Not All Fun and Games

In Seattle, a ‘Turf War’ between Pickleball and Tennis Players Has Just Begun

It's a zero-sum game for court time. But it doesn't have to stay that way.

By Benjamin Cassidy October 13, 2022

Pickleball player holds paddle and ball against red backdrop with a tennis net and shoes in background.

Frank Chiappone gushes about pickleball like it’s therapy or crypto. “When I say it’s changed my life,” he says, “it’s not an exaggeration.”

The former KOMO sports anchor had never seen the paddle sport before happening upon it by accident a handful of years ago. Back then, the game invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965 was still surfacing only sporadically in Seattle. But Chiappone found some devotees at Maple Leaf Reservoir Park’s two public courts and, eventually, a massive community. “My circle of friends has expanded tenfold.”

The president of the Seattle Metro Pickleball Association is one of many locals, and Americans, in the total thrall of pickleball.

Washington’s official state sport has garnered no shortage of rapturous national coverage lately for its kumbaya-ness. A New Yorker headline wondered if pickleball can save America. An ESPN feature—One Nation, Under Pickleball—chronicled its whimsical origins. Even New York Times columnist Kurt Streeter, a longtime tennis player, couldn’t resist declaring he’s “ready to make some room for pickleball in my life” after spending time with enthusiasts at Green Lake Park.

But divisiveness has quietly accompanied pickleball’s acclaimed rise, too. At Green Lake, which Chiappone calls the “mecca” for the sport in Seattle, as many as 100 pickleball players on any given afternoon might cycle through eight playing areas—two taped on—at courts once reserved for tennis players, who now know better than to wait around for open slots. “They’re not there anymore,” says Chiappone.

This displacement doesn’t end at Green Lake. From West Seattle to Capitol Hill, Bitter Lake to Rainier Beach, pickleball is cannibalizing affordable access to tennis. Public courts once reserved for singles and doubles tennis matches now often host picklers at all hours. A flyer at Miller Park, another pickleball hot spot, decried the dissonant whacks of paddles meeting balls 18 hours per day. (“Please let the quiet tennis players return!!!”) While the similarities between both sports mean many players dabble in both and get along well enough, “there’s definitely a turf war,” says Chiappone.

At the moment, no side’s really winning. In a recent survey of more than 3,000 locals conducted by the city, 72 percent of tennis players were dissatisfied with the quantity or availability of courts. But even more pickleball players (83 percent) were peeved about court time, leaving Seattle Parks and Recreation to wrestle with a thorny question: If everyone’s unhappy, whose concerns should take priority?

Oliver Bazinet, a senior planner with the department, acknowledged during a public meeting this spring that the “exploding” popularity of pickleball must be balanced with its “significant impact” to the tennis community. To date, Parks has tried to toe the line between both parties by painting pickleball stripes on tennis courts around the city—the quickest way to placate picklers without technically banishing tennis. By week’s end, 20 sites will be “dual striped,” creating 83 courts, according to spokesperson Rachel Schulkin. In total, the city counts 89 pickleball playing areas, compared to 141 for tennis.

But it’s far from an ideal arrangement. Beyond the long wait times for players of both sports, a portion of tennis enthusiasts say the new lines are distracting. Many pickleball players, meanwhile, would like more stripes added. Currently, the city creates two pickleball courts for every tennis court; Chiappone and others would like that number to grow by at least one per court, if not more. Schulkin says the department will consider a six-to-two ratio in 2023 but has previously faced problems with maintaining a mandatory 12-foot “run-out zone” for tennis when adding the extra lines.

To meet the insatiable demand for expanding pickleball access, the department has begun exploring a strategy it has been hesitant to pursue in the past: court conversions. Five tennis court sites around Seattle may be turned into pickleball-only areas during their next renovations, per Schulkin.

The city weighs a variety of factors—accessibility, noise, parking, proximity to community centers, and high school home courts—when evaluating the use of sites. But Clark Bailey, secretary of the Amy Yee Tennis Center’s advisory council, reports the council is “definitely concerned that [Parks’] desire to expand the number of pickleball courts may come at the expense of equitable access to public tennis facilities.”

At the same time, Bailey adds via email, “this zero-sum game is not inevitable.” If Parks invested more in the upkeep of tennis courts around the city, more court time would be available to everyone. Ricky Huynh, senior manager of marketing operations and communication at the United States Tennis Association’s PNW branch, notes the organization isn’t at odds with pickleball: “We are excited about the growth of tennis and believe both tennis and pickleball can exist and be successful. There is room for all of us.”

Ultimately, Chiappone and other pickleball advocates are pushing for the construction of two pickleball-dedicated facilities that wouldn’t interfere with tennis whatsoever. A parking area at Magnuson Park and Hiawatha and Genesee Playfields are a few of the early contenders for sites with at least eight lighted courts, Parks revealed during a public meeting in May. About $3.2 million in the city’s budget could support the development of one site.

Still, those projects are years from coming to fruition. In the meantime, Chiappone says the city will have to move much faster to meet the rabid demand for the sport. “Because it’s just only going to continue to grow.”

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