When covering pickleball news these days, it pays to pay attention to what’s going on in local government chambers, community meeting halls and the pitch – not the pickleball pitch. The growing popularity of pickleball is creating new opportunities for lawyers, community activists and other conflict mongers. “Sour Notes Off the Court for Pickleball”, (thepickler.com May 2022 Frank Cerabino)
Hearing about it is almost inevitable.
A tipping point seems to have been reached.
It’s on the news, television has reclaimed the showcasing rights, sponsorships are pouring in, prize money is steadily rising – there’s even a “war” between competing leagues and tours – pickleball has certainly arrived.
(“Pickleball Is the Wild, Wild West: Inside the Fight Over the Fastest-Growing Sport in America” - John Waters, Sports Illustrated updated May 31, 2022, original: May 24, 2022)
Pickleball is a fun, fast, mixed and all-ages sport that combines elements of badminton, table tennis and tennis. It is played with a solid-faced paddle and a whiffle ball – with slight variations for indoor play. There are more than 20,000 pickleball courts in the United States, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). It has been declared the “fastest growing sport in the United States” for two consecutive years. The demographic for participation was described as “Everyone! “. Once considered a sport for retirees and seniors only, the sport has evolved and there are classes, groups, leagues and inclusion for all ages young and old. There are calls for it to be a demonstration sport at the Summer Olympics.
Invented in the mid-1960s in Washington State, pickleball is a sport that has infiltrated private and public facilities. It is played in clubs and recreation centers, as well as on public and private courts. In recent years, pickleball has seen tremendous growth in amateur and professional participation, sponsorships, travel destinations, and apparel and equipment manufacturers. “Big Business”, noting that the exponential growth in the number of participants and spectators has taken notice and the money is flowing in.
But as the boom continues and the number of participants grows, conflicts arise.
“The People’s Court? City caught in the middle of a volleyball and pickleball dispute,”
(GV Wire May 9, 2022 David Taub)
The growth of any recreational interest creates challenges for local communities trying to balance public and private interests surrounding sport. Conflicts arise between tennis players and pickleball players, facilities, the local community, as well as users of public parks and public lands. This article will suggest the opportunities that such conflicts present for mediation and mediators. It might even inspire those unfamiliar with the sport to step out of the Covid-restricted solitude and see what it’s all about.
Although there has been a massive increase in interest (and money) in the sport, the number of places where it can be played has not kept pace with demand. There is a shortage of pickleball locations in areas such as the Los Angeles metro area. Such shortages are reported nationally in magazines such as “Pickleball Magazine”, “InPickleball” and as reported in LAist: “Pickleball’s In A Pickle: Too Few Places To Play In LA”, (Sharon McNary – February 25, 2022)
This shortage has led to conflicts among pickleball players. Tennis facilities, park enthusiasts and landowners (private and/or public) who have received requests to accommodate the growing number of pickleball players and their need for space on the court. Pickleball players have approached the Parks and Recreation Department to ask about installing courts or otherwise “court relining” on public lands. Some of these departments have turned down requests, not because they don’t want tribunals, but because they don’t have the funds or the staff to run them.
The greatest number and intensity of conflicts concerned noise.
(“Noisy Pickleball Courts Cause Owners Anger”, Realtybiznews.com March 15, 2022)
Whether played on private or public courts, the rules of the game (as well as the real “tools of the game”) require a certain amount of noise, far greater than that of tennis matches. Pickleball noise can be a public concern if it occurs in an area where it “disturbs the peace”. Conflicts between pickleball players (wherever played) and local owners arise due to the “hit” of the ball and racquet – which is noticeably stronger and more sustained than that of tennis balls and snowshoes. Equipment manufacturers have already begun to study the possibility of making “quieter balls” that still meet the homologation rules of competitive leagues. Invariably during and between matches, conversations, cheering and announcing of scores (and “in and out” calls) result in a noise level far above that of tennis matches.
“The Noise of Pickleball Fuels Neighborhood Drama Coast-to-Coast”,
(LA Times July 12, 2022 Genaro Molina)
A common complaint about pickleball noise is also that the devotion to the sport is such that it is often played from morning until relatively late in the evening. The times that pickleball can be played can vary and are determined by the people playing the game. For example, a group of devotees who play pickleball casually might decide to play at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday and continue until 11:00 p.m. (or later) the same day. On public courts players come and go while large ‘open play’ groups can easily have over 100 players in attendance.
Another issue that has led to tensions between pickleball players and public entities is the use of public courts. The perception of pickleball players “taking over” tennis courts has recently been exacerbated by tennis legend Martina Navratilova who recently commented on the situation, when she tweeted: “I say if pickleball is so popular, let them build their own courts.” (Twitter, May 9, 2022)
The management of public tennis courts has been accused of being too slow to adapt to the number of citizens who would prefer to see a single tennis court, accommodating at most 2 to 4 players for a given hour, to be “restocked” and this same court satisfying the public interest (if not the demand) of 8 to 16 players on this single court, in the same time allowed. While the use of public grounds is not a problem that can be solved by an organization like the Pickleball Association (the sport’s governing body) at league-controlled facilities, it underscores the need for better education, conversation and conflict resolution about sport.
The challenges mentioned above are common challenges that arise when an emerging recreational interest gains popularity. Mediation can be used to help resolve these conflicts by creating a forum for dialogue between interested parties. Opportunity abounds.
In Denver, a 71-year-old man took matters into his own hands and drew markings indicating where pickleball lines could be placed on a public tennis court. He was charged with criminal mischief and destruction of public property. An arrest warrant has been issued. Eventually, mediation was recommended. No charges were ultimately filed.
“Pickleball Parley: Denver DA suggests mediation between Parks Dept. and Central Park man accused of drawing pickleball marks on center recreation court”, (Denverite.com March 30, 2022)
Mediation can help tennis authorities, city and local governments, tennis players, relevant leagues at all facilities and, of course, players of the sport to have meaningful and perhaps even fruitful conversations about the strategies for managing the challenges associated with the growth of the sport. Issues may include scheduling, costs, pitch maintenance, and player expectations at each pitch. Such collaborative meetings can help private landowners who have been approached to host land to understand the interests and needs of those interested in playing pickleball or to resolve disputes between neighbors of someone who has their own private land. Facilitated conversations can help pickleball and tennis players, officials, property owners, and business interests understand the challenges they face and perhaps the pathways to resolve those challenges and differences toward a satisfying way to enjoy at the best of pleasures and the intersection of sports, business and community.