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Pickleball: A Fun Sport with a Funny Name, But Conflicts Abound – A Mediator’s View

To cover pickleball news these days, it helps to pay attention to what’s going on in local government chambers, community meeting rooms and court – and not the pickleball court. The growing popularity of pickleball is creating new opportunities for lawyers, community activists, and other merchants of strife. “Sour Notes Off the Court for Pickleball”, (thepickler.com May, 2022 Frank Cerabino)

Hearing about it is almost unavoidable. 

A tipping point seems to have been reached. 

It’s on the news, television has picked up presentation rights, sponsorships are rolling in, prize money is steadily increasing – there is even a “war” going on between competing leagues and tours – pickleball has most 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-paced, co-ed, age-inclusive 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 over 20,000 pickleball courts in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). It has been declared the “fastest-growing sport in the U.S.” for two years running. The demographic for participation has been described as “Everyone!”. Once derided as a sport only for retirees and seniors, the sport has evolved and there are classes, groups, leagues, and inclusion for all ages, old and young. There are calls for it to be a demonstration sport in the summer Olympics. 

Invented in the mid-60’s in Washington State, Pickleball is a sport that has infiltrated both private and public facilities. It is played in clubs and recreation centers, and on both public and private courts. In the past few years, pickleball has experienced a huge growth in participation on both amateur and professional levels, sponsorships, travel destinations and clothing and equipment manufacturers. “Big Business”, noting the exponential growth in both participants and spectators has taken notice and money is pouring in. 

But as the boom continues and the number of participants grow, conflicts arise.

“The People’s Court? City Caught in Middle of Volleyball-Pickleball Conflict”,

(GV Wire May 9, 2022 David Taub)

The growth of any recreational interest leads to challenges for local communities trying to balance the public and private interests surrounding the sport. Conflicts arise between tennis players and pickleball players, facilities, the local community, as well as public park and public court user(s). This article will suggest at the opportunities that such conflicts present for mediation and mediators. It might even lure those unfamiliar with the sport to emerge from Covid-restricted solitude and see what the fuss is all about. 

While there has been a massive increase in interest (and money) in the sport, the number of locations 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 nationwide in such magazines as “Pickleball Magazine”, “InPickleball” and as noted in LAist: “Pickleball’s In A Pickle: Too Few Places to Play in LA”, (Sharon McNary – Feb 25, 2022)

This shortage has led to conflict between pickleball players. Tennis facilities, park devotees and landowners (private and/or public) who have received requests to accommodate the massive increased numbers of pickleball players and their need for court space. Pickleball players have approached park and recreation departments to ask about installing courts or otherwise “re-lining courts” on public land. Some of these departments have turned down requests, not because they don’t want courts, but because they don’t have the funding or staff to manage them. 

The greatest number and intensity of conflicts has been about noise. 

(“Noisy Pickleball Courts Cause Upset with Homeowners”, Realtybiznews.com Mar 15, 2022)

Whether played on private or public courts, the rules of the game (as well as the actual “tools of the game”) call for a certain amount of noise, well elevated from that of tennis matches. Noise from pickleball can be a public concern if it is happening in a location where it “disturbs the peace”. Conflicts between pickleball players (wherever played) and local homeowners arise due to the “thwack” of the ball and paddle – which is appreciably louder and more sustained than that of tennis balls and racquets. Equipment manufacturers have already started to investigate the possibility of manufacturing “quieter balls” that still fit the approval rules of competition leagues. Invariably during and between games, conversations, cheers and the calling out of scores (and “in and out” calls) give rise to a noise level far greater than that of tennis games. 

“Pickleball Noise is Fueling Neighborhood Drama from Coast to Coast”,

(LA Times July 12, 2022 Genaro Molina)

A common complaint about noise from pickleball is also that the devotion to the sport is such that it is often played from the morning through relatively late in the evening. The hours when pickleball can be played can vary and are determined by the people who play the game. For instance, a group of devotees who play pickleball casually might decide to play at 6:00 am on a Tuesday and continue until 11:00 PM (or later) the same day. On public courts, players come and go while large “open play” groups can easily number to well over 100 players being present. 

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 that popular let them build their own courts.” (Twitter May 9, 2022)

Public tennis court management has been accused of being too slow to adapt to the number of citizens who would rather see a single tennis court, hosting at most 2-4 players for any given hour, being “re-lined” and that same court fulfilling the public interest (if not demand) of 8-16 players on that single court, in that same allotted time. While the use of public courts is not an issue that can be resolved by an organization like the Pickleball Association (the governing body for the sport) at league-controlled facilities, it points to the need for better education, conversation, and conflict resolution about the sport.

The challenges mentioned above are common ones that arise when an emerging recreational interest increases in 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 indicating markings as to where pickleball lines could be placed on a public tennis court. He was accused of criminal mischief and destroying public property. An arrest warrant was issued. In the end, mediation was recommended. No charges were ultimately filed. 

“Pickleball Parley: Denver DA suggests mediation between Parks Department and Central Park man accused of drawing pickleball markings on rec center court”, (Denverite.com Mar. 30, 2022)

Mediation can help tennis authorities, city and local governments, tennis players, relevant leagues of all facilities, and of course, players of the sports have meaningful and perhaps even fruitful conversations about strategies for managing the challenges associated with the sport’s growth. Issues can include scheduling, costs, court maintenance, and expectations for the players on each court. Such collaborative meetings can help private landowners who have been approached to host a court understand the interests and needs of the people interested in playing pickleball or settle disputes between neighbors of someone who has their own private court. Facilitated conversations can help pickleball and tennis players, officials, landowners, and business interests understand the challenges that that are faced and perhaps paths to settle those challenges and differences all toward a satisfactorily settled way to best enjoy the pleasures and intersection of sports, business and community.

author

Marlon Schulman

I have spent years, as a plaintiff and defense attorney (as well as an arbitrator and mediator) in the worlds of personal injury and medical malpractice, working and trying cases as varied as defective heart valve litigation, medical and dental malpractice as well as the more commonplace litigation of automobile,… MORE

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