I hate Pickleball. You hear this from time to time. Specially from Tennis players. Why you ask? I have thoughts…
Growing up in the 1980’s, my friends and I were sports crazy. We played football during the NFL season, basketball during the NBA season, played baseball during the MLB season, and yes…we played Tennis during Wimbledon and the US Open. We all went out and played with the same fervor and excitement as we did with any other sport.
But as time marched on, and as Jimmy Conners aged out, then John McEnroe, and then Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, my desire to play Tennis diminished. The same was happening with other people in my hometown, and seemingly so, in cities and towns throughout America. As the years went by, courts began to deteriorate more and more, and with less and less people playing, municipalities quit maintaining courts. Soon the integrity of many of the courts throughout the country fell into complete disrepair. The beautiful courts I played on as a youth became unused slabs of concrete with heavy cracks, eroded surfaces, and tufts of grass growing everywhere. The result was an amenity that was not needed or wanted in communities. In retrospect I can remember Bud Collins talking about the waning American pro Tennis player, and the need to have a succession of pros to promote the sport among the American youth. I also remember Bud emphatically calling on the leadership in American Tennis to make changes and avert the diminishing importance of Tennis in America.
The first time I heard of Pickleball was in 2006. Living in Arizona and working as a Project Manager for a Civil Contractor, I opened a set of plans and read that my project involved building some Pickleball courts as part of the City of Surprise’s new Tennis Center. I remember thinking, what are these things? The first time I actually saw anyone playing Pickleball was December 2017 and the first time I played and fell in love with Pickleball was January 2018. Our eight community courts were superimposed over four of the eight community tennis courts. I am sure the Tennis players were not thrilled. I did not know it then, but I was among the many new players starting that first wave of the now almost out of control growth of Pickleball.
This spring, two of our community Tennis courts will be converted into 8 full time permanent Pickleball courts. Again, I am sure there are Tennis players who are less than enthused about that decision. This is a scene that is being played out throughout the country. Old defunct Tennis courts are being reclaimed and refurbished into Pickleball courts. This has caused angst among Tennis players.
In September of 2022, in the middle of the US Open in Flushing Meadows New York, John McEnroe was interviewed. He took time to take a swipe at Pickleball during the most prestigious Tennis tournament in the United States. Amongst other things, he said, “I hate pickleball”. While he seemed to be half joking, after all he stated that he plays with a group of friends, he derided the affect that pickleball was having on his beloved game of Tennis.
Similarly, on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Mary Carrillo ran a piece on the “invasive nature” of the sport, focusing on the number of Tennis courts being turned into Pickleball courts. You can similarly peruse a number of reports online and on social media that detail what appears to be real hatred coming from the Tennis community.
However, what the Tennis community needs to understand is that Pickleball is not the problem. Pickleball’s growth and the conversion of Tennis courts, are a symptom of Tennis’s failed leadership, not the cause. In business we often use the Five Whys method to get to the root cause of problems. This is what I will attempt to do here. I say attempt, because I am not a member of the Tennis community, so I can only presume as to what some of these answers may be. Here is how this works.
1. Tennis Courts are being converted to Pickleball Courts. Why?
2. Because the demand for Pickleball courts is out pacing the demand for Tennis courts. Why?
3. Because more people are playing recreational Pickleball than Tennis. Why?
4. Because people find Pickleball more attractive than playing Tennis. Why?
5. Because the United States Tennis Association, USTA, has not done a good job promoting the sport for the recreational player.
In this exercise you will not see answers such as “Pickleball sucks” or “Pickleball is loud” or “Pickleball is not a real sport”. Why? Because none of these statements are pertinent to resolving the problem confronting US Tennis. This is an interpretation of what the 5 Whys may look like. I am not suggesting that I am 100% correct. What I am suggesting is that Tennis start to focus on the root cause of their problems and not use Pickleball as a scapegoat.
The truth is that Tennis still boasts an amateur player-ship of over 17.84 million players. That is over 3 times the current players of Pickleball. However, there is no question that the status of Tennis in America is not what it used to be. Sears was once the strongest brand in American retail. It was their inability to correctly address their internal failures that lead to their incredible fall from grace. Tennis, while still strong needs to stop focusing on combatting the growth of Pickleball and start focusing internally on the issues that are preventing a growth of amateur players.
No organization has unlimited resources. As such, any resource not being used to constructively help itself is taking away from those that could be used to focus on the root cause of their problem. If the attention continues to be why Pickleball is a bad sport, they are losing an opportunity to be better at growing Tennis. Make no mistake. There will be a tipping point in the future where Tennis may find itself too far on the losing side of the curve and only be able to ask themselves what went wrong. Tennis leadership and its afficionados needs to stop thinking about Pickleball and focus on the sport they love.