Associate Editor Phil Keren invited country club general managers to share what their organizations were doing in response to the rising interest in pickleball.
In the October edition of Club + Resort Business, I invited country club general managers to share what their organizations were doing in response to the rising interest in pickleball.
I heard from a couple of club leaders—one in the south and one in the west—who said they installed pickleball courts due to the sport’s increased popularity among their members. They also discussed how the sport differs from tennis and what else they want to do to accommodate members’ desire to play the game.
Fred Fung, General Manager and CEO of Bonita Bay Club in Bonita Springs, Fla., tells me his club started offering pickleball in 2015.
“We had some people that said, ‘there’s this game with a silly name called pickleball and we want to try it,’” Fung shares.
Club leaders decided they would, upon request, set up pickleball spaces on some of their tennis courts.
“That was very popular,” Fung says.
Then, in 2016, Bonita Bay Club built an enclosure with two makeshift pickleball courts in an area of the parking lot. After those courts were used a lot, Fung says the club opened five “oversized” courts in 2018 and then built five more courts that opened earlier in 2022.
The interest in the game is so strong that Bonita Bay now has a head pro and two more teaching pros just for pickleball.
Fung says the number of pickleballers at Bonita Bay increased by more than 150% in the last 4 ½ years. The number of pickleballers at the club now equals the amount of tennis players at the facility. There are about 500 “unique users” each of both pickleball and tennis, says Fung, who notes approximately 300 in each sport are regular players.
There are about 100 people at Bonita Bay who play both pickleball and tennis, with 60 doing so on a regular basis. That’s changed quite a bit in the past few years; As recently as 2019, Fung says he could’ve counted “on one hand” the number of people who played both sports.
Why was there so little overlap at first? Fung tells me it’s not uncommon for there to be a “very strong level of conflict between the pickleballers and the tennis players…Your serious tennis player sometimes looks down upon pickleball because it’s less formal.”
Pickleball, he says, is more casual both in terms of attire and in how it’s played.
“Sometimes you’ll have six people that are playing [at a pickleball court] and rotating in,” Fung says.
Noise is sometimes a concern, too. Fung says the sound of a pickleball paddle hitting a ball is “significantly louder” than that of a tennis racquet striking a ball.
When the first five pickleball courts were built next to the tennis courts at Bonita Bay, Fung says some tennis players were concerned about the noise that would be generated by activity at the pickleball courts.
“Ultimately, it ended up being fine,” Fung says.
But Fung also notes the tension between tennis and pickleball players is becoming less common “because now there’s more crossover of people playing both.”
Also, compared with tennis, Fung — who has played pickleball but is not an avid player — says he feels pickleball is more fun for beginners.
Jeffrie Hunter, Chief Operating Officer at Yellowstone Country Club in Billings, Mont., says he believes the two sports can co-exist.
“For members, pickleball is a tremendous gateway for future tennis players as one does feed the other,” Hunter says.
Hunter told me his club installed four tennis courts and two pickleball courts in 2018. He says pickleball has been “a huge success” and the club’s racquet-paddle committee recently met to discuss strategies for growing the game.
In addition to talking about implementing more programming, Hunter says there is discussion about “shadow-lining” two tennis courts to provide more opportunities for pickleballers.
Another interesting feature of pickleball, Hunter says, is its potential use in physical therapy.
“Doctors are releasing patients [like hip, knee, shoulder replacement, etc.] to pickleball before they will release them for tennis,” Hunter says. “Pickleball seems to be one of the first sports that can be used in the physical therapy process.”
There is no doubt that pickleball has a bright future. Clubs that haven’t put in pickleball courts should consider giving the sport a dry run on existing tennis courts the way Bonita Bay did in 2015. Hearing from these club leaders has sparked my interest in giving pickleball a try. I think I just found my first new year’s resolution for 2023.