How to Light Tennis and Pickleball Courts for Safe and Satisfying Play

Paul Steinbach Headshot
Aeon Blackburn Park 1
Photo courtesy of AEON

In many parts of the country, and at varying times of year, playing recreational tennis — and to an increasing extent pickleball — at night may be preferable to playing during the day. Conditions may be cooler and less humid. Court availability might be more relaxed. And some might prefer the evenness of artificial lighting to the ever-changing angles of an intense sun.

That’s if the lighting is designed properly.

The art of illuminating park-based courts for tennis, pickleball and pick-up basketball, as well as walking/jogging/biking paths, is a bit different than throwing light behind second base on a baseball diamond or between the hashmarks of a football field.

“When you’re talking lighting a big stadium, you have 50-, 60-, sometimes up to 100-foot poles, and there are big, heavy, 60-pound floodlights, and you’re putting them up on a master arm using cranes. It’s a big endeavor,” says Ben Peirick, senior project manager for outdoor lighting at LSI Industries. “Now, a rec softball or soccer field that you want to light up for nighttime use, you’ll use a similar fixture, but it’s still 30, 50 feet in the air with a big flood. When you get into court lighting, it’s just such a smaller-scale thing.”

How small? LSI employs the same type of light poles it uses on parking lots when the company designs lighting for a park’s hard playing surfaces. “But the big difference is the optic that goes over the LED, because an LED by itself is just going to give you a round blob of light,” Peirick says. “With lighting, it’s all about what you do with that. When you go buy a light bulb from Home Depot, you look at the lumens and the watts, but that’s really about it. Outdoors, there’s way more to it than just how much light you’re putting out. It’s where it goes. With shielding and optics, we’re able to redirect the majority of that light to exactly where we want it to go, which is a big deal.

“People seeing the light source and spill-light on their property is a big issue in court lighting, because the courts tend to be right smack dab in the middle of residential areas, so you don’t want to just take any old light and slap it on there.”

To that end, LSI engineers teamed with an outside firm to design a custom optic just for court lighting. Peirick says the technology has “gotten so good” that precision-molded pieces of silicone, acrylic and polycarbonate over a fixture’s lens create reflection and refraction capable of bending light in specific patterns. And he’s not alone in that assessment.

“The nice thing about LED is you can get much better control of your light with the proper optics,” says Nick Page, vice president of design and technical support at lighting manufacturer Qualite. “What we’ve done, especially since we’re lighting more of these smaller areas like basketball and pickleball, is we’ve created some wider beam types that still have the sharp cutoff on the edges and in the front. The main beam is wider than what we would normally use to throw quite a distance out to the center of a baseball field or a larger soccer or football field, where typically your pole setbacks start at least 30 feet back — and it’s not uncommon for them to be quite a bit more than that if there’s a track involved. It’s all about the optics and then the wattage of the fixture.”

Because, as Peirick points out, municipal park boundaries often abut backyards, lighting court surfaces and little else is critical to keeping homeowners happy. “Imagine a pole right on the side of the court,” he says. “We can have 50 to 100 foot-candles — which is very bright, like you’d expect a court or an auto dealership’s front row to look like — and then 10 feet behind that pole, where there might be a neighbor’s yard, there can be virtually zero — basically moonlight kind of light levels. If there were no optic over it, the LED would throw half the light onto the court and half into the neighbor’s yard.”

Qualite PickleballPhoto courtesy of QualiteLight level

How bright is just right for nighttime recreational activity?

“A professional tennis stadium might want 100 foot-candles, which is really bright, but a rec court can be okay with 30 to 50 — a third to half that light level,” Peirick says. “Now, the other thing that’s probably more important, though, is the uniformity, meaning the brightest spot to the dimmest spot. Generally, if you’re televising, you want it well under two-to-one, where the brightest spot on the court is going to be less than twice as bright as the dimmest spot. If it’s less than two-to-one, your eye really can’t tell. It’ll just look completely uniform. On a rec court, you may let it slip to three-to-one or four-to-one, to the point where you’re barely starting to notice differences in the light levels. It’s the combination of the two, and that way the poles can be spaced apart a little farther, which would allow you to do it on a lower budget and with less energy consumption.”

Pickleball’s lighting requirements are less stringent than tennis, and outdoor basketball lesser still. “A rule of thumb that somewhat dictates the light level is the size of the ball for that sport and also the speed the ball is moving,” Peirick says. “With basketball, you can probably get away with lower light levels. And in general, they’re all rec courts anyway. We’ve done a few really nice outdoor basketball courts that are kind of show pieces, but usually it’s just for rec sports — casual people playing at night — and the light levels can be a little lower.”

Qualite Wellington 13Photo courtesy of QualitePole placement

Tennis courts typically will be lined lengthwise by three light poles on each side — just inside both baselines and beside the net. “Placement of the lights is very important,” says Shahil Amin, sales VP at AEON, another lighting manufacturer. “You’re going to strategically place the lights to achieve that level of foot-candle, and then you want to angle them in such a way that if someone is throwing a ball up to serve you don’t want the player to be blinded by the light.”

“Generally, they’re to the sides of each player,” Peirick says of pole location. “You’re rarely ever looking up to the right or up to the left. If you’re looking up, it’s generally straightforward. So, it’s rare you get any interference from the lighting. They don’t really come into play.”

The concept is similar for pickleball, but with poles only at the four corners of the smaller court and not over the net at all. However, on courts converted from tennis to pickleball, all six poles can still be used to light the latter activity. “Tennis has much more stringent lighting criteria than pickleball,” Page says. “If you already have tennis-type lighting, then you should be good for pickleball, as long as it’s being played in the same direction.”

According to Page, such conversions are becoming a greater part of Qualite’s business. “The year before last, I don’t know if I did a pickleball court design at all, but we did a significant amount in 2022, and I’m still doing a significant amount,” he says, adding, “The majority of them that we see are dedicated pickleball courts. They’ll take a tennis court, they’ll convert it into two pickleball courts, and then that court is never used for tennis again.”

For recreation complexes that accommodate multiple tennis courts, pickleball courts or both, the lighting design gets more — well — complex. “Two things are going to happen,” Page says. “You’re going to have additional polls, because on each court you’re going to want light coming from all four directions. Then you’re shooting farther distances, so you want to make sure that your mounting height is high enough to keep your aiming angles down. We try to keep our aiming angles 60 degrees at max above what we call nadir — straight down.”

Lsi Sports Complex 01 HrRendering courtesy of LSI IndustriesPath safety and security

With no moving balls involved, the lighting of walking/jogging/biking paths requires the least amount of lighting of all.

“It doesn’t take a lot of light — really a couple foot-candles — but you need to watch out for shadowing,” Page says. “If there are obstacles or trees, you need to make sure that you consider luminaire placement so that you’re not creating shadows. That’s it — adequate light and reduction of shadows.”

“Lighting is always going to come down to the level of foot-candles first,” Amin says. “So, if they say, ‘We have a path that stretches a mile, and we want this portion to be lit up to this level, and then when you walk a little bit farther, it’s a little bit less,’ it really comes down to the design. There’s software that we use that shows us, okay, we need to put X number of fixtures at this height to achieve this level of illumination for this particular client on this path. The basis of any lighting design is always going to come around to, well, how much light do they want and where do they want it? And then you can get into the specifics of controls and timers. Do they want wireless lighting controls? Do they want to set it up where it’s on a schedule — where from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. it automatically turns on and it’s Monday through Friday, or seven days a week?”

The goal, of course, is to keep users safe from potential hazards or nefarious actors. “There are two things when you’re trying to deter crime or just accidents in general,” says Peirick. “For parking lot and pathway lighting, you want plenty of light where there’s a rock or a pothole or some sort of trip hazard, so even a 60- or 70-year-old person can see it. Obviously, the older we get, the worse we see at night, so lighting generally takes into account the worst-case scenario, and you make sure there’s enough light on the ground to avoid trip hazards. But then there’s a second part, which is the vertical aspect of light. You want to make sure there’s enough light on people’s faces so you can identify them. The biggest thing in crime deterrence is being able to see someone’s face. You see them coming and see if they’re a threat or not.”

For that reason, the strict light control around courts is not as critical along pathways. “You don’t want to light up just the path. You can light up all around it, and that tends to be a little more of a safe-feeling environment,” Peirick says. “In that sense, you throw the light a little more and in a wider path versus at the side of a court, where you might have a neighbor’s backyard to contend with. If you’re inside the park and you’re throwing light for security reasons, you don’t really need to cut it off in any particular direction. If there’s light spilling into the grass, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Uniformity, too, is less of an issue. Whereas recreational court lighting may require at worst a three-to-one brightest-to-dimmest ratio, with paths “typically it goes to 10- or 15- or 20-to-one,” Peirick says.

“But to be sure,” he continues, “you do a lighting layout. We have software that will calculate it all for you and tell you where all the poles need to go and what spacing you can have so you don’t have great dark spots along the pathway. Because you’re talking one to five foot-candles, you can generally space product out. If you have 10-foot poles, having them every 40 to 60 feet is usually a rough rule of thumb you can go by.”

Between technologically advanced hardware and today’s design software, lighting manufacturers are helping municipalities meet their constituents’ needs during more hours of every day. Even at night, park usage can be seen as safe and satisfying with the right amount of light in the right places.

Buyer's Guide
Information on more than 3,000 companies, sorted by category. Listings are updated daily.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
AB Show 2023 in Baltimore
AB Show is a solution-focused event for athletics, fitness, recreation and military professionals.
Nov 1-4, 2023
Learn More
AB Show 2023