The Great Pickleball Debate

A Controversy is Brewing:  Is Pickleball A Sport for Participants or Spectators?

Original-Pickleball-Court

It started fifty years ago with several bored kids, plywood paddles and a wiffle ball on a miniature tennis court. Some quirky rules and a silly name with uncertain origins was applied. Double hits were overlooked. A kitchen emerged. Nothing more than an improvised backyard kids game. Now we are two weeks away from the inaugural US OPEN Pickleball Championships attracting over 800 players pursuing $25,000 in prize money in front of record crowds in Naples, Florida. And while game strategies and paddles have evolved greatly, the game still revolves around a wiffle ball and smooth paddles on a little tennis court.

But pickleball has a problem. To non-players, it is BORING. Sixty stroke rallies snore on. Complex shots appear simple. A sport in which a 54 year old can compete with a 22 year old in the highest match in the land! Seriously? Some people think “I’ll watch Federer and Djokovic, thank you very much.” Or any sport where real athletes with herculean physiques and personalities perform gigantic feats.

And without spectators there will be scant money, no big prizes, no lucrative endorsements, no huge personalities and, alas, no Olympics.  But when yawning spectators pick up a paddle and try for themselves, a different thought process begins to churn. This ain’t shuffleboard.

Traditionalists care little about spectators. Pickleball is for participants. We love long rallies dictated by a kitchen, hard surface paddles, and smooth, low bouncing balls. We prefer to keep the sport accessible to all. No other racket or paddle sport is easier to learn. Tennis, ping pong, badminton and racquetball all involve hard to master strokes and spins. Not pickleball. Bang away. Pickleball is social, addictive, easy to learn and indifferent to age, gender and even mobility at many levels. And while Pickleball can be fiercely competitive, scrappy, and even a bit intimidating, it is friendly, accessible and evokes smiles. And we love the fact that a 62 year old with a 38 inch waist line can compete with a 25 year old with a 32 inch waist.

Enter the controversy:  All this may be about to change.

Many newcomers to the industry want to accelerate the game for better tennis-like viewing. According to Joe Dinoffer, OncourtOffcourt (Pickleball Tutor), top tennis players average 3.5 strokes per point while pickleball points average 9 strokes. Nearly half of pickleball strokes are soft dink shots while almost no tennis strokes are soft. The game is accelerated with rougher paddle surfaces (e.g. Encore’s Engage) and softer ball surfaces so players can ‘grab’ balls and impart topspin like tennis rackets. Making balls that bounce higher also allows more aggressive play (Onix’s Pure Outdoor Ball).  Here is an example of a fast paced rally from the LeMaster-Davison Classic championship match this past weekend in Arizona:

 

 

Now watch this slower, albeit exciting, 40 stroke rally from the same match.

To counter this trend, back in November 2015, the USAPA imposed a new rule limiting the bounce to 34 inches (from 37 inches). This new rule takes effect October 1, 2016. The two most popular indoor balls, Jugs and Pickleball Now, bounce 37 inches. The Jugs ball has been around for nearly a decade and is used in over eighty percent of indoor play. Players love it!  And now it is being disqualified. Part of the problem is that bounce height is measured on a granite surface which performs similar to outdoor asphalt surfaces. Wood floors absorb the ball’s energy generating less bounce than asphalt. Additionally, the USAPA imposed a roughness limit on paddles to reduce players’ ability to impart topspin for harder drives.

So why did the USAPA limit the bounce height? Recently introduced balls like the Onix Pure Outdoor ball bounce 37 inches encouraging more aggressive play. When reformulated to bounce 34 inches or less, this ball will help maintain the longer rallies and more patient style of play preferred by the USAPA and other traditionalists in this sport.

In summary, many players prefer to limit the ball bounce and paddle friction to encourage longer rallies requiring patience and tactics. Others find the long rallies boring and would prefer balls and paddles that allow an explosive exchange of topspin drives. Spectators might agree.

What do you think?

 

30 thoughts on “The Great Pickleball Debate

    • I’m 70 years old, a former tennis and squash player, and I do not like the multi-shot dink-a-thons that always occur in games with better players. I find it boring to say the least. Perhaps at my age, shuffling to the net is all I’m good for anymore, but the faster game with the ball bouncing higher allowing for faster, harder shots and more spin is more to my liking, and I can still do it effectively. I want to move out there, be fluid, stroke the ball, be a shotmaker, not just stand at a line, knees bent and pooch the ball over the net until someone makes a mistake or hits a great angle. The dink game is just too one dimensional.

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  1. Old school as created pickleball should rule! Today we played outdoor with 8 people from age 13 to 87. Great exercise, great fun, some great play and volleys, and great social engagement. If the money people want a tennis like pro sport a separate “PRO” rating and league should be created. They could change the rule to suit the advertisers, TV, and sport profiteers who want to make money off our traditional pickleball game.

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    • Just WHY should we speed the game up and make for fewer rallies? Who cares if it isn’t a spectator sport and there isn’t BIG money involved. I sure don’t. Why does pickleball have to go big time with TV and endorsements etc etc. Keep it the way it is so us oldies can keep up with the younger players. If you allow faster balls and all the spinny paddles and rougher paddles to grab the ball, then you will have ruined the sport, just like table tennis did with all the different kind of rubbers and spin and glue and cheating etc etc. That is why I got out of table tennis, having to change rubber every 6 months and mess around with all the spin and non spin and counter spin and neutral spin ad nauseum. I like the paddle specs that make it the same for all. No real big advantage in having the latest and greatest. Just do the fundamentals.

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  2. I truly believe that Pickleball is still evolving in all aspects. First let me point out the real challenge with that ball. It’s unique design/material brings slower travel through the air due to the perforations/holes over its surface. It also makes for an erratic/inconsistent bounce on the court surface as well as on the paddle surface. So many variables to deal with.
    Take for a moment that in regulation (tournament/competitive) Table Tennis (ping pong) the ball has to be seamless (one piece extrusion). That’s so that it bounces ‘true’ in order for any variance such as spin e.g. to strictly be attributed to the players skill in generating it. Not from some outside element or source e.g. a seam.
    Next consider the official rule that the player in T/T hold/present the ball in an open palm (fingers extended out) while doing the serve. That is so that (you guessed it) any variance such as spin come only from contact of the ball with the paddle. Again, not from an outside element or source e.g. the presenting hand cupping the ball with fingers wrapped around it. No hiding your intentions.
    Everything must be out in the open and on the table, so to speak!
    Now let’s look at a PB ball, if you will. For example an indoor ball has 26 holes equal distance apart scattered over its surface. The intended purpose, I’m told, was to give it slower travel through the air. That works, but I contend however that incidentally it adds another element to it.
    The bounce is erratic/inconsistent and consequently lower than reasonably expected. These are both outside elements built into this ball. Herein lies a disputable challenge, I think.
    Consider the bounce on the court every time becomes more and more erratic. The same goes for the bounce on the paddle, especially while volleying at net/’kitchen’ or non-volley zone.
    Players are baffled when the ball goes off in some weird direction or takes a bad bounce as if it was fractured or cracked. Yes, that sometimes is the case but more often not.
    The ball is the culprit. What looks to be basically a round ball is in fact ‘off round’ every place/spot on its otherwise ’round’/spherical surface where there is a hole. So on this indoor ball, you could safely say it’s 26 times ‘off round’. In between holes its round and at the hole it’s off round or flat. Take a look at one and you may agree. Perhaps not, but that’s ok.
    Also consider a top level 5.0 match (singles or doubles) with great long rallies. Shots that end the rally by hitting the ball out or into the net could possibly have been ‘made’ to prolong the point had the ball bounced truer or predictably.
    On another note, I jokingly usually refer to today’s ‘ bad drivers’ (on the road) as ‘predictably unpredictable’. Meaning that they are generally unpredictable and that’s the only thing I can predict or expect from them. Driving, by its very nature is a ‘group activity’. Not your exclusive private space, duh! So for one, please use your turn signals in advance to indicate your intent. That’s why in many parts of the world they are referred to as ‘indicators’. Makes sense!
    Just wanted to throw that in for relevance/relevancy.
    Thanks, Cheers!👍

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  3. I love Pickleball BUT I don’t like the service style rules. Try playing without any style rules. I don’t think it changes things much. Judging whether a serve is legal is very difficult. Why try?

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  4. As a 54 year old that competes with the twenty somethings in the highest matches in the land, I confess that I am biased (and agree that it won’t last for long Glen). I concur that it will never be the spectator sport that tennis is, just not as exciting for the general population to watch, and therefore won’t have the bucks and major sponsorships that will allow the pro’s to earn real money for a long, long time. However, one aspect that makes the sport the greatest sport around, is the fact that there are no other racket/paddle sports that equalize the generations, as does pickelball. Rather than bemoan the fact that the decades don’t factor in as much in pickleball, and try to change it to make it more “sexy”, why not celebrate it and let that serve as an inspiration and motivation to those of us who no longer are young, and also to those who will be in our shoes in a few decades?

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    • Scott, great comments and perspective. Of course you are the 54 year old I was referring to. Brian A and I keep a little list and have you in the top 10 in the nation. No other sport allows such a possibility. But you have earned it! See you next week. Glen

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    • Well said Scott,Touché! However, in as much as no one can predict the future who knows how it relates to Pickleball? Hopefully PB pros will be on par with those in Tennis for one, by today’s standards. Competive Pickleball for now needs a lot more exposure just as Badminton still languishes as it comes out of the shadows of outdoor, garden variety backyard BBQ ‘goodminton’, lol!
      Each of these sports has its detractors or ‘monsters’ that seriously need to be taken out.
      Cheers, keep playing until you convert to a Ref, line judge or mere non participatory spectator. Still far better than becoming a spectacle. Lots of coaches neede out there and that holds out hope for us oldies, hopefully.

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  5. Having played Tennis and PB at advanced levels I do not think that the ball and its bounce characteristics will make that much difference. Equipment wil always go through stages of so called innovations but it’s the difference of playing ability that will define how the sport progresses. The more talented the participants the more spectator interest will improve. I do not believe that the equipment will ever determine how individuals play this sport as far as strategy, skill level does.

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  6. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 EVERYDAY if I was going to cater to a group it would be them. There are enough fast games like tennis and racquetball. One slow one isn’t going to hurt anyone. So if you want to grow the sport I suggest you keep it slow and market to seniors. BTW my 15 year played it and loved it.

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  7. The most popular sport in the world is football (soccer) and many games at the highest levels are played for 90 plus minutes ending with an insurmountable leads of one. Tens of millions of fans crave to watch these games and millions play it around the world at all levels. The rules are evolving with technology, but not to allow faster easier scoring. Only in the USA does soccer have lower ratings because for some reason we like lots of points. It is popular because people who watch it understand it and see what is going on. Pickleball has this allure too. The Player/spectators too enjoy (through understanding) watch the point develop.
    Pickleball should not be about faster easier scoring nor should it be designed where a seventy year old can compete with a 20 year old. It should be about strategy and developing points using skill, trickery and physical prowess. I believe this is best served by making uniform balls that do not bounce above the height of the net at its lowest point. If a player can impart top spin, back spin, or has mastered the physical mechanics for driving the ball into an opponent then they should be rewarded.
    I enjoy the concept that a well placed shot into the kitchen neutralizes my opponent of any age from hitting an easy winner. However, I also enjoy the concept that with patience, strategy and teamwork either side can force that ball to come up out of the kitchen just enough that a player can hit a winner. That is where the rankings and spectator profits come in. The more skilled players have a lower margin of error for when to strike and in any sport where you have professional class and broad participation class as in soccer fans will pay to see that higher skill. Money will be made selling to the vast majority of lower level players who crave to play like the pros, but can only strive to be so dedicated because many of us are not retired yet and still work;-)
    The only rule I would change is 2F1. Wearing yellow shirts with yellow balls is so bush league and demeaning to sport.

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    • Mark, the wearing of yellow shirts or of same color of balls is a total non issue. Tennis had whites for 100 years and white balls and there was never an issue. To me anyway it really doesn’t matter if my opponent has a green shirt with green balls printed all over it. Doesn;t affect my game one whit.

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      • Horns, that’s great! It’s still bush league. Regardless of wether it works on one individual or not because the intent is to deceive and contrive a non skill advantage. As Matt Staub said on the Pickleball Show with Chris Allen “I wouldn’t call it unsportsman like, … but the person [wearing yellow] might find themselves getting tagged a few times”. Also thanks for reading my whole comment to the end. That takes persistence.

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      • Yes, I agree wearing colored balls on the shirt is rather bush league, but it doesn’t bother me a bit, so let those lower level players that do it just have fun and think they are gaining a competitive advantage. No sweat here.

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  8. Prior to playing pickleball (and thoroughly enjoying it), I have played most other racquet sports. In comparison to tennis and racquetball, pickleball allows me to play with much less negative impact physically. At 56, an important consideration because I would like to play many more years. When it comes to the ball, I am of the opinion that different balls could be used based on the skill levels within the sport. There will always be age and skill factors that need to be accommodated within pickleball. Make a range of balls that allow players to choose which ball characteristics help them to enjoy the sport even more.

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  9. As far as the paddle specs go, I think that makes some degree of sense and it seems that the standards have more or less always been in place. On terms of ball bounce, I think the USAPA is being too aggressive with changing their own standard ball bounce height to purposely slow down the game.

    All that being said, these rules changes only truely change USAPA sanctioned events (i.e. tournaments). No one is going to care about what type of ball you use on your local courts for recreational or social play. I know my local Y is sticking with the Jugs ball because that is what the players prefer. It wouldn’t affect a non-sanctioned tournament either.

    So the USAPA is affecting the “top tier” of the game. They have to decide if they really want to become a spectator or posibly olympic sport or not. The trend these days is for quick action and high scoring in all sports so the “big manufacturers” with the big dollars are going to follow the trend. If the USAPA wants to be a “sport” it will speed up and cater to the more athletic types . If it wants to remain a “game” with a lack of sponsorships, it will continue to change the standards to try to keep the game just like it used to be.

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  10. Important topic for all to clearly understand.
    Youth does enjoy traditional Pickleball and so do top competitors. I promote Pickleball at all levels with focus on world-class ratings, league development and youth of particular interest in 2014-2015. Over half of my year is geared tward teaching new players and opening new courts. I donate, volunteer and sponsor. I do not compete. I am a spectator and I have demands, hahaha😀

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  11. Great article. I love both the social and competitive aspect of pickleball and I appreciate efforts to make pickleball more professional. But I think we should keep in mind the primary beneficiary of the game of pickleball – the older players who have given up on sports because their bodies, etc won’t allow them to run around a tennis court, basketball courts, etc. They are the ones who find the most joy in getting out and hitting a silly yellow ball at each other.

    The faster you make the game – the younger the game becomes and less accessible it becomes to older players. As it has already been noted – one of the great joys of the game is how competitive it can be between a 60 year old grandma and her 12 year old grandson.

    Too many people – myself included at times – are looking for a ‘in’ on making money from the sport (by selling paddles and accessories, teaching lessons, chasing tournament money, etc) instead of finding joy in just playing the game and building community through the sport.

    – David Conover
    Founder, Ukrainian Pickleball Association

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  12. I am a very mobile 40 year old so the fast pass does not bug me at all but what brought me into the game was the chess matches between the fast and slow keep it the way it is if the want to watch tennis let them watch tennis pickleball is a sport of its own and the true players and fans will come it’s still a young sport don’t screw it up for money

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  13. I am 65 years old and desire the sport to retain its present qualities, including the slow play and dink skills needed for a lower bouncing ball. Also, keep the paddles the same without all the whoopdedo changes in surface that would impart more spin. That spinny stuff is the reason so many people like myself abandoned table tennis, what with its inverted pips, neutral pips,speed glue and all that other technical stuff making the game a guessing game with minimum rallies and constantly buying new rubber to keep up. I am a traditionalist and want pb to retain its previous qualities so us old folk can still compete against faster and younger opponents who don’t master the soft game. “Horns” Townsend, USAPA ambassador.

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  14. Take a look at most sports played competitively today. Many of them steeped in history (badminton, tennis, bowling, hockey, football, baseball and others) have evolved over time due to industry innovation, player demand and the desire to draw spectators.

    Yet, there are still plenty of recreational only versions of each of these sports played today. If you are in the camp that thinks pickleball should not evolve and stay just as it is, you have the option of playing that way – recreationally.

    The game will evolve. It will get faster and more competitive as the sport continues to grow. And frankly, the USAPA needs to keep itself in check. Changing paddle and ball specs after manufacturers have invested substantial sums in producing them according to USAPA guidelines – should not be allowed. The USAPA’s mission statement states that its primary purpose is to grow the sport. So let it grow. Listen to the players. gain insight from spectators and shape the sport based on a larger community, not a minority. You exist to serve the greater good, but you have to listen in order to do so.

    The mission statement of the USAPA:

    The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was organized to promote the growth and development of pickleball, not only on a national but an international level. This organization provides players with official rules, tournaments, rankings, and promotional materials.

    The USAPA is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation. It is governed by a talented Board of Directors, most of who chair one of the important committees of this organization (see below).

    The Board is committed to further the growth of pickleball among players of all ages and characteristics. It will continue to provide the infrastructure for the development of the sport through promulgation of official rules, sponsoring and sanctioning tournaments and clinics, ranking players, communicating with its members via e-mail and newsletters, training of all levels of players, and otherwise promoting pickleball.

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    • Wow, great points. Even with no equipment changes, I expect that five years from now I will have no chance against a 20-year old top player in doubles or singles. In defense of the USAPA I might suggest that the rule adjustments to paddle friction, paddle length, and ball bounce are to preserve aspects of the sport they believe all players desire, both young and old.

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  15. If the USAPA wants to keep it a sport for old people, then keep implementing old person rules. If you want to make this a global sport for all age levels with lots of potential spectators, then the USAP should get out of the way and let the sport develop.

    People are intelligent enough to find groups to play with at their preferred age bracket and level, we don’t need the USAP to control everything.

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    • Bob, everyone would agree that this sport needs to attract younger players. If changing the rules accomplished this, perhaps you are right!

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  16. Tom Widden/NW Oregon District Ambassador writes: Our sport needs to realize like any other popular spectator sport that proximity to action and comfort of spectators is a key..we see plenty of makeshift courts poached off tennis courts and indoor gyms that are almost exclusive of any seating or even access….peering through tight-woven cyclone fences or at end of small elementary-school gyms not very inviting…we stress always bring your campchair to events…who wants to stand under sun watching long matches?

    WE bought gross of ONYX Pure balls to take on recent MoodiesBlues Pickleball cruise and all LOVED them..almost no effect from breezy conditions underway at sea…used indoors in Alexandria gym with terrible glare and all loved enhanced visibility. Local outdoor venues found enhanced visibility against mottled green vegetation backgrounds at parks…to my knowledge have not broken ONE BALL yet which helps our replacement budgets.

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    • Tom, your insight is fantastic. Just making it easier for spectators to view would benefit greatly. I am very interested in your comment on the PURE ball. I assume you were using the outdoor PURE ball with the smaller holes than JUGS.

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  17. We need to keep the sport traditional as it always has been. To make pickleball more aggressive for the “newer” and I would guess younger Type A personalities would remove the aspects of pickleball that make it popular with all ages and health conditions. Pickleball should never be turned into a prize money game for the elite players and their fans.

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