New court-sport programs, including bocce and pickleball, are increasing member satisfaction, boosting retention, and keeping more members more active.
For Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif., the pickleball craze started at the request of members.
“It suits the demographics here,” says Nigel O’Rourke, Director of Tennis and Pickleball. “People get a little bit older and maybe they have some injuries.”
|Summing It Up
• Slower-paced court games like pickleball and bocce have appeal for memberships with a broad age range, from kids to seniors.
• Clubs can test the potential for pickleball by setting up a “flex” court over an existing tennis court.
• Bocce is easy to learn and play, making it an ideal activity for clubs to build social events around.
With members looking to stay active despite the typical issues associated with advancing age, Toscana CC decided it made sense to set up a “flex” court over an existing tennis court, to see what people thought of pickleball.
“We designated times where people can play pickleball, and we have blended lines on the tennis court,” O’Rourke says.
Demand was high from the outset. The club expected a turnout of about 25 people for the pickleball introduction, but more than 80 showed up. To keep pace, the club plans to build two permanent pickleball courts next year to augment the first flex court.
Amenities for All
As properties navigate the ups and downs of the golf industry, clubs are recognizing that they need to have other activities to maintain their membership levels while also appealing to prospective members, says O’Rourke.
Organizations with a membership that skews older, or those that have a lot of families on their roster, are increasingly on the hunt for programs that appeal to those demographics. And whether that means pickleball, with its lower activity level and smaller court, or bocce, which offers all-ages fun for players and spectators alike, more clubs are recognizing their memberships’ desire for variety.
“It isn’t just golf anymore—it’s all the offerings,” O’Rourke says.
Bocce was added to the program roster at Indian Ridge Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., about five years ago, when a part of the facility previously dedicated to croquet was repurposed.
“We were trying to figure out what to do with those pads of perfectly maintained grass, and along with our members we came up with the idea to put in a bocce court,” says Tennis & Activities Director Randy Berg.
Staff allowed the grass to grow, and then cut two 10-foot-by-60-foot swaths to form two courts. Those courts quickly filled with bocce players, so the club has been adding new courts ever since, for a current total of the six. “We fill them up all the time,” Berg says.
(By choosing to build its courts on grass, Indian Ridge skewed how it offers the game toward bocce’s close cousin, lawn bowling. Other options for bocce-court materials include sand, stone dust, tennis court clay, and processed oyster shells. Carpet and synthetic turf are less-common surfaces that are sometimes used for non-regulation courts.)
|Fighting Noise Pollution
Compared to other racquet sports, pickleball is fairly noisy. The ping-ping-ping of the ball as it’s being hit during often-long volleys carries surprisingly far, and can be a big distraction to nearby members.
“I’ve been in clubs where you can hear it from a long ways off,” says Randy Berg, Tennis & Activities Director of Indian Ridge Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif. Indian Ridge CC was fortunate—its campus layout provided a ready-made, relatively secluded spot for its pickleball courts. But Berg encourages club managers to be mindful of the sound as they plan their strategy for introducing the game.
Though bocce and pickleball both have relatively compact space needs, the noise issue can make finding a good location difficult for some clubs. Nigel O’Rourke, Director of Tennis and Pickleball of Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif., notes that a nearby property has tennis courts situated next to homes, which would prohibit the potential development of pickleball courts due to the noise.
And though bocce is itself a far quieter game, its social component, with spectators cheering and groaning in concert with the players, can create enough noise that the location of bocce courts should also be carefully considered.
With an average member age approaching 70, Berg says Indian Ridge also opted to add pickleball, to provide activity options for those who may not get the enjoyment out of tennis that they used to. “Pickleball is pretty easy for ex-tennis players to play,” he notes.
To introduce the new sport, Indian Ridge CC appropriated its four existing paddle tennis courts and converted them for pickleball use. Ongoing demand later led the club to replace one of its tennis courts with three pickleball courts, for a total of seven.
“It’s always busy,” Berg says—and in addition to a schedule for regular play five days each week, the club also holds inter-club events, as well as club championships.
“It’s gone nuts, and we’re definitely getting memberships because of it,” says Berg.
Pickleball and bocce ball offer a social component that many other court sports do not. The spontaneity and slower pace give both players and spectators an opportunity to cheer, laugh and even get in some good-natured cajoling. (These aspects of the games, however, do make it important to consider where they’re best positioned on a property.)
“The easy part of bocce is that anyone can play it,” Berg says. The sport is proving especially popular for husbands and wives to enjoy together, particularly if one spouse isn’t much of a golfer. “We really push it as a couples type of event,” Berg adds.
After a fun time on either the pickleball or bocce ball courts, couples can extend the outing by enjoying the club’s social hour afterward. It’s a combination that has caught on at Indian Ridge CC, which sells out its pickleball events every week and even shifted to an earlier start time because of demand.
Unlike tennis, where games are typically arranged in advance and court reservations are made, Toscana CC has dedicated three nights each week to unstructured pickleball games. “You don’t even necessarily have to set up a game,” O’Rourke says. “It’s drop in. Just show up. You don’t need to book or commit.”
Members with some free time can decide at the last minute to join a game, which is nearly unheard of on the tennis side of the club, and the popularity of the sport means they won’t have any trouble finding other players when they arrive. To further drive member engagement, Toscana schedules mixers and more formal tournaments, too.
Both sports provide clubs with opportunities to draw in new players and guests. Members who have friends or family visiting from out of town know their guests can quickly understand the basics of either bocce or pickleball.
“If you have any kind of racquet experience, like squash or badminton, those skills transfer very easily to pickleball, and it’s an easy game to pick up,” O’Rourke says.
Even for players who may not be as athletic as they used to be, both games still give them a chance to get some exercise and be involved in the game. Toscana CC has also had success appealing to members who are looking for a new sport to learn.
“What’s happening at our club is exciting,” O’Rourke says. “We have golfers who didn’t come to the sport club before now coming over to find out what pickleball is. And they’re really enjoying it.”
At Indian Ridge, it’s common for players to bring a bottle of wine or beer to enjoy on the side of the bocce court. Members have also held private parties on the courts, giving the club a chance to show off its facility to a bevy of potential new members, Berg says.
“We also recently had a new-member mixer with over 160 people,” Berg reports. “We’ve never done anything like that before.”