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Game on: Pickleball battles San Diego for space in the kitchen

Emanating from a Chula Vista park on a warm Thursday evening is the sound of hundreds of plastic pickleballs slamming into the hard asphalt of pickleball courts. Men and women, young and old, gathered to play the newly buzzy sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years.

One of them is 71-year-old Mark Brisebois, who switched from tennis to pickleball 10 years ago and “never looked back.”

“If you look at my contact list on my cell phone, I probably have 400 people I've met playing pickleball,” Brisebois said.

But Brisebois and other pickleball enthusiasts have found themselves in a bit of a — well — pickle. The game is played with hard paddles (like ping pong paddles) and a plastic ball (like a wiffle ball) and requires a special court (half a tennis court with a smaller net and special painted lines). However there are few places to play in the city of San Diego.

“I'm appalled at the fact that San Diego does not jump on the bandwagon and get into the pickleball swing,” Brisebois said.

Local picklers are led by Stefan Boyland, one of two founders of the organization Pickleball SD. In the game of pickleball, there are dinkers, who make soft shots on a bounce that gently arc over the net; and bangers, who drive the ball hard to overpower their opponents. In his dealings with the city, Boyland is definitely a banger.

“We've gotten a lot of lip service, but we haven't gotten a lot of action, we still have zero dedicated public pickleball courts in the city of San Diego,” Boyland said. “That's right, zero. You heard me right. We're about five years behind every other city.”

Stefan Boyland plays pickleball at Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista, Aug. 4, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Stefan Boyland plays pickleball at Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista, Aug. 4, 2022.

Technically, the city has one pickleball-only public court, in the recently-opened Fairbrook Park in Scripps Ranch. But that’s only enough for four people to play at a time, which does not come close to satisfying Boyland and his pickleball crew.

“Basically, pickleball is a second-class citizen because tennis was here first,” he said. “We can satisfy 10 times more people playing pickleball than are currently being used on empty tennis courts. I have nothing against tennis. I have a lot against empty tennis courts, hour after hour after hour.”

Boyland clearly has a mission to bring pickleball to the masses. But like many before him who have attempted to get the city of San Diego to do anything in a timely fashion, Boyland is stymied. To build new courts, he needs meetings, plans, approval processes, permits and construction. Pickleball, he said, cannot wait.

Instead of waiting for the slow grinding gears of city bureaucracy, Boyland rose up, staging what amounted to an #OccupyTennis protest, a pickle-in, guerilla pickleball warfare. He targeted the Peninsula Tennis Club, which has been operating at the Robb Field tennis courts in Ocean Beach for decades. The club’s permit to use the courts had lapsed, so Boyland contended the courts were free for anyone to use.

Last week, he and other picklers stormed the courts, set up their own pickleball net, and started to play. Someone from Peninsula Tennis Club called the police, and a dispute erupted over whether they had an active permit. The entire thing was captured on YouTube, though the video has since been taken down.

The events were the pinnacle of Boyland’s pickleball war, which has also included ethics complaints against the city, accusations of corruption, and even drones flown over the Peninsula courts. Boyland used drone footage to create a database that, he said, shows how infrequently the courts are used.

But whether the courts are used or not is beside the point, said Tim Graham, a spokesman for the city’s parks department. Peninsula’s permit for the Robb Field courts did lapse due to COVID-19, Graham said, but the city has no intention of kicking them out. And with an active permit in place, Peninsula keeps the courts, even if they are not full all day every day.

“The city wants both sports to thrive, but not with hindering one over the other,” Graham said. “The city is trying to find ways to provide as many pickleball courts as possible without displacing other organizations and put them together as quickly as possible without building an entirely new facility.”

Options include taking over unused shuffleboard courts in Memorial Park — apparently there’s no shuffleboard lobby in the city to protest — striping new pickleball courts on basketball courts or other hard surfaces at the La Jolla Recreation Center, Standley Recreation Center and Gershwin Park. More courts have been added to city parks, including Olive Grove, Western Hills, Murray Ridge, Penasquitos Creek, Views West and Murray Ridge.

The city has also hired a national expert to negotiate: Jodie Adams, a fellow with the American Academy of Parks and Recreation Administrators at Missouri State University.

“Adams is viewed as a neutral third party in both the tennis and pickleball communities,” Graham said. Her work would be funded by a grant from the US Tennis Association and she’d interview both sides and come up with some sort of pickleball-tennis peace treaty.

Pickleball players at Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista, Aug. 4, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Pickleball players at Mackenzie Creek Park in Chula Vista, Aug. 4, 2022.

Plus, Graham said, the city is open to making plans for a centralized pickleball facility, maybe even at Robb Field, but he conceded it would take several years to build. He understands that for picklers, several years is too long to wait for a prescription to quell their pickleball fever.

“I understand that once people get into this sport, it's pretty addictive, and people seem to really love it,” Graham said. “But the city's doing its best to provide these services as quickly as we can.”

The city of Chula Vista in the meantime has been happy to lob the picklers some dink shots. It converted two underused tennis courts at Mackenzie Creek Park into eight pickleball courts, and has since only received three complaints, said Tim Farmer, the city’s parks and recreation administrator. Now they’re building 10 more pickleball courts, while keeping 28 tennis courts in the city.

“Originally, we thought pickleball and tennis were kind of compatible, but we realized quickly that's definitely not the case,” Farmer said. “In terms of the type of activity, how long the games are, how many people you can fit on the court, and then even the difference in how the net has to be a little lower for pickleball.”

He said their pickleball courts are now full all day long, whereas tennis courts were not used as often, partially because pickleball appeals to an older population and is easier to play. But the evening sessions at Mackenzie Creek Park are filled with young people, some working up a serious sweat.

Still, Farmer said, the city won’t be taking away any additional tennis courts for pickleball.

The pickleball-tennis conflict isn’t unique to San Diego, but pickleball players in other parts of the country are more willing to take whatever space they can get, said Lynn Cherry, the host of the Pickleball Fire podcast and editor of the Pickleball Fire magazine.

“Pickleball players are pretty willing to play anytime, so whether it be morning, noon, night or midnight,” she said. “People really do become addicted to it. I've got friends who are recreational players, but they'll go and play four hours in the morning and then they'll come back and play four hours at night. And what other sport does that occur?”

Tennis players at the Peninsula Tennis Club at Robb Field in Ocean Beach, Aug. 5, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Tennis players at the Peninsula Tennis Club at Robb Field in Ocean Beach, Aug. 5, 2022.

At noon on a recent Friday, only a few courts at Robb Field were being used by tennis players, but that doesn’t mean tennis isn’t popular in the city, said Todd Sprague, a member of Peninsula Tennis Club.

“During the pandemic, racket sports where you could be separated, they all grew, tennis grew by 5 million players in the U.S.,” Sprague said. “Now that's bigger than all of the pickleball players in the U.S.”

Not that he’s counting. But, Sprague conceded, pickleball also took off, and there aren’t many public pickleball courts.

“So the problem that you have is you have this demand and much less supply,” he said.

But, Sprague said, it just wouldn’t work to share the courts at Robb Field with pickleball. The lines on the courts are different, the nets are different, and tennis players and pickleball players would want the courts at the same time. Then there’s the noise.

“If you play pickleball, it has a very different sound, OK?” he said. “Those sports are not necessarily compatible next to each other.”

Sprague said he agrees there is a need for more pickleball facilities in San Diego.

“And the tennis people would say, we agree,” he said. “What we won't agree on is that cannibalization is a solution. That's not a solution.”

But for Boyland, the organizer of Pickleball SD, he thinks a King Solomon-style solution would work perfectly at Robb Field. At least as a start.

“We could take one of the six banks and turn those into 18 pickleball courts and see how that goes,” he said. “If we're full all the time and the tennis courts aren't being used, then perhaps we'd be able to get all of the tennis courts.”

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