Pickleball’s popularity is growing at an extraordinary clip, and the numbers simply demand the lead. According to the latest participation report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the total number of pickleball participants in the United States rose from 4,819,000 in 2021 to 8,949,000 in 2022, an increase of 85.7 percent year over year. From 2017 to 2022, participation rates averaged an increase of 26.4 percent annually. It’s fair to say that pickleball is currently experiencing an upward participatory trajectory unparalleled by any other sport in which humans in this country participate.
In light of those numbers, imagine you’re the director of a parks and recreation department for a small to mid-sized municipality, and you’re trying to accommodate the “fastest growing sport in America.” Not only do you need to provide enough court space for pickleballers, but you also need to assure an equally dedicated and passionate base of enthusiasts — namely tennis players who might feel threatened by the freshly laid lines on their courts — that they are not being forgotten in favor of their paddle-wielding counterparts. And then there’s the noise associated with pickleball, which can hit a potentially deafening 70 decibels — just slightly less than the 75 decibels of a vacuum cleaner at 100 feet away — potentially angering residents who live nearby.
It’s a dynamic with which parks departments across the country have become quite familiar as they seek to support a burgeoning new sport that is helping to keep a broad demographic — from youths to teens to seniors — active and healthy. Here’s a look at how a couple of communities are trying to do just that.
Pickleballers have a true passion for their sport of choice, and they’re not afraid to let city officials know it. In both Asheville, N.C., and Albuquerque, N.M., groups of pickleball players have banded together, creating an effective lobby for more resources.
“As the sport gains in popularity, the pickleball community is eager to have as many places to play as it can,” says Dave Simon, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Albuquerque. “They want top-notch facilities, and they’re increasingly an organized constituency.”
While Simon, who is a pickleball player himself, says he doesn’t need a “herd of pickleball players beating down his door” to know that Albuquerque should add facilities, the group’s advocacy for the sport has prompted action from officials. The city formulated a plan a few years ago to add pickleball courts over time, and Simon says the sport’s youthful energy has convinced many that it’s the right thing to do.
Albuquerque is currently in the process of adding 48 new pickleball courts. One facility at Manzano Mesa Park will be expanded with 15 more pickleball courts, lighting, shade and a restroom, at an estimated cost of $3.5 million. The second major project, at Ventana Ranch Park, is set to receive eight dedicated pickleball courts, adding to the existing four dual-striped tennis courts (which accommodate eight pickleball courts), lighting, shade structures and a program building. That expansion is estimated at $1.5 million and should break ground later this year. Albuquerque is also investing in smaller projects that will ensure increased accessibility to pickleball courts across the city.
“It’s like this youthful early adopting energy in pickleball that’s kind of driving that,” says Simon. “Whereas sports such as tennis are mature, very mature, and there are strong and established tennis organizations and constituencies, there’s not as much dynamic, new energy compared to pickleball right now.”
About 1,500 miles east of Albuquerque, Wayne Simmons, program and operations manager for the City of Asheville (N.C.) Parks and Recreation Department, is seeing a similar energy surround the sport of pickleball in his city. “Our local USA Pickleball ambassadors were early adopters of the PlayTime Scheduler for Pickleball app as a way of forming meetup groups and planning things like, ‘We’re going to play at this park and play at this time, do you have a net?’ And as of yesterday, they’ve seen somewhere around 3,600 people signed up for this region,” explains Simmons. “So there are a lot of people who are interested, there are a lot of folks who are playing daily, which, as all my colleagues across the country are seeing, creates just capacity issues on our courts.”
Asheville currently has 11 free public outdoor tennis courts, all of which have been dual-lined for pickleball, which translates to 22 free outdoor pickleball courts. The city also has six indoor pickleball courts — three at each of Asheville’s indoor community centers. There are also a number of private facilities in the area that have dedicated pickleball spaces.
The pickleball community in Asheville organized organically, without city support, using the PlayTime app as a platform to do so. “The way that business model is set up is through local advocates across the country who sign up as administrators and get courts listed within their region,” Simmons says. “The two administrators in our area happened to be our two USAP ambassadors for Buncombe and Henderson counties.”
Obviously, these groups can’t just show up to a city board meeting and demand more courts. They need to present an informed argument for why it makes sense for the city to invest in the sport of pickleball, which is where USAP hopes to lend a helping hand.
Carl Schmits, managing director of equipment standards and facilities development for USA Pickleball, says the rise of the sport has meant a “wild ride” for those supporting the game, noting that USAP is doing everything it can to help secure resources for players across the country. “There are a number of different functions we fulfill in the whole development pipeline — initially, of course, convincing municipalities that this is the right direction,” says Schmits. “Many of the influencers — ambassadors or others who are trying to rally those municipalities into action — need data, and so we help with demographics. We have economic impact information to help them put together these presentations initially. Once the municipality is interested in moving forward, we actually work very closely with them on the facility’s design, because there are a number details you want to pay attention to — everything down to color selections, spacing around the courts is very important, fencing layouts to provide a separation between the courts but not make the place look like a cattle pen, right?”
USAP doesn’t stop there. Once the ribbon is cut on a facility, the organization can also offer assistance on other matters of day-to-day operations.
“We can assist with programming, and of course we have ambassadors to help organize clubs, or to ensure people know that there’s a facility there. We also promote these facilities online in our Places 2 Play app — so when people are looking for a place to play when they drop into a city, they know that there’s a 24-court facility where they can mix into a game.”
By nature, hitting a plastic ball with a wooden paddle off a hard court tends to generate a good deal of noise. That can be an annoyance for neighboring residents.
“The noise is an issue, but I don’t think it’s a huge issue,” says Simon. “We put up with all kinds of distractions, large and small, in major urban areas. I would always ask somebody, what would they prefer? Would they prefer a little pickleball next to them or a carwash?”
Simon says Albuquerque has tried to locate its courts in places where there are buffers, while also restricting playing hours. “For example, in one of our major pickleball complexes, we have left some courts without lights so that the edge of the court complex closest to the houses, those courts do not have lights. Therefore, they won’t be utilized at night, when it’s quieter, and people are home and sound travels a little farther. And while I know there are some adjacency impacts, by and large I think I’d still rather live near a park than a long way away from one.”
In Asheville, Simmons says it took cooperation with both the pickleball and tennis communities to find common ground with residents living near one of the city’s busiest pickleball complexes.
“It was one of the first ones that we had renovated in the past couple of years. Not a lot of parking, very popular with both tennis and pickleball players within the community. And it’s kind of in a historic area, so the residents have some limitations on really what they can do to upgrade or retrofit their homes to be more sound-resistant,” Simmons says. “Through our process, working with the tennis association and our newly formed pickleball association, we actually had support from both sports to create a schedule that prohibits play before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. to try to reduce the impact on neighbors who are trying to get some rest. While it hasn’t been a perfect situation — there are always a few individuals who don’t want to comply — overall, the neighbors are telling me that they have seen improvement, so I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Schmits says that part of the sound problems that many communities are dealing with stem from the fact that many parks leaders are converting two-court tennis pods that were popular back in the ’70s and ’80s. Those courts were obvious targets for conversion, but many of them had fallen into tennis disuse as recreational play tapered off and more serious players moved to clubs and indoor play.
“In the areas with typical sound ordinance allowances, the challenge is that along with that lack of use those parks went very quiet,” says Schmits. “Because, again, the amount of outdoor tennis play by lower-level players, by just residents, has reduced greatly over the last couple of decades. Now you introduced — after this conversion to six, eight pickleball courts — a popular, high-density and sometimes boisterous activity in that same space. The relative difference between that and what it was before — even if the new noise level is within your local ordinances — it can be an issue for neighbors who have grown accustomed to the quiet. The following battle between municipalities with full rights to activate that area and usually a few residential complaints creates a friction that, frankly, most municipal leaders would rather avoid.”
As a result, USAP tries to identify larger-scale facilities that address more of a regional approach, but he admits that some municipalities may not have the resources or space to build a larger complex and will have to continue to find ways to compromise and mitigate the noise.
Asheville may just be trying to accommodate local demand, but Simon in Albuquerque says his city has the climate and resources to attract pickleball players from across the country. While he admits the city of about 600,000 residents may not immediately be able to compete with destination cities in Florida, California and Arizona, he does think the sunny climes of New Mexico have something to offer.
“A sun-soaked city like ours, we have enormous capacity to host pickleball events, and pickleball travelers in New Mexico,” Simon says. “And so, of course, we want to have the welcome mat out for pickleball players who want to do destination travel, just like people do destination travel for cycling, or running or tennis. And I think the combination of all these things makes it just a wonderful city to live in for outdoor sports and recreation. Pickleball is a fantastic fit for our city and state, and we’re excited to help meet the demand for facilities here.”