community centers and gym classes.
Many manufacturers make balls and paddles, which are both specialized for the sport, and a park district can start offering it for about $200 including portable net, balls and paddles.
The USAPA has an official court partner, and a 1,400-strong army of ambassadors, folks in all 50 states who are advocates for the game and are always on the lookout for places the game can expand to.
The sport had its first U.S Open last spring, with approximately 1,000 players in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, and there are an estimated 2 million players today and a projected 8 million by 2018.
But pickleball once was new and its potential a mystery, and its subsequent success is instructive when considering parks and rec departments' processes for offering non-traditional activities to its community.
Getting the Ball Rolling
How do program directors become aware of new sports? What do they consider before trying one? How long do they give a new activity before either expanding or ending it?
Activities like pickleball, bags, obstacle course races, bubble ball and team handball are recent examples of departments trying to attract new or younger or older participants. Sometimes demographics drive the offers (e.g., cricket in a community with an Indian population), sometimes regional characteristics spark creativity (mountain bike racing in areas with terrain conducive to off-road biking, for example), and sometimes recent events like the Olympics or cultural trends like a popular movie spur change.
The story of how the Warrenville (Ill.) Park District tried and then embraced pickleball is similar to many in the timeline and evolution of giving a new activity a chance.
Athletic and Facility Supervisor Dave Weiner oversees all adult and youth athletic programs and leagues, and remembers being handed an article about pickleball from a senior citizen publication in 2012.
"He said, 'Hey, this is something I'd be interested in, I used to play tennis but now my knees don't allow me to. I think the park district should offer it,'" Weiner recalled.
Weiner pitched it as a senior-level activity at a time when pickleball was uncommon, so much so that he remembers having a good amount of out-of-town interest and participation because nearby towns weren't yet offering it.
What started as a once-a-week open gym offering and Tuesday and Thursday classes has bloomed into some sort of pickleball presence six days a week. The park district just finished its third pickleball tournament, a two-day event.
"It's gotten big enough that we offer weekday evening open gym and Saturday," Weiner said. "It's taken prime-time hours because of the popularity."
What's more, pickleball in Warrenville appeals to more than one age group. Weiner offers it now to ages 18 and up, after starting it with a focus on ages 55 and up. He said interest is 70 percent 55 and over, and enrollment keeps growing.
Growing the Box
Lee Farmer, recreation services manager of the Bentonville (Ark.) Parks and Recreation Department, said the offering of fresh programming begins with the desire to keep the community on its toes.
"We like to think about the box," Farmer said. "Pickleball, theater, lacrosse, art in our parks—we want to offer something for everyone, but at the same time we want to make sure the programs are sustainable."
Farmer has helped grow Bentonville's programming from four programs in 2010 to 150 today, serving 500,000 participants. Though Bentonville's population is about 45,000, it serves a few nearby towns that don't have park districts. Farmer estimates Bentonville has a budget for 45,000 and serves 70,000, and is mandated to not use tax money to support programming.
This 100 percent cost recovery policy has fostered efficiency and creativity in an area known for Walmart headquarters and a fitness-focused populace that loves to bike and run. Farmer said in the department's early days, it hosted one program, and that was admission to the pool. That brought in $38,000 the first year; this past year, the department made $3.8 million. The department's programming got a huge boost with the 2015 opening of an 83,000-square-foot community center that won the Facility of the Year Award in 2016 from the Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association. It also added an ice rink in 2010 for winter programming.
Bentonville's nontraditional programs include an eight-event running race series, mountain-bike competitions and camps, bags tournaments, swim lessons with mermaid tails, a half marathon that attracts more than 6,000 runners and badminton, which is very popular in Britain, Denmark, Sweden, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea.
"We have a very diverse community," Farmer said. "When we drew up a list of programs before we moved into (the community center), badminton was on there but I don't know that we thought it would be hugely successful, but we offer it three days a week, with leagues and tournaments.
"They're competitive; there's some serious players. This is not the badminton I would be able to play. Birdies are flying."
Perhaps the department's best-known programming is its nod to the area's running community. Its RunBentonville series, started in 2013, consists of eight races of varying lengths and themes. The anchor is the half marathon, and Farmer said that when parks and rec offered a training program for the 13-mile race, it filled up in 10 hours.
Runners in the series accrue points toward being named overall race series champion in the men's and women's divisions. The series begins each season in May with a 2-mile glow run, followed in June by Run, Ride and Rock n Roll, for which two-person teams run a 4k and add their times. September brings the Superhero Scramble, a 3.1-mile race that includes prizes for best superhero costumes. Costume prizes also accompany the next race, the 5k Goblin Run, in October. December's Frosty 5k includes prizes for ugliest holiday sweater. The Valentine's Day Race is either 4k or 8k and designed to be run by couples. The Irish 5k/10k follows, and the half marathon caps the series.
Farmer said obstacle races are a possibility, as is just about everything. He's tried adult flag football and free summer concerts, both of which fell flat, and has considered bubble ball.
"We're not scared of it," Farmer said.
Finding New Ideas
An open mind is certainly a requirement to keeping programming fresh, but after the willingness, what comes next? Weiner was handed a magazine article that turned into one of his most successful programs, but obviously professionals don't wait for providence.
There are regional and national tradeshows to browse, trade publications to read, local park district counterparts to network with, surveys to give the community, debriefings with staff after classes and leagues, and even keeping abreast of cultural happenings like popular movies and highly-covered events like the Olympics.
Weiner credits the rise of archery in his community to The Hunger Games books and movies, and the Olympics for the surge in gymnastics classes and team handball. Warrenville is a Chicago suburb, and with the recent dominance of the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, floor hockey does well; Weiner has added age levels and leagues.
Weiner added team handball to the mix because he learned how much kids were enjoying it in a local grade school's gym classes. Weiner also has some good advice if an idea is not a great fit at first blush. Years ago a local youth rugby team trying to grow approached the park district about a league, and Weiner had to decline after risk management analysis. Instead, the park district offered a fundamentals of rugby class, and attracted more than 20 kids for a few years running.
"Don't say no right away," Weiner suggested.
Farmer said surveys and analytics of every aspect of programming are his guide, as are quarterly meetings with his counterparts in northwestern Arkansas.
"We take suggestions, we take advice from the citizens very seriously with new ideas and new programs and discuss it, try to determine if it's a good fit for what our goals are, what our vision is," Farmer said. "We evaluate everything, from usage patterns to our facilities to program registration fees. We send out surveys, program evaluations at the conclusion of every program. We take that citizen feedback very seriously."
Trying It Out
Once program directors get the green light for a new sport or activity, how do they decide when to expand or pull the plug? Weiner stresses patience.
"Consistency is important," he said. "Sometimes it has to show in our catalog two or three times. Keep offering, keep advertising."
For instance, the department is offering its first obstacle course race, for kids, and its decision was bolstered by the interest the event received when it was marketed at National Night Out. Before offering its first bag tournament, Bentonville made available bags boards at softball tournaments and at pit stops of its Square to Square bike ride from Bentonville to Fayetteville. Interest at those venues resulted in 20 teams at the department's first paid tournament.
Peter Murphy is the president and CEO of the Illinois Association of Park Districts. A veteran of many years, Murphy knows that trying new activities and sports has been a trademark of successful parks and rec departments. He's seen belly dancing and night golf and rollerblades and hula hoops and dog parks come and go and stay.
Murphy said that taking chances on new programs doesn't have to be risky if directors do their homework and pay attention.
"One of the things you want to do is be able to add a new program if there is an element of community interest," Murphy said. "It's fine to try a new program to see if there's interest, but it's particularly important to be responsive to community needs and to program in accordance with those needs. To be attuned to the demographics of your community, both to the issues of diversity and with regard to age.
"Continue to ask the age-old question, who are our customers? Who do we need to serve? Every community defines that differently."
Murphy stressed that directors should stay on top of cultural trends and network within the industry, and would like to see emphasis on real community service, the prioritizing of youth participation when directors consider new programs. He cites the position of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention that after-school hours are prime time for idle youth to get into mischief.
"How can we provide avenues for them when they're not in school?" Murphy asked.
He answered that, as always, planning is key.
"Developing a baseline for participation is important," Murphy said. "Give them a chance to flourish and be ready to move on."
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