The War Over the Pickleball Courts

By Justin Choung

 Pickleball, which was once thought of (and derided) as a sport for the elderly, is now the fastest growing sport in the United States, with the Association of Pickleball Professionals reporting over 36.5 million players. The sport’s generous learning curve, sociability, and lack of physical strain has appealed to players of all ages looking for both exercise and community. The rapid growth in participation has led to demand for playing space, with over 1,000 new pickleball facilities added in the last year, according to USA Pickleball. Pickleball players are now commonly found throughout the United States, whether it’s young professionals in New York playing in local parks, or seniors in suburban retirement home communities at their town’s tennis courts.

Pickleball’s rapid rise in popularity has also brought about almost as much controversy. Players often have trouble finding places to play. One common solution is using tennis courts. Pickleball players typically modify them by using adhesive tape to set up the court boundaries and bringing portable nets. However, these practices have led to conflict with tennis players. Part of the issue is how to divide court time, especially when the number of pickleball players outnumbers tennis players. Another issue is the court modifications. The adhesive tape used to modify tennis courts can be distracting and even dangerous, with some tennis players complaining of slipping on them. There is now an intense culture battle between pickleball and tennis players that stems from the issue of how to provide spaces for pickleball use without taking space away from tennis players.

Residents near pickleball courts have also become staunch critics of pickleball’s expansion. The main issues residents have is the noise made when hitting a pickleball with a paddle. The combination of solid, wood paddles and plastic, hollow balls leads to decibel levels that are considerably higher than tennis matches and can be heard from hundreds of miles away.

These battles have become policy issues for communities and local governments throughout the country. One on side, there are pickleball players petitioning their local governments and homeowners’ associations to build new courts or convert existing tennis courts. These advocates point towards characteristics of pickleball that other sports lack, such as it’s affordability, accessibility, and popularity.

On the other side, there are tennis players and residents protesting these efforts and pushing for restrictions on pickleball playing. These conflicts have led to tense confrontations between pickleball and tennis players; one town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire over a petition to convert tennis courts to pickleball courts even led to tennis legend Martina Navratilova weighing in on Twitter, saying “let them build their own courts” of pickleball players. Tennis players and local residents have also filed lawsuits against local governments and homeowners’ associations that are considering converting tennis courts or building new pickleball courts. These lawsuits typically argue that these new pickleball courts would break local laws, municipal codes, and HOA rules. The town of Vienna in Virginia even decided to limit the hours pickleball can be played due to noise complaints from local residents. There are solutions that could potentially satisfy everybody, such as building indoor pickleball facilities, but these are typically much more expensive than simply converting or dividing existing tennis courts. The more typical outcomes involve dividing tennis courts with reserved spaces for both pickleball and tennis players, converting tennis courts entirely, or building new pickleball courts.
Overall, the spread of pickleball across the United States seems inevitable. However, accommodating the growing population of pickleball players while balancing the interests of tennis players and local residents seems like an impossible task, given that their respective interests are the opposite of one another. The challenge for government leaders, policymakers, and developers will be to find ways to either create new courts for pickleball use or convert existing tennis courts and land without angering tennis players and local residents.

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