It's not just alliteration to call pickleball players passionate. People who are fond of the game — which occupies a space about the size of a quarter of a tennis court and is played with something resembling a whiffle ball and paddles rather than rackets — often come from a tennis background, though pickleball is much more forgiving to the endurance-challenged.
In some ways, San Diego has welcomed pickleball with open arms. This coming weekend, for one thing, the World Pickleball Tour arrives in Coronado for the San Diego Pickleball Classic. In 2020, a group of pickleball players who wanted a permanent place to play worked with Chula Vista city officials to build the South Bay's first dedicated courts.
One of the leaders of Pickleball SD (PBSD), however, says the city of San Diego is not working with them, or at least not fast enough for them, to find them a home to play the game, which takes place on a badminton-size court divided into four quadrants, fronted by two zones near the net called "the kitchen," a "non-volley" zone. It's hard to imagine getting the "plok, plok-plok, plok, plok, plok, thwack" sound of a rally out of your head if you've ever heard it. That last noise? That's the sounds the ball makes when it comes into contact with a player. It might only sting but you don't want to spend your day doing it.
That pickleball is growing in popularity is not disputed. It's one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, with nearly 5 million players and a minimum of 8,500 courts in the country, according to USA Pickleball, which says the game was invented in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington state. By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states, the organization claims.
If there's another game with a friendlier name for newcomers, one's hard-pressed to think what that is. The moniker has two possible derivations, according to Pickleball magazine: One school of thought has Pritchard's wife, Joan, coining the term as a "reference to the thrown-together leftover non-starters in the 'pickle boat' of crew races." We prefer, though, to think it's the other option, the one where Joan names it after Pickles, the family dog.
"I think it's a funny name for a sport that probably has held it back for years from becoming more popular," Stefan Boyland, one of the leaders of Pickleball SD (PBSD), told NBC 7. "That's what I actually think."
Peninsula Tennis Club Takeover
It's not all giggles, though, in the San Diego pickleball world.
In late July, Boyland — clad in what suspects are a uniform of sneakers, shorts and a ball cap — and a passel of pickleballers went, uninvited, to Robb Field in Point Loma, the site of the Peninsula Tennis Club (PTC), and walked through the clubhouse and occupied the tennis court adjacent to the clubhouse.
Publicity stunt? Takeover? Boyland and his fellow players had cameras running and subsequently posted a video to Youtube that had a semi-viral life, at one point racking up more than 5,000 streams. It's since been taken down by the streamer, citing a "privacy claim by a third party."
"How's it going today?" Boyland's distinctive Long Island-accent can be heard querying the clubhouse attendants on the video. "Looks pretty empty."
"Empty right now," he's told by someone off-camera. "Can I ask: Can we help you?"
"Yeah, we're gonna be using these courts," Boyland replies.
Speaking of open arms, the takeover (our word, not Boyland's) was not met with a pair of them by Duncan Depew, who has been an instructor at Peninsula for 37 years, according to the website of the club, which was established in 1984.
The are currently more than 300 members of the club, according to Depew, who said that members under the age of 55 pay $170 a year for membership and play for free after, while anyone over 55 is charged $130 a year. Non-members can walk up anytime and pay five bucks a person to play, something that Todd Sprague, an unofficial spokesman for the club who happened to be on-site during the "stunt" (Sprague's word), says is required by the city when it issues a special use permit to a nonprofit operating a club. Also playing regularly at the club are teenagers from nearby Point Loma High School. The club has hosted the Pointers since the '90s, according to Depew.
On the video, Depew can be seen coming out onto a porch off the clubhouse that the PB'ers had filed through and tells the half-dozen or so on the nearest court, "… you have to sign in and pay a fee and … for tennis only."
"Yeah, we understand that," Boyland replies. "We met with the city. They said that no one has a permit for this place so we're allowed to be here."
By their own reckoning, Pickleball SD was on the site for several hours, leaving only after the police showed up, with an officer eventually telling the pickleball players that, while they were allowed to be there, since the club's special use permit had expired, they could "be adults" and leave, a request Boyland and Co. complied with.
So what about that permit? Sprague said that, although it had expired before the pandemic, administrative efforts had been underway to renew it when the pandemic hit, further extending its official expiration but that, once the police had called park & rec on July 28 to inquire about its status, the club was issued a temporary permit the following day.
One objection raised by the PTC side about the takeover was that it prevented a tennis camp for kids from taking place that was scheduled at that time. A group of children can be seen, in fact, on the video while the standoff was underway. PBSD, for its part, however, maintains there were other courts available for the campers, who may have been more interested in the standoff than game, set, match.
Depew told NBC 7 this week that "we have nothing against pickleball in any way. We're open to more courts for pickleball players" — just not pickleball being played on the dozen tennis courts at PTC."
Pickleball SD Search for a Permanent Home
The conflict on July 28 in some ways is illustrative of the problems some local pickleball enthusiasts have writ large: Not enough courts, no central place to call home.
Boyland told NBC 7 that the story is not really about the Peninsula Tennis Club, whose site his organization would like to repurpose, at their own expense. He said the story is really about the city not doing its job.
"Tennis is just caught in between this, unfortunately," Boyland said.
For a while, said Boyland, who lives in Point Loma, Pickleball SD found a home across the street from Robb Field, at the Barnes Tennis Center. In 2020, Barnes installed three pickleball courts, but there were no nets, and the courts faced the wrong direction, into the sun, he said. Nevertheless, pickleball there has grown to the point that there are 600 people who play the game at Barnes, he added. But there were problems.
"So, the club has told us, basically, that they don't want to be overrun with pickleball, that they like being a tennis club and they want to remain a tennis club, and that's what they are: a tennis club," Boyland said.
So Pickleball began looking for some love somewhere on the city of San Diego's courts. According to Boyland, the city has 550 courts — a number NBC 7 asked the city to confirm but has yet to hear back about — and PBSD like one to two percent of those dedicated to pickleball.
"In Coronado, they just approved to put in eight courts," Boyland said. "There's 25,000 people that live in Coronado. We have 1.5 million people [in the city of San Diego]. If we were to build the same number of pickleball courts in San Diego, we'd have 480 courts."
Pickleball SD covets one of the locations near Point Loma — not because he lives there, Boyland insists, who said he would move if the city picked another spot for a pickleball center — but because there are four city tennis sites within three miles of each other:
- Peninsula Tennis Club at Robb Field (12 tennis courts)
- Barnes Tennis Center (27 tennis courts, five pickleball courts, three padel courts)
- Pacific Beach Tennis Club (8 tennis courts)
- Cabrillo Recreation Center (4 tennis courts)
Of the four spots, though, its PTC that's the focus of PBSD's attention.
Boyland said Pickleball SD has been able to access the usage logs for these sites (something NBC 7 has not confirmed) and maintains that the courts are only in use roughly 25% of the time. Those figures as applied to the Peninsula Tennis Club, however, are being challenged.
"That's not correct," Sprague told NBC 7 this week. "Let me step back and give you some perspective. There are no utilization standards for public recreational facilities in the city of San Diego…. If you look at it, the club is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Maybe only 11 on Saturday and Sunday…. by agreement with the city — this thing called a special use permit — the city says you can't schedule 20 percent of the time [so that people who want to walk up and play can do that]."
Another point Sprague makes is that most of the use of the courts is during peak hours — typically during the cool mornings and later in the afternoon.
"Pickleball has tried to invent this argument to support a narrative for taking over the courts at Penninsula, and that's what their utilization number is all about," Sprague countered.
So, how much time is spent by tennis players playing tennis at the Peninsula Tennis Court? Sprague said he didn't know.
"We have not sat down and calculated an amount per se because there is no requirement to do that," Sprague said in reference to the special use permit.
The City of San Diego's Response
It's Pickleball San Diego's contention that change at the tennis courts and clubs is long overdue but it's being opposed by "the tennis people," as Boyland called them at one point,
"In the city's defense, I will say this: Andy Field is the director of parks & recreation, he's the No. 1 guy there," Boyland said. "He is the guy that actually decides this issue, whether or not to put pickleball courts in and where to put them. He alone, exclusively, can decide this issue. It's pretty simple. He's told us privately he's getting a tremendous amount of pressure from tennis. And there's a lot of moneyed interests involved. So, this is the way the city has been running for decades now. There is no permit process that allows newcomers like us to compete for these city permits."
For its part, the city says it's open to developing an area at Robb Field dedicated to a pickleball facility near the PTC, but that would take time. Years, in all likelihood. For fast, you need the city to issue a temporary permit. Otherwise, there's meetings and more meetings and studies, never mind construction.
"There are a number of factors that would need to be taken into account, including community input and funding sources, among others, so it is extremely difficult to speculate on a time frame," city spokesman Tim Graham stated in an email sent to NBC 7. "It would no doubt take several years for a facility to go from planning and design to construction and completion."
In short, the pickleball problem won't be going away any time soon.
Years is much longer, though, than Pickleball San Diego seems willing to wait. Boyland said his organization, instead, would like a fair and open process to compete for the city lands that the courts and clubs set upon, something that the special use permits with the tennis clubs would seem to preclude. He also said PBSD is open to sharing facilities, but Depew at PTC says its permit prevents any sport but tennis being played at the club, a point seconded by the spokesman Sprague.
"Specials use permit specifies that tennis is the only activity that you can play there," Sprague said.
Even if they could play nicely together, sharing is not optimal, Boyland said.
"Why? You need multiple lines," Boyland said. "That doesn't work for tennis tournaments. Uh, tennis players don't like all the noise we make. When you put four pickleball courts on one tennis court, that's 16 pickleball people playing. We are way more noisy than those two tennis people using those courts."
Privately, Boyland said, PBSD has a cordial relationship with at least one of the city's "tennis leaders," but "publically, the tennis people hate what we're doing. They have a great thing going: They have all these courts. They want to keep using all these courts. Peninsula Tennis Club is kinda run like a country club in some ways, because they don't want to fill all their courts. They told us there is no pressure on them to have to fill their courts. They don't pay any rent to the city."
Graham said municipal officials, specifically Parks & Recreation director Andy Field, are not playing favorites.
"Tennis remains a popular activity in San Diego, and the city is not providing preferential treatment to tennis enthusiasts at the expense of pickleball," Graham emailed. "The city is honoring the partnerships established with local nonprofits over many decades to provide tennis programming to the community. The reality is that the way forward will not be decided by one person and it will require the patience and cooperation of the community to provide critical input to move the process forward."
In fact, Graham took umbrage at some of the accusations being levied and actions being taken by Pickleball SD.
"… it is difficult to make progress when one group resorts to baseless accusations against city staff who are making every effort to find suitable places to play for both tennis and pickleball enthusiasts," Graham wrote in the same email. "The city has met and spoken with the organizers of PickleballSD on multiple occasions, and they are mistaking the city’s efforts to keep a valued nonprofit that provides tennis programming in a facility they have operated for decades as a slight to their sport. Sadly, this organization has taken to disrupting scheduled tennis lessons and interrupting a children's summer camp at the facility in an effort to create conflict and garner media attention. Their singular focus on assuming control of the Peninsula Tennis Club on their terms is counterproductive, disrupts the facility and displaces the patrons, and does nothing to improve their standing in the community."
Graham told NBC 7 via an email that "the city is doing what it can to create pickleball courts where it can to accommodate the growing interest in the sport," adding that the city is exploring a variety of avenues to make more courts available to picklers:
- Striping new pickleball courts on some outdoor basketball courts, tennis courts not used for competitive tournament purposes and blacktop areas. This includes pickleball striping at locations such as La Jolla Recreation Center, Standley Recreation Center, Kearny Mesa Recreation Center and Gershwin Park. More pickleball striping locations are under consideration
- Conversion of Unused Shuffleboard Courts to Pickleball: We are piloting conversion of a shuffleboard court at Memorial Community Park in Logan Heights into a pickleball court. We expect to have an estimate of cost and timeframe for conversion in the next few months and can plan on the conversion process after that.
- Identify Joint Use Areas to Add Pickleball: We continue to discuss high-priority locations for joint use with the San Diego Unified School District. Several potential locations are under evaluation currently, including Standley Middle School and Marston Middle School, both of which have numerous hard courts on the list. We are awaiting costs to upgrade the asphalt courts, and that will help us to start looking for funding mechanisms to pay for adding pickleball to these hard courts. We don’t have a schedule yet since we don’t know what it will cost to repave the courts
- Advocate for Pickleball Courts in New Park Construction: In May, the city opened Fairbrook Park in Scripps-Miramar Ranch — one of the first parks to have a pickleball court incorporated into its design. The city will continue to advocate for more pickleball courts as new parks are designed
- Working with the USTA [US Tennis Association] to Explore Options on How Tennis and Pickleball Can Collaborate: City staff will be meeting with representatives from the USTA to learn more about national trends in helping tennis and pickleball to peacefully coexist, and we hope there are lessons learned that can help bring the two sides together in collaborative ways that benefit each
- Creation of Centralized Pickleball Facility: The city remains open to working with PickleballSD to locate and fund development of a centralized pickleball center. Robb Field remains a key area of interest and, in the past, the city proposed a space adjacent to Peninsula Tennis Center that might accommodate a potential pickleball site, among other locations. That said, it should be noted that any new construction proposals would require public input/workshops, environmental review, design, and construction. With this in mind, this effort would likely take several years before a facility was constructed.
Despite all the challenges, Boyland said he believes there's a simple solution to the tennis/pickleball battle.
"This is not about tennis vs. pickleball — even though I know the media likes to make it about that," Boyland said. "This is about the city being a fair arbiter, and if Andy Field would call us into his office with the Top 2 tennis leaders and agree to be a fair arbiter, I think this whole thing could be resolved in a couple of hours."
It's hard, in a way, after all the back and forth, to not hear, "plok, plok-plok, plok, plok, plok."