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The pickleball pickle

Episode Summary

Pickeball has been gaining popularity across the country. Its enemy No. 1: NIMBYs who would like some peace and quiet, please.

Episode Notes

It’s pitting neighbors against neighbors in suburbs across the United States. Tempers are flaring. Tension is high. And nope, all the drama has nothing to do with politics or COVID or any of the usual suburban suspects. The culprit now: pickleball.

Today, we serve you the rapid rise of a sport whose popularity boomed during the pandemic and the intense backlash rising right alongside it. 

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guest: L.A. Times investigative and enterprise reporter Connor Sheets

More reading:

Pickleball noise is fueling neighborhood drama from coast to coast

Pickleball is a godsend for older players. L.A. needs to fund new courts


Pickleball is a smash hit in SoCal. Now younger players are picking up the paddle

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: It's pitting neighbors against neighbors in suburbs across the United States. Tempers are flaring. Tension is high. 

And nope, all the drama has nothing to do with politics, or COVID or any of the usual suburban suspects. The culprit now? Pickleball. Pickle what? 

I’m Gustavo Arellano.. You're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. 

It's Tuesday, May 31, 2022. 

Today, the rapid rise of a sport that barely anyone knew about before the pandemic and the intense backlash rising right alongside it.

Connor Sheets is an investigative and enterprise reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Connor, welcome to THE TIMES.

Connor: Thanks for having me. 

Gustavo: Okay, so pickleball. Isn't that like in baseball, when you're between bases and people are throwing a ball and they're trying to tag you out and you're supposed to be like, get to the other base.

Connor: Yeah, that's what I thought. But you know that's just a pickle. Pickleball is a separate sport. It started in like 1965 in Washington state. And it's a paddle-based game where you have players with hard paddles, hitting a wiffle ball back and forth over a net that's very similar to a tennis net and has nothing to do with base running. Ha. 

Gustavo: So pickleball has been around since 1965, but you just found out about it.

Connor: So I talked to this lawyer, Nick Kaplan in San Diego, met him at a coffee shop randomly.

He has been involved in multiple legal proceedings over you know the impact that pickleball has had on various communities around California.

Gustavo: What's this game about then? That gets people still upset about it. Like, how do you play it? Who's playing it?

Connor: You've got two or four players similar to tennis. You can play solo, singles or doubles. 

Connor: Each player has a hard plastic paddle, and you're hitting this wiffle ball back and forth. The wiffle ball moves slower than a tennis ball, but you're closer together. So it's a lot of back and forth, back and forth similar to ping pong. 

Connor:  But you're standing on like a tennis court-like surface and it's a lot smaller surface. It's about a quarter of the size of a tennis court. It's a small piece of land that you're playing on, there's not a ton of running, and the motions that you have to learn are pretty basic. So, you know, people that play pickleball, say you can pick it up in an hour and be out there playing competitively. So basically it's similar to tennis as far as the rules go, you're trying to hit it past your opponents and that type of thing. And uh, it’s really has taken off in recent years, especially during the pandemic. If you think about tennis 10 years ago, probably no one had ever heard of it. But I think as of the last, most recent count, I think it was about a year ago, 2.8 million people had played in the past year. Tennis there's about 21 million people played in that year period. So it's still not taking over, but it has grown quite a bit. 

Gustavo: This sounds completely boring. So why on earth are people upset by pickleball?

Connor: There's a couple of issues, but I think the key one is that the volume of pickleball is significantly higher than tennis.

Connor: So tennis caps out at about 60 decibels, which is the equivalent of a normal conversation between two people, about a meter apart. And then pickleball can easily cap out above 80 decibels, which is the equivalent of hearing a freight train from about 50 feet away or, and the sound of a blender is 88 decibels. So you're talking about a lot louder sound. Pickleball is on a smaller court and the balls going back and forth more you're hearing this ping, ping, plunk, plunk sound over and over and over and over again at that elevated volume.

Connor: It can get pretty intense. And you've got these uh these loud noises that are bothering people nearby. The reason that's important is that there are a lot of laws in place, municipal laws and covenants for condo associations and homeowner associations that require that any activity going on that decibels remain below a certain volume. So there does become a legal issue.

Gustavo: So besides a freight train getting hit every five seconds or so, what else annoys the people who hate pickleball? 

Connor: If you think about tennis, you've got this large court and maybe you've got two people, sometimes four, if you're playing doubles– and they're all well, pretty well spaced out, and they're not having animated conversations. 

Connor: But, in pickleball you can fit 16 people on one court. So, you imagine any situation where you're getting 16 people together versus two to four, you're going to have all kinds of different things that people complain about.

Connor: Arguments, yelling matches, loud laughing, but also parking traffic. Anything that comes with large groups of people can come along with pickleball. 

Connor: There's also often that people want to play pickleball at all hours of the day. I saw numerous examples of places where people were showing up to play pickleball at 5, 6, 7 a.m. and playing ‘till well into the night. People aren't getting a reprieve from all the, all these impacts.

Gustavo: So Nick, this lawyer that you talk to, he's representing people who want to shut down pickleball, but is that even possible? Look at skateboarders, you'd knock them off one place, they show up somewhere else. It seems with pickleball, all you need is the flat surface and they just have at it.

Connor: If there's a law in place that says you can't engage in an activity within a certain distance of people's homes, that's over a certain decibel level, it's pretty hard to argue that you should be able to continue to do something that is above that level.

Connor: Say a homeowner lives next to a park, and that park always had tennis and that fell below the allowable decibel level in that community, then you know that, those people, they would never have been able to get rid of tennis because that. That was always included in what was allowed. But when you add in this louder activity and it's on the books, you know, if its a municipal law, you either have to change the law because if you bought a house in a community and that there's this rule on the books

Connor: You can't just unilaterally just get rid of that rule and people have a say in it.

Gustavo: What are the pickleball haters saying in these lawsuits complaints to their HOA boards?  

Connor: It's a lot of legalees, but it does suggest that people are being grievously, injured, people use terms like their wellbeing has been greatly harmed, or they're just experiencing severe emotional distress caused by some of the sound. 

Connor:  It's ending up playing out in the courts. It's ending up playing out in mediation rooms. And, as I saw in one community in California, it's playing out in city halls, town halls, parks and recs meetings all across the country.

Gustavo: Coming up after the break. Why a pickleball showdown in a small California, coastal town has national implications?


Gustavo: Connor before the break, you said that pickleball is controversial, even though it sounds very boring. On one hand, it's accessible and helps people connect with new friends, but it's also loud and takes up a lot of space. So all these issues are causing disputes in suburbs all over the country, but you focused on Goleta, California. Where is Goleta and what is happening there?

Connor: Yeah. So Goleta is right by the University of California, Santa Barbara, basically attached to Santa Barbara and it's a smaller town, in comparison to Santa Barbara and some of the surrounding areas, it's maybe not as high income. It's sort of a middle-class seeming community. It's a little bit higher percentage Latino residents while most of the area around there's mostly white. But there's a community center, the Goleta Valley community center. And it's been there for years. It's run by a nonprofit and they have tennis courts and they're fenced in, they're a little bit rundown, they're behind their building. It's kind of fallen into disrepair ,tennis seems to have fallen out of favor there to a degree. So pickleball players, have set up their own little nets. The nets are movable at this point, so they're, they can be removed for tennis, but there's signs that say this is the pickleball courts and people play there I think something like 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM every day.

Connor:  The pickleball community there wanted to have it be officially declared that these were officially pickleball courts and install permanent nets and those types of things to, to codify it that way so.

Gustavo: You actually went to Goleta and talked to some people at the courts? What was it like? Were people smacking each other with balls and those rackets or something? 

Connor: So I went to go visit Goleta and uh and I met a guy named Mike Myers. 

Mike Myers: Let me give you this. All my friends, actually, are from pickleball. So like just on a personal level, like everyone I know has grown from pickleball. I'm not from here. So I have now hundreds of friends, people, I go out to dinner with it, everything. So everybody I know is from the sport.

Connor: But then when you start asking about this issue, people were pretty um fiery about it. Some of them had some pretty strong words about why they believe that they're being railroaded.

Tim Hayes: First of all, like about five, six weeks ago, email went out to the city saying so many complained to the city council about the noise on this court. And I sent that email to the city council saying, “You gotta be kidding. We got the airport, Highway 217,  the bus depot, Hollister and the 101 this and these things. ‘Beep beep beep beep beep’ when they back in. This has got to be the noisiest place in Santa Barbara county.” Somebody complained about the noise.

Connor: And so there was a lot of emotion around it and, you know, I think there's this tension, but I don't think it's playing out like all in the courts on a day-to-day basis. I think it's more in courtrooms, city halls, parks and recs–you know that type of thing.

Gustavo: So these pickleball enthusiasts, then they go to the city council and they say, “Hey, these tennis courts are done. No one plays tennis. Turn ‘em into pickleball courts.” What ends up happening? 

Connor: So last year, late last year they go to the parks and rec department they eventually ended up going to the city council. Basically all they're saying is, can we go ahead and, and turn them into pickleball courts permanently and the city, heard comment from 300 pro-pickleball people and only a handful of anti-pickleball people–mainly because there's not that many people that live in the general area there. There's a couple of condo buildings, a few homes, and the people who were against it, who actually have windows looking out on it and they complained saying it's been way too loud, it's going from 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM every day.

Connor: The city took the concerns of the people who are critical of it seriously. And they said you know you have to take these various steps. 

Connor: They limited the hours that people could play. They gave out these paddles that I think are a little bit quieter. And the city eventually said, “Okay, look, we are going to call these pickleball courts.”

Gustavo: That easy?

Connor: Yeah so there was some concerns from some community residents that, um, you know, local particularly, um, lower-income residents might not be interested in pickleball and they might not have the money to buy a pickleball. Maybe they used to play basketball there. Maybe they played tennis just for general play. Allowing them to use them for pickleball So they set up some opportunities for local residents to play and they now have free lessons available, I think, in English and in Spanish.

Gustavo: So it seems there was some sort of consensus or agreement that, “Hey, we could live a pickleball life and not be too antagonistic towards each other,” but is this what's happening all over the country for pickleball?

Connor: You know, I think it's a compromise, not everyone's happy. There's a few people who live nearby that are still annoyed by it. That lawyer with Nick Kaplan, he's represented over 10 clients. They've won often against the protests of the people playing pickleball. Because of these laws so a large pickleball community can be shut down overnight. There's numerous places where there's just an ongoing debate not being resolved.

Connor: Pickleball is the number one issue. I saw reports of people trying to like recall city council people and parks department members, because they were getting in the way of pickleball or vice versa.

Connor:. There's definitely people who feel that way. And, and it's dividing communities, surprisingly enough,

Gustavo: This isn't about sports anymore. There seems to be something cultural about all of this.

Connor: It's pitting tennis players against pickleball players because tennis players want to continue to use these courts that they've had for decades. At the same time, in many cases, there's way more people that want to play pickleball at certain courts. So why should they not get to do that. 

Connor: But also we're talking about socioeconomic status, age. You know, in one community, maybe tennis is more popular with older white people and pickle balls, maybe more of a younger thing. And then you see other communities where it's mostly older people who are playing pickleball and maybe they're taking over a basketball court or multi-use court or something that's More popular with younger kids. And course, there's the homeowners versus, you know, local people renting. Why does the homeowner get the right to decide what happens in these public parks versus renters who can't afford to live on the right on the park? And then there's all the politics that comes with all of that. So it's a bigger issue than it seems.

Gustavo: Connor. When I read the pickle ball story, I was surprised to see your name on it because you do investigations for us. I think the last time you were on The Times podcast, you're talking about an oil spill off Huntington Beach here in Southern California. And so to see you talking about pickleball, I'm like, oh, there has to be something in there. So what was it about all of this that interested you? 

Connor: What was interesting to me is that there's been these small stories out of communities all across America, but no one had really looked and said, this is a big thing happening nationally. And, whether we think it's kind of funny or we don't think it's important, there are large numbers of people that are dedicating huge amounts of their time to advocating on behalf of this, either for or against, 

Gustavo: Do you think it's just a fad? Or are we going to see pickleball in the 2028 games in the Olympics when it's in LA?

Connor: I wouldn't be surprised to see that. I mean, there's like, I don't know if they're called demonstration sports or something where, they aren't actually competing for medals, but it's, there's like a lot of different sports that they have like that. 

Woman I mean, but I just love, just love being out here and I’ve met the best people, and it’s just so social. 

Connor: When I was out in Goleta, a lot of people said if it wasn't for pickleball, I would have been sitting in my house, watching Netflix, the whole pandemic, and it got me out meeting people. 

Woman 2: Constantly laughing

Woman: Yea, it’s just, it’s just fun. And it doesn’t even matter who wins or loses. 

Connor: You know, people are very vociferously pro-pickleball and trying to evangelize about it. I don't see how that's going to die off anytime soon.

Gustavo: Oy vay, pickleball coming to a street or a court near you. 

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from The L.A. Times. 

Siona Peterous was the jefa on this episode, and our show is produced by Shannon Linn, Denise Guerra , Kasia Broussalian, Ashley Brown, Angel Carreras and David Toledo.

Our engineer is Mario Diaz, our editor is Kinsey Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.

Special thanks to Justin Willner for all the ambient sound.

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I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre.