EVERY NIGHT, Steve Wistar, a forensic meteorologist who lives in State College, Pennsylvania, and plays pickleball nearly every afternoon, sends an email to his fellow players sharing the following day’s forecast. “Wednesday will be tricky as showers and thunderstorms come through at some point. We may want to start closer to noon to beat them,” he recently wrote to his email list of 120—a number that has increased sixfold since the pandemic began.
But it was not rain that thwarted Wistar and his friends one afternoon this spring: A group of neighbors, accompanied by their young kids on bikes, were occupying the four dedicated Green Hollow Park pickleball courts, keeping play from taking place. “They were protesting the noise and traffic we have caused,” says Wistar, who began playing the sport four years ago. The exchanges between players and protestors got so heated at one point, he says, that a police officer was called to the scene to calm everyone down.
Despite being on the other side of the debate, Wistar says he was sympathetic about the residents’ problem. “It is a noisy sport,” he says. His group’s afternoon gatherings often followed morning sessions that could start as early as eight o’clock, and games often included the sharing of snacks and swapping of neighborhood news during the breaks. “It’s a very social sport,” he says.
That activity increased during the pandemic, when people began looking for ways to socialize safely, and pickleball provided an answer for many of them. “During the pandemic, pickleball got me out of the house,” Wistar says. “My fellow players, who are all ages and professions, were the only people I spent time with besides my family.”
But are pickleball players—many of whom play music in the background—having too much fun for local communities to tolerate?
State College is just one pickleball community among many across the country now facing noise complaints from homeowners living near courts. “It’s kind of like listening to Ping-Pong going on in the room next door to you,” State College resident Stephen Garcia told a local reporter in May. Garcia, one of the first neighbors to complain to township officials, lives in a house situated less than 150 feet from the courts. “We hear that with our windows and doors closed, 10 to 12 hours a day, depending on the weather,” he said.
Doug Erickson, the manager of Patton Township, where the courts are located, said he never anticipated in 2019, when they replaced the park’s two old underused tennis courts with four pickleball courts, that they would be so popular. But as they were the only public pickleball courts within five municipalities, serving a combined population of around 100,000 (including Penn State University), excited picklers flocked to them. “I thought it was a more sedate form of tennis,” Erickson says. “I knew nothing about the noise factor. Communities need to know: Pickleball is not tennis.”
For the past decade, abating pickleball noise has been the profession of engineer Lance Willis, a founder of the Tucson acoustics and noise-control firm Spendiarian & Willis. He has helped facility managers from California to British Columbia pick sites for new courts, looking carefully at location, direction of play, and terrain to minimize noise. “Ideally, we get involved in the planning stage so we can select the best site and the best orientation of the courts,” Willis says, adding that pickleball work accounts for almost a quarter of the firm’s business. Any court built within 350 feet of a house may need noise abatement, he continues, which means that developers must consider the flow of the game. “Most of the sound goes in the direction of play rather than off to the side.”
“Tennis is quieter because the sound is produced more by the ball than the racket, and the racket is an open net, which makes it less efficient acoustically.”
—Lance Willis, a founder of the Tucson acoustics and noise-control firm Spendiarian & Willis
Building a court with a setback of less than 150 feet from a residence is simply impractical, as the noise will certainly carry into homes. Sound can also redirect off buildings that have reflecting surfaces. Willis recommends different types of sound-absorbing panels depending on the budget and what exactly is needed. But soundproofing walls cannot absorb all the noise created by players, he says.
“In pickleball the sound is much sharper than tennis because it is produced by a hard paddle, which is an efficient radiating surface,” Willis says. “Tennis is quieter because the sound is produced more by the ball than the racket, and the racket is an open net, which makes it less efficient acoustically.”
Willis laments that much of his time is now spent appearing as an expert witness in pickleball-noise cases rather than designing quieter courts. “I am an engineer who would rather be solving problems than arguing about noise in court or in front of a city council,” he says. “Not every site is going to be appropriate, but if you think of it systematically, you can avoid a lot of problems.”
Doug Thielen, the chief revenue and marketing officer for Pickleball Central, one of the largest resellers of pickleball equipment on the internet, believes that the complaints are just a sign of a maturing sport. “Pickleball is hitting its peak of adoption and attention. People and communities are rushing to capture that demand,” he says. “I am sure, if you go back and look at the evolution of any sport, there have been detractors who will say ‘Oh, those baseball fields and kids are a little bit noisy.’”
Still, progress is being made. John Cowley, who oversees the ball and paddle product category at Pickleball Central, says the paddles currently on the market are much quieter than previous ones. “Since 2015, I have seen a big evolution in paddles,” he says, explaining that earlier paddles were made of Nomex core, a material similar to cardboard that is dipped in a resin to create a hard surface. Today’s paddles are made with polymer, a plastic blend that is beginning to earn a reputation for being the quietest core on the market.
“The majority of paddles are now on the Green Zone list,” Cowley says, referring to a list created in 2013 by the board of directors at Sun City Grand, a resident-owned resort in Arizona that has 22 courts. After conducting a sound study, the Sun City Grand Pickleball Club released a list of paddles that are acceptable and unacceptable for play (the latter are identified as Red Zone paddles).
“I am sure, if you go back and look at the evolution of any sport, there have been detractors who will say ‘Oh, those baseball fields and kids are a little bit noisy.’”
— Doug Thielen, chief revenue and marketing officer for Pickleball Central, one of the largest resellers of pickleball equipment on the internet
One new type of paddle coming to market in 2022, however, may significantly reduce the noise of the sport. An innovative partnership between Azul 3D, a leading-edge 3-D printing company, and Wilson Sporting Goods resulted in the development of the Quiet Paddle, a 3-D printed paddle made of 3-D lattice, which removes the frequency that causes the hits to resonate throughout the court area.
Another solution for reducing sound is to play with a foam ball. But the Gamma Foam Quiet Ball, which Pickleball Central sells, plays differently from the plastic ball, according to Cowley. (Pickleball Central, which is just outside Seattle, has its own ball lab for testing.) While the foam ball can be used in casual games, drills, or practice—“It is much larger and bouncier and good for kids”—it is not approved for official tournament use.
Paradoxically, pickleball seems to be a victim of its own success.
“If it wasn’t popular, it would not be an issue,” Cowley says, adding that many unused tennis courts around the country are now being converted into pickleball courts. “There was no noise when no one was playing tennis. Now you take that same footprint of two people playing singles and have four courts with 16 people, and there is going to be ambient noise.” Doug Thielen agrees. “It would be interesting to see, if you took a community that had nothing and put in a skate park, basketball court, or playground, what workarounds would occur.”
In the meantime, Bob Unetich, a USA Pickleball ambassador-at-large and certified referee, is gaining followers on the Pickleball Noise (Mitigation) Facebook group he started three years ago. One active member and blogger is a woman who calls herself Crazy Pickleball Lady. In June she shared her thoughts on the subject. “We all love the sport, but we need to embrace our court neighbors and do whatever is possible to decrease the interference it creates in their lives. In most cases, the homes were there before the pickleball courts, so we must be respectful,” she wrote. The following month she re-posted a sound-tutorial PDF that Unetich created to educate people on the subject.
Fortunately for Steve Wistar and the pickleball community in State College, the local YMCA opened five brand-new professional-grade pickleball courts this past July. Now his group plays there instead of at Green Hollow, with no noise restrictions. One day during the summer, they even danced on the court to “Y.M.C.A.” blaring from a boom box. Meanwhile, Doug Erickson says, the Green Hollow courts have now reduced hours for play. The courts will be turned back into tennis courts sometime in 2022, after six new pickleball courts are built at a regional park with no nearby houses.
But perhaps Thielen has the best solution to the problem. “You know the old philosophy that if you are having a barbecue, you should invite the neighbors so they don’t complain,” he says. “Maybe we should just focus more on getting those neighbors to join the pickleball community. Then the only thing they will be upset about is not being able to get on a court because the sport is so popular.”