Squash has lessons to learn as pickleball picks up some big numbers
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
Pickleball is a new racket sport. Many squash players dismiss it, because the name sounds silly. However, boasting more than three million players in the USA, it is a rapidly growing activity that deserves closer attention.
It frequently popped up during frequent lockdown conversations with squash friends across the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in squash being labelled “a high-risk activity” because of poor ventilation trapping potentially dangerous breath, usually exhaled as a kind of aerosol spray, inside the walls of the court.
This stark fact, which has delayed a complete resumption of “normal” squash in most areas, has led to conversations about courts and the need for them to be more covid-compliant.
In turn, this then sparked a debate about outdoor courts allowing a healthier flow of air to circulate and disperse much of the potentially toxic mist.
This subject also led to the obvious realisation that open-air courts, with a glass back-wall, would allow passers-by to see the crazy fun that goes on inside these boxes, which are usually hidden away inside private buildings.
I could hear the clang of several pennies dropping simultaneously throughout the squash universe. Yes, everyone came to the same conclusion at the same time. Squash started out in private schools, and when those pupils grew up they demanded that courts were built in their private clubs for businessmen. Courts also sprung up in private country clubs, embassy compounds and private clubs for officers in the armed forces.
In other words, we play on expensive courts, hidden away inside expensive buildings, with expensive membership fees and, in many parts of the world, frighteningly expensive joining fees.
All of these things create barriers that drive the consumer elsewhere. Many to pickleball.
Sports like pickleball, and padel, have a much lower start-up cost for the operators, who can pass on these savings to the most important people of all, the players.
The growth of pickleball in the USA and parts of Canada has completely outstripped the numbers in squash, even though the USA boasts the highest number of squash players of any nation, understood to be around 1.7 million individuals.
Squash Mad has already provided a number of in-depth articles about the growth of padel, and the success stories enjoyed by squash clubs who have added padel courts to their range of facilities.
Now it’s time to turn our attention to pickleball. And it appears that we are a bit late to the party with our conversations about creating a franchise business with open-air courts. Pickleball has already done it.
Just take a look at this website, with an in-depth look at a businessman who has launched Chicken ‘N Pickle clubs in Kansas City and Wichita and has pans to open more.
I am indebted to Patrick Osborn for the following article about the growth of pickleball and news of the recent Pickleball Championships held at the Woodford Wells club in Essex.
The story begins when Patrick, chair of the WSF’s Squash57/Racketball Commission, travelled to Albuquerque to play in the IRF’s 35th World Senior Racquetball Championships in August last year.
This is a fantastic week-long ‘festival’ event hosted by Gary Mazaroff, himself a winner of over 400 racquetball championships, with participants from around the world. Racquetball, just like squash, has been struggling to maintain participation numbers but have pro-actively, and for the second year running, included the increasingly popular game of Squash57 (also known as UK racketball).
This was a great opportunity for Patrick to meet like-minded people, further develop this Squash57 centre of excellence in New Mexico and be educated by his fellow competitors in their various sports.
Pickleball was a hot topic of conversation but briefly, it was invented in 1965 by a handful of bored adults who could not find a shuttlecock to play badminton with so improvised with what they had available. The game is played both indoors and out on a court the same size as a badminton doubles court using paddles, a plastic perforated ball and a net that is two inches lower than a tennis net.
The rules of Pickleball are simple: underarm serving; no serve volleying; no volleying within seven feet of the net; singles or doubles (but largely doubles). For some, their first impression may be a social beach game and not to be taken seriously.
For three million people in America (10%/annum growth for the past decade), including the 2,400 who entered the American Nationals in 2019, it’s played with passion, plenty of guile and carefully planned injections of pace.
Below is a case study of how Patrick introduced the sport of pickleball to the Woodford Wells Club (WWC) in Essex, UK. The WWC is a multi-sport member’s club with 11 outdoor tennis courts, four indoor squash courts, a hall used by table tennis and bowls, grounds for cricket with field hockey and netball played locally.
As with many sports centres in the UK, the WWC has been looking at ways to better utilise their facilities, particularly at off-peak times.
To this end the WWC have been working closely within the local community engaging with organisations from schools through to pensioner (U3A) groups etc, developing mutually beneficial opportunities.
To get you started on your pickleball journey with some basic knowledge, a squash racket is 27 inches long, while a pickleball paddle is 16 inches long.
Back in September 2019, it was clear that I was not the only person who had never heard of pickleball. Fortunately, there is a huge amount of free material online, including quality video resources ranging from the basics to drills to competition play.
First impressions were thatpickleball is strategic, fast, not very technical (unlike tennis) a lot of fun and suitable for all ages and abilities. There were clear signs that the sport was looking to break into Europe and it appeared to be a perfect candidate for the WWC’s under-utilised hall and tennis courts.
Early discussions with WWC members and management were all very promising. We made the decision to move forward with pickleball though on a ‘shoestring’ budget. Identifying and working closely with influencers and decision makers within the WWC was key to getting the venture off the ground
There was very little choice of equipment available in the UK beyond wooden paddles at Decathlon, though this situation is rapidly improving. We could not expect people to go to the initial expense of buying paddles and balls from America on the off chance of a new section materialising at the club. I contacted all the sponsors that I could find of pickleball competitions in America asking for help and advice.
Finding a level of sponsorship was very encouraging though not essential.
WWC internal charitable funds from the 300 Club were secured to buy the first shipment of ‘demo’ paddles from Selkirk at a discount price, to supplement those that we had been very generously gifted from Engage Pickleball.
Trial games began in our (low ceiling) hall with a makeshift rope and foldable chairs as a ‘net’. It was clear that the game had potential, though our short tennis floor markings would need some work and our ‘net’ would need an upgrade. We wrote up a user-friendly poster of the (simple) rules to help us market the sport internally and made this available to the national pickleball bodies.
A small level of funding was required to kick-start the proceedings. Not knowing whether the ball went over or under the net was ‘frustrating’ so investing in a net early on is recommended.
December to January:
We upgraded our home-made net a couple of times before splashing out (around £100) on a portable net. We also laid out some masking tape to adjust the existing (short-tennis) lines. ‘Home rules’ were agreed for our low ceiling. We then trialled Pickleball in our hall at a busy time for the bar and the pleasing sound of ball against paddle and laughter quickly caught people’s attention.
The WWC pickleball playing group grew quickly and we even got membership enquiries though our listing on the England Pickleball site. We block booked the hall for pickleball club sessions but with only one court we needed a way to minimise ‘sitting around’. We employed WhatsApp, to organise players by time slots, and modified the scoring so that every point counted rather than only scoring on serve.
The tennis committee was persuaded to ‘own’ pickleball, and this was an easy discussion given the expectation that we would move outside onto the tennis courts in the summer.
We decided to hold a trial and exhibition at a time that would raise awareness and interest.
The games can be short and sweet but It proved important to organise the available court time and ensure that games did not run on.
To avoid ‘admin overheads’ and knowing we had the tennis court summer option made the pickleball ownership question easy for us to answer.
With everyone now familiar with the rules we initiated a Pickleball Doubles competition and given our 1-court availability this would run over multiple weeks. Players entered as individuals, not as pairs, and the format was designed to have the best two players rise to the top and win. The final was to have been an exhibition event on the historically busy WWC Wimbledon Ticket Draw evening but unfortunately Coronavirus brought the proceedings to an abrupt close.
We felt that using a competition format that does not require set pairs makes the event more inclusive.
March to May:
Coronavirus shut down the WWC
The sun came out to play, lockdown relaxed with outdoor play now permitted on the tennis courts. We invested in some throw down lines and more masking tape and then through trial and error we determined what for us was the most efficient way to mark out pickleball lines on tennis courts so as to give us playable courts. We ultimately decided to use the service boxes for the court (7’ wider & 1’ shorter than a pickleball court) and tennis net (2” higher than a pickleball net) which left us ‘only’ the non-volley-zone to mark out.
Compromising on the court size significantly reduced the time required to mark out the lines without any impact on the game itself.
We held a Sunday afternoon dress rehearsal of a pickleball doubles competition to trial a one-day competition format on both tennis court surfaces, the acrylic courts with the higher bounce worked better than the lower bouncing artificial grass.
We chose a Sunday afternoon for the competition because historically the tennis courts are at their quietest at this time and the bar would be open. The day ended in relaxed style, socially distanced on the cricket field with a pile of pizzas from Papa John’s, a local club sponsor, and conveniently not far from the bar.
As for the Future …
The WWC (outdoor closed) Pickleball Doubles Championships, again a Sunday afternoon event
Exhibition games on the WWC’s Tennis Finals day
Event TBD on World Pickleball Day, 10/10/2020, coincidentally the same day as World Squash Day.
In summary, Pickleball is an addictively fun and yet challenging game that can be quickly enjoyed by all ages and abilities. In under 12 months and for the total outlay of less than one annual club membership fee the WWC has established a thriving, diverse new playing section, a section that complements and helps integrate existing sections and enables us to better utilise the WWC’s facilities.
Pickleball England website
Pictures courtesy of Gill Woods Photography: http://www.gillwoodsphotography.co.uk/