Pickleball turf wars: how a popular sport is creating competition for community court space

Jun 13, 2023, 2:47 PM | Updated: 3:59 pm

ST. GEORGE, Utah – Thousands of fans. World ranked players. A quarter of a million dollar pay out. A recent competition wasn’t Wimbledon or the French Open. And it wasn’t tennis.

It was a pickleball tournament in St. George.

“We have some of the best pickleball players in the world that are out here playing,” said Wayne Bullock, head pro in St George.

The Professional Pickleball Association started in Utah. Organizers say seven of the world’s top players live in Utah.

“Utah has been identified as a hot spot,” Conner Ogden, COO of the PPA said.

For all the popularity, the pickleball craze is creating turf war over court space. Are the enough courts go around?

“That’s a loaded question,” Bullock said.

That need for space is creating quite a racket, as tennis courts get re-marked and players volley for space.

“We’re doing our best to satisfy both user groups getting access,” Cole Johnston, from Park City’s Municipal Athletic and Recreation Center said.

Indoor courts are prime real estate for communities where snow covers outdoor courts much of the year. The recreation center put up nets on the indoor basketball courts, but pickleballers don’t want those.

“They’re looking for more access to play pickleball on this surface,” he said, pointing to the tennis court surface.

(Josh Szymanik/KSL TV)

Park City pickleballers took to the editorial pages and city council meetings to demand equal access. The battle now pits tennis and pickleball for the same courts.

Access has become such an issue David Dobkin has made it his platform in his run for Park City Council.

He’s proposing turning a park and ride lot into temporary pickleball courts.

“It has become a bit of a political issue,” Johnston said.

To try to serve up solutions, The rec center tested a pilot program to put tennis players and pickleballers under the same dome.

“Can they co-exist? We’ll find out,” Johnston said.

What’s causing the racket is primarily noise. Pickleball is noisy. Two players in the Park City “pilot program” had different perspectives.

“I was playing on the courts and the tennis players asked us to be quiet,” pickleball player Craig Sherman said.

“It was difficult to hear the ball off your opponent’s racquet,” tennis instructor Chris Cherniak said.

In addition to noise, is numbers. A tennis court with two players could accommodate eight pickleballers.

“You’re going to have a lot more people playing pickleball and make better use of that space,” pickleball player Steve Parker said.

“The tennis community is being put in an awkward position of having to defend their sport,” tennis coach Tim Donnely said.

Many other cities have found themselves in a similar pickle. Though this league in Bluffdale plays on dedicated courts, many others play on re-marked tennis courts, while Salt Lake County leaders scramble to build more.

They post rules to share the courts, but recreation leaders say, those rules get ignored.

Clubs on Salt Lake City’s west side have loudly complained all the courts are on the east side. Draper, Sandy and St. George are all adding more pickleball courts.

(Josh Szymanik/KSL TV)

Dozens of additional courts all over the state are creating another turf war. These are the gyms in ward houses of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Space once reserved for iconic “ward basketball” now sports pickleball lines and nets.

The church gym has become home for regulars like the B.S. Picklers – which stands for Brookstone Picklers. They play in what used to be the Brookstone Condominium tennis courts.

“We play six mornings a week,” Lori West said. “I think it is an up-and-coming sport.”

They don’t intend to push out players from other sports, but they are so dedicated, few can match their consistency. It has become a lifestyle: they socialize, celebrate birthdays and plan travel around pickleball.

That zeal exists among many players, even the pros.

Callie Smith is tennis-turned-pickleball pro who makes well into six figures through tournaments and sponsorships.

(Marc Weaver/ KSL TV)

“It’s not so much the game, it’s the people,” Smith said. “It’s like this whole big family growing bigger and bigger and spreading and if we can spread the joy around the world, why not?”

Why not? There may not be enough court space for everyone. Unlike tennis, “love” isn’t part of the scoring. But pickleballers still want to feel a little. It is clear, they want their day in court.

“It’s like the internet, we’re not going away,” player Steve Parker said.

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Pickleball turf wars: how a popular sport is creating competition for community court space