Opinion: Pickleball is here to stay and growing in popularity

From the many emails exchanged the last few weeks, and especially the responses from Scottsdale officials, it appears the city may indeed launch a genuine pickleball effort as soon as this fall.

The intent of this email is not to reiterate what others have already said in making the case for pickleball. Instead, I would like to offer several suggestions to city leaders and staff that would help make the launch of pickleball a success.

Before offering these recommendations, let me share a little of my background.

I’ve been playing pickleball for four years, and I am an emeritus professor of marketing from the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. I am also an Ambassador sanctioned by the USAPA, and with my wife and others have launched pickleball successfully at venues in Tempe and Flagstaff.

With experiences as an educator and in coaching various sports, I have learned that pickleball is a unique activity with a higher level of socialization than any other sport I have experienced. So, with this as background, what are some things our city can do to enhance the likelihood of pickleball being embraced by its citizens?

1. Establish an Advisory Group of experienced pickleball players and coaches.

In their responses to recent emails, several city officials and staff noted that Scottsdale offers pickleball one morning a week at Club SARS. Yet, most players I know do not or would not want to play at this facility for numerous reasons – it’s indoors, play is only one morning a week, and only one or two courts are available.

Further, when Club SARS initially offered pickleball the court setup was incorrect and dangerous for participants. As a result of these problems, this facility is not considered a viable place to play among folks in the know about pickleball.

I share this example because all of these problems could have been avoided if Scottsdale had sought the advice of people with experience with the sport. Pickleball is not “mini-tennis” or a simple racquet sport for old folks, it’s a sport that can accommodate people ranging from seniors with only modest athletic ability to world class athletes of all ages and genders.

Its booming popularity can be attributed to it being easy to learn, its friendly social nature, it being inexpensive and loads of fun. Given its uniqueness and newness to Scottsdale, I urge city staff to form a group of experienced players as advisors to help with the development, launch and promotion of the sport.

2. Offer Pickleball based upon the wildly popular Drop-In model

The vast majority of people playing pickleball today do so as part of a Drop-In program. What this means is that players do not have to arrange matches or make court reservations to play. They simply show up at designated times knowing that other players will also be present, and knowing they will be able to play with lots of different people.

In opening a new place to play, all different levels of players are likely to be attracted. Yet, experience shows that players will quickly gravitate to courts where people of similar ability are playing. As more and more players are attracted to the location, specific times can be scheduled for varying levels of players, including beginners.

See the website of the Fountain Hills Pickleball Club for an example of scheduling times for different levels of play.

3. At all outdoor locations, offer multiple courts for play

This suggestion builds off of the Drop-In recommendation above. People who play this sport want to be able to play and have fun with different players during the course of a visit to the courts. This can only be accomplished if a location has multiple (preferably at least four) courts. A single tennis court can often be converted to four pickleball courts (some communities have also converted little used outdoor basketball courts).

4. Tap into volunteers to launch, build and supervise play

I am well aware of the challenge of limited budgets and resources, especially in cities. Virtually all of the pickleball programs I’ve been involved with in Tempe, Flagstaff and Fountain Hills (and at places I’ve played around the country) run primarily with volunteers.

The public Fountain Hills Pickleball Club with approximately 275 members, for example, plays on city/school courts, yet is totally runs by volunteers. In addition to the importance of volunteer leaders, pickleball players in general are relatively self-sufficient – give them a place to play, promote it to others, and they will come and be happy.

The one resource players like to have provided are balls. This preference exists because over the course of a Drop-In session you play with many people on different courts, and players come and go at various times during the session. If participants bring their own balls, there are undesirable interruptions to games when a player has to leave and needs to go from court to court to gather his or her balls.

5. Be poised to expand locations and courts for play

Although it seems likely that Scottsdale will be offering places to play in the near future, city leaders should be mindful that demand is likely to continue to mushroom. The USAPA indicates that in 2015 an average of nearly 20 new locations to play are being established across the country weekly. With its attractive weather and outdoor-minded citizens, it’s realistic to expect that the demand for public pickleball courts in Scottsdale will grow, and grow swiftly, over time.

In closing, it’s exciting to see the exchanges over the last couple of weeks among pickleball players, city officials and city staff. Reflecting on the many emails makes me optimistic that our special city will soon be offering places to play America’s fastest growing sport.

I, along with others, will not only be thrilled with this development, but also pleased to help in this launch.

Editor’s note: Stephen Brown is emeritus professor of marketing from the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. 

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