Start Small Grow Big
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."
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."
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
© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.