SOME PLAYERS ARE ENTERING TOURNAMENTS AT LEVELS BENEATH THEIR TRUE ABILITIES IN ORDER TO SCORE MEDALS. WHAT ARE OFFICIALS DOING ABOUT IT?
A: The practice of sandbagging—athletes competing in tournaments below their actual skill level to increase their chances of winning—has invaded pickleball, partly due to the game’s surging popularity. In both local and national competitions, players have regularly downplayed their abilities when entering brackets, say tournament officials, seemingly to score gold medals with ease.
Often, players compete in a bracket just half a point lower than their actual rating, like a 4.0 player playing as a 3.5—but sometimes it’s a full point or more below, say tournament directors and USA Pickleball officials.
“The situation can be quite dramatic,” says Mark Peifer, managing director of officiating at USA Pickleball. Not only do winners unfairly take top prizes, he adds, but the losers’ ratings can suffer too.
How does this happen? The three pickleball ratings systems (UTPR, assigned by USA Pickleball; WPR, from pickleballtournaments.com; and DUPR, used by the PPA) are not uniform, so a player can have a very different rating in one system than in another. A player who has a 4.5 UTPR rating, for instance, could enter their first WPR-rated tournament as a 3.5, and no one would know. Players can also earn separate ratings for each bracket (singles, doubles, and mixed doubles), and entrants can play down in skill. A 4.0 singles player, say, could pair with a 3.0 player in a 3.0-rated mixed-doubles game and win.
The pandemic has also contributed to the problem, Peifer says. A player who had a 3.0 rating in early 2020 may have spent the past two years quietly improving without moving up in the ratings. Then there are new players with strong tennis backgrounds who register in lower brackets because they haven’t played enough tournament games to be accurately rated.
So, what’s being done to stop sandbagging in pickleball? Right now, not much. With tens of thousands of participants competing in 1,000-plus tournaments each year, referees can’t possibly catch every instance—and if they do, it’s “after the fact,” says Peifer.
But when a referee or competitor suspects sandbagging, they often report it to the tournament director, who tells Karen Parrish, managing director of competition and sanctioning at USA Pickleball. Her team can then immediately start researching the player’s history to see if their rating needs an adjustment after the tournament ends, she says.
Truly stopping sandbagging, though, would require big changes to pickleball’s ratings systems. Peifer would like players to remain unrated until they’ve competed in a certain number of tournaments, so no one has a rating that doesn’t reflect their true skill level. Ideally, Peifer says, players and tournament directors would see all ratings as part of a tournament’s registration process. If players had to register in the bracket that matches their highest rating, the potential for sandbagging would be minimized. For now, preventing sandbagging requires a “collaborative effort” among watchful players, referees, and tournament directors, says Parrish. Speaking up, she adds, “is for the betterment of the tournament itself and the overall experience.”