MIAMI -- Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
The sound and disruption from pickleball, America's fastest-growing sport, is driving some neighbors, tennis players, parents of young children, and others crazy.
Homeowners groups and local residents in dozens of towns and cities have rallied to limit pickleball play and block the development of new courts. They are circulating petitions, filing lawsuits, and speaking out at council and town hall meetings to slow the audible spread of pickleball frenzy across the country.
The number of people playing pickleball grew by 159% over three years to 8.9 million in 2022, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group.
The rapid spread has created dilemmas for public parks and recreation departments, which must balance competing interests with often limited space and funds. Retirement communities and country clubs also face challenges building space for people who enjoy the game, a scaled-down version of tennis with a smaller court, without antagonizing others.
Pickleball can be noisier than tennis because the game can fit more players onto the same space as a tennis court. Hits during a pickleball rally are also more frequent than tennis. And it's a more social sport, so the games tend to be louder with players bantering during and after points.
Rob Mastroianni, a resident of Falmouth, Massachusetts, sold his house and moved after the town's recreation department built pickleball courts 350 feet away from his home in a residential area.
"It's a percussive pop. It pierces the air and carries," he said.
He and a group of neighbors eventually filed a lawsuit last year against the town's zoning board of appeals, claiming that the pickleball courts violated town bylaws prohibiting "daily injurious and obnoxious noise levels." Their suit said the noise from the game was "substantially impacting [their] quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their respective homes." (They won a temporary injunction and the courts are currently closed.)
"It's a tough sell to be against pickleball," Mastroianni said. "But at the end of the day it was creating mental and physical health problems with neighbors butting heads."
"The constant popping 12 hours a day 7 days a week is borderline torture," one resident who lives next to a park in Vienna, Virginia, wrote to the town parks department. "We cannot use our outdoor space anymore due to pickleball and cannot open our windows." The town voted to restrict pickleball from seven to three days a week at local courts last month.
Some tennis players are also frustrated because pickleball is taking over tennis courts. The tennis industry has taken note and is working with parks and recreation departments and other facilities to make sure pickleball doesn't slow tennis' popularity, too. The number of tennis players grew 33% between 2019 and 2022, according to the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
"I say if pickleball is that popular let them build their own courts :)" tennis great Martina Navratilova tweeted last year.
USTA, the governing body for US tennis, has put out guidance with best practices to ensure the two sports can co-exist and keep up with demand for each.
"In an ideal world, tennis and pickleball have their own spaces," said Craig Morris, the USTA's chief executive of community tennis.
And some parents are pushing back because their kids have less space to play in the park as crowds of pickleball players grow.
"Players now endlessly swarm the playground daily," said a petition in New York City to ban pickleball at a local playground with more than 3,000 signatures. "The children have been squeezed out and many have stopped going altogether."
Boom during pandemic
Pickleball, which combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, began in 1965, but only recently skyrocketed.
It originally won a following in retirement communities where it was beloved for its social aspect and exercise benefits. The ball travels slower than in tennis and the court is half the size, so it's easier to play. It's also accessible for a wide range of ages and the rules are simple.
The game became more popular during the Covid-19 pandemic as people looked for safe, socially distanced ways to exercise outside. Celebrity backers like Tom Brady and increased media attention have also propelled the sport's rise, and gyms and parks have built new courts to accommodate demand.
The game can be played in singles or doubles, inside or outside on a 20-foot by 44-foot court — approximately the size of a badminton court — and lasts until one side reaches 11 points. Many people play on tennis courts that have been modified with lower nets and additional lines.
As the sport has grown, the number of places to play has also increased.
There were 11,000 places to play Pickleball at the end of 2022, an increase of around 130 new locations a month, according to USA Pickleball, the sport's national governing body.
'Pickleball Sound Mitigation'
Players use a plastic perforated ball, slightly heavier than a wiffle ball, and wooden or composite paddles that are about twice the size of ping-pong paddles.
Pickleball players love the "pop" of their paddles smashing the plastic ball, but that same sound can bother others.
"Cities should not simply convert tennis courts to pickleball. If they do that without considering sound, they're likely to have unhappy people," said Bob Unetich, an engineer by training who started Pickleball Sound Mitigation, a consulting firm that advises municipalities, country clubs, and upset neighbors on reducing noises associated with the game. Unetich, who is a trained pickleball referee and avid player, has advised more than 100 clients.
If there are several games going on at the same time, there can be multiple "pop" noises every second, Unetich said. Cheap pickleball paddles and balls are often the loudest.
The "pitch" of pickleball hits is also more annoying to people than a tennis racquet with strings colliding with a soft tennis ball, he said. Tennis and some other common sport sounds are usually lower pitched than pickleball.
New and existing pickleball sites need to take background noise into account, Unitech said.
If courts are built near homes, they should block sound with barriers, enforce the use of quieter paddles and balls, or restrict playing hours, he said.
"I'm an advocate of pickleball, but if it's right across the street from people's homes it's quite a problem," he said. "The right solution is often to put the court someplace else."
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
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