Tennis now has plenty of company from other racquet sports that are also quickly gaining popularity at club and resort properties, including platform tennis and the new kid on the block— pickleball.
Gone are the days when tennis was the only racquet-sport option at club and resort properties, as many have discovered the value of introducing similar activities to members and guests that appeal to a wider spectrum of people and provide racquet-based recreation and competition throughout the year. While tennis is still king, it has also made plenty of room for sports such as pickleball and platform tennis—commonly referred to as “paddle.”
A Good Kind of Pickle
SUMMING IT UP
• Pickleball, a hybrid of tennis, ping pong and badminton, is America’s fastest growing sport, with 75 percent of all players being 55 and older.
• Many clubs are seeing a bump in F&B with platform tennis—especially in beverages.
• Heating elements beneath the playing surface allow for platform tennis to be played throughout the snowy winter months in the Northeast.
World-renowned golf instructor Hank Haney has said that pickleball will be bigger than golf in the coming years. In fact, according to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), pickleball is America’s fastest-growing sport, especially with older players; 75 percent of all pickleball players are 55 and older.
Michael Baldwin, Director of Tennis at The Club at Mediterra in Naples, Fla., describes pickleball as a hybrid of tennis, ping pong, and badminton.
“It is one of the fastest-growing sports in America and is exploding in popularity in our area, especially among adults,” Baldwin says. “It can be played as singles or doubles and is much easier to learn thanks to the short paddles, small court [20’ wide by 44’ long], and the light ball, which is basically a ‘Wiffle’ ball.”
Mediterra currently has about 200 active pickleball players, Baldwin says. “This happened in just over a year since we built our three courts,” he reports. “Member interest has come from a combination of existing tennis players and those who were not playing tennis before.
“The largest percentage of our players came from our golfers,” he adds. “Then we have many who have added pickleball to their tennis [activity]. And we have those who were doing neither and decided to learn pickleball.”
In addition to its three pickleball courts, Mediterra has eight clay tennis courts and an active tennis community. Now having pickleball as an amenity and a program has also become a significant factor in people deciding to choose to live at Mediterra and become members, Baldwin says, as well as a major contributor to member retention.
And while it’s still relatively early in pickleball’s time at Mediterra, Baldwin also believes the sport has generated a tangible bump in food-and-beverage sales.
“Since we’ve added travel league teams, we have started providing snacks and refreshments when hosting matches,” he says. “Our most popular times for play are 9 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. It is hard to measure, but with members being active here at the club’s pickleball courts and then staying for lunch and/or dinner, it seems very likely to [have resulted] in an increase in F&B.”
The growing demand for pickleball has led Mediterra to increase its staff slightly, Baldwin says.
“We chose to add a dedicated pickleball professional in addition to our tennis professionals also getting certified to teach pickleball,” he reports. “The demand for lessons has far exceeded our expectations. We thought it might be that people would just want to learn the rules and play on their own. But we are seeing a strong demand for ongoing group and private lessons.”
Quieting the NoiseThe national success story of pickleball hasn’t been without some controversy. Some clubs that have added the sport have fielded noise complaints. To try to get ahead of the issue on its property, Mediterra was proactive in its approach.
“We took the noise issue extremely seriously,” Baldwin says. “I used decibel meters, researched noise-dampening fence screens, landscaping, paddles, and balls specifically manufactured to be ‘quieter.’
“We also invited the involvement of our residents who live closest to the courts, to make sure the noise would not be a problem,” he adds. “We also invited the tennis players to weigh in on the subject, as the tennis courts are right next to the pickleball courts. Fortunately, noise has not been a problem for us.”
In addition to the added professional on staff, Mediterra incurred another cost to enhance the experience for its members, by installing the Laykold Masters gel surface on its pickleball courts.
“As its name suggests, it’s a gel-like surface and currently the premier surface on the market for absorbing shock and lessening the impact on players’ bodies,” Baldwin says. “It’s relatively new and significantly more costly, so we traveled to Orlando to play-test it and be sure we wanted to go with it. We’re very happy with the decision.”
Considering the growth that’s already been seen, it’s no surprise to hear Baldwin report that more racquet-sport growth is expected at Mediterra. “We are in the planning process for adding either more pickleball courts or an additional tennis court,” he says. “Since we only have three pickleball courts and overwhelming demand for court time, my guess is that it will be more pickleball courts.”
Raising the Platform
Across the country, when snow starts to fly many people put away their tennis racquets and golf clubs and hibernate for a few months. That’s not the case for those who enjoy platform tennis, however.
Similar to tennis (scoring is the same) platform (or paddle) tennis is played with an 18-inch paddle and spongy ball on a smaller court, with a 12-foot-high taut fence that allows balls to be played off the wall and remain in play. Between the lights and heating elements beneath the surface, it has become a popular sport to play throughout the winter months.
At Southward Ho Country Club, in Long Island, N.Y.’s Bay Shore community, Gordon Digby, CCM, PGA, General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, says platform tennis keeps the club quite active.
“On any given night we can have up to 50 players,” Digby says. “We are fortunate in that we have an old mansion that serves as our pool house and converts into the platform-tennis clubhouse in the winter. It includes a bar area, TVs, couches, and viewing areas that include fire pits, and it helps us attract new members who convert from temporary membership into a full membership.”
With four platform tennis courts—the fourth was added this past fall—Southward Ho converts approximately 10 tennis and pool members to year-round memberships because of the sport, Digby says. And it also produces a tangible increase in the club’s winter F&B revenues, mostly through drinks.
Aside from some housekeeping support in the mornings to clean up after an evening of paddle, Digby says Southward Ho hasn’t had to increase staff to accommodate the activity.
“Our Director of Racquet Sports, Chris Post, is a full-time employee, and he handles most of the tournament preparation and teaching,” he says.
Wayzata (Minn.) Country Club (WCC) has two platform courts and “absolutely” sees a bump in F&B during the paddle season, according to Membership Director Marget Seehof.
“While all racquet sports have commonality in the upper Midwest, platform—or paddle as we call it—is played primarily from November 1 to April 1,” Seehof says. “Our members at WCC are very fit and outdoorsy, and we play paddle all winter long.”
While paddle tennis enhances Wayzata’s membership offerings, it’s far from the only winter activity at the club, which is known for offering a year-round calendar. The Wayzata Winter Wonderland complex boasts four skating rinks, six miles of snowshoe trails, two sledding hills and a trap-and-skeet facility.
“This component of our business is definitely a value-added selling feature,” Seehof says.
Michelle Ray, Director of Member Relations at Birmingham (Mich.) Country Club (BCC), says platform tennis has had an effect on both membership numbers—by adding members who’ve learned about the sport through friends—and F&B revenues.
“We have seen a bump in our private party F&B sales, as our paddle house is a great spot to entertain and host events,” Ray says. “We haven’t had a tangible bump in F&B performance on the a la carte side yet, but we have modified our hours of operations during our standard close-down period, to allow for dining options during paddle season. We hope this will increase F&B sales moving forward.”
The popularity of platform tennis at BCC has resulted in its racquets professional extending his season, which was previously Memorial Day to Labor Day, to now be involved at the club year-round.
Moving forward, Ray notes, the club may also expand its racquet offerings to add badminton, which uses the same size court as paddle and pickleball.
Tennis Still Rules
Not to be outdone, The Country Club of Virginia (CCV) in Richmond, Va. is a complete racquet-sports destination. With 24 tennis courts (12 outdoor clay, six outdoor hard and six indoor hard), five squash courts (four singles, one doubles), three platform tennis courts, and nine pickleball courts (one permanent and four tennis courts with permanent lines for eight additional), racquet sport enthusiasts at CCV are fully engulfed.
CCV has 1,900 total unique users in its racquet sports, According to Assistant General Manager Anne Stryhn, CCM, with 1,100 playing tennis, 600 playing squash and 200 playing platform tennis. Pickleball has seen considerable interest in its first year, Stryhn adds, and she expects even more interest to be generated by the new permanent court that is scheduled to begin operation this spring.
CCV unveiled a renovated Fitness/Racquet Sports Complex in 2018, which has become the club’s new gathering place. The numbers don’t lie: Squash participation is up 60 percent, squash-lesson revenue is up 50 percent, and tennis-lesson revenue is up 22 percent.
Food-and-beverage numbers are up as well, according to General Manager Phil Kiester.
“The renovated Fitness/Racquets Complex includes a new fast-casual food-and-beverage concept, the Cool Springs Café,” says Kiester. “This new offering has sparked a tremendous increase in member usage, averaging a little over 3,000 additional visits to a club restaurant each month.
“The new facility has become the social hub of our Westhampton campus,” Kiester adds.
“Members utilizing racquet sports and fitness are frequent users, plus the Cool Springs Café is attracting a member demographic that did not dine frequently at the club in the past. Members are telling us with their feet, so to speak, that a fast-casual concept was a needed addition to our food-and-beverage offerings.”
Not surprisingly, CCV’s racquet pro shop has also seen a bump in revenue, with sales up 22 percent since the new shop was opened as part of the complex’s expansion.
And Rob Oakes, CCV’s Director of Racquet Sports, believes there’s even more to come.
“The hottest trend in the racquet sports industry is for clubs to offer more, diverse options to their members,” Oakes says. “We are fortunate to be well ahead of this, as we’ve enjoyed squash and paddle for years.
“However, our recent additions of doubles squash and pickleball have provided even more excitement for our members,” Oakes adds. “Squash and paddle are both on the rise generally in our market, and we’re hoping to see other clubs add these amenities in the coming years.”
With the success CCV is experiencing, the future looks bright for racquet sports of all types. Stryhn says the club will continue converting clay courts to HydroCourts and would like to add a “paddle hut” along with a fourth platform tennis court. As pickleball is introduced, the club will also look at its pace of growth, to gauge members’ desire for additional permanent courts. C&RB
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