Island Pickleballers and Tennis Players Face Off at Park Board Meeting over Courts and Playing Time

Pickleball for all November 2022Pickleball vs. Tennis. It’s a conflict that’s playing out in communities big and small all over the country, and it’s now coming to a head right here on our little island, where Pickleball was founded nearly five decades ago.

More than 120 people packed the gymnasium at the Bainbridge Island Recreation Center (BIRC) at Meadowmeer the other night as Metro Park District Commissioners listened to public comment from an impassioned group of supporters from both sides of the aisle.

June 2023 Pickleball meeting Pickleballers, who showed up en masse – many with paddles in hand – want more courts on the island to accommodate a steadily growing community of players, who can’t find enough courts to play on during peak hours in the spring, summer and fall.

Currently, Pickleball players are confined to six public courts at Battle Point Park, known as the Founders Courts, that they say are in constant use. Pickleballers would like to convert the adjacent tennis courts to an all Pickleball facility, eventually turning it into a covered complex, with a roof and lights and siding, with room for six more courts.

“We should be encouraging it (Pickleball) and promoting it,” said Krysta Barton, a Bainbridge mom and Pickleball enthusiast, “but we can’t without new facilities. There are not enough courts to play on… We want the birthplace of Pickleball to lead with new ideas” to expand the game, such as how to provide “more opportunities for kids to play. We just need the space to do so.”

June 2023 Pickleball meeting 2Whoa, not so fast, say backers of the Bainbridge tennis community. They admit that Pickleball has grown exponentially on the island over the past five or six years, but they want to preserve the courts they have, including the ones at Battle Point Park, until new ones approved for Sakai Park come on line. However, it’s not clear yet when those courts will be built and completed since the plan was just recently approved.

“We’re advocating for the existing courts at Battle Point (to remain),” said Paul Sullivan, of the Bainbridge Community Tennis Assoc., “and want to work with the city to have new tennis courts (built). We raised $50,000 and have a matching grant from Rotary, and are working on other grants from the National Tennis Association.”

Basically, at the heart of the local dust-up is playing time on available courts. An informal study by members of the Pickleball community taken last July revealed that only five tennis players a day used the Battle Point courts during the height of the summer. Meantime, there were more than 100 people playing daily on the Founders Courts during peak weather times – a number they say equates to roughly 3,000 or more players a month playing Pickleball.

Tennis supporters, such as Charles Hanlon, dispute those numbers and note that tennis is played regularly on Wednesday mornings at Battle Point with up 24 players on the courts over several hours, “and we can repeat that every day.” Not surprisingly, some Pickleballers refute that claim, as well as Hanlon’s contention that fewer people are playing Pickleball during afternoon hours.

Pickleball Founders Court Bainbridge Island, WAMeantime, Pickleballers say they are lining up to play on the six crowded adjacent courts. On one warm recent June morning, recalls Melissa Bang-Knudsen, some 80 players were on site to play before 9 a.m., and the available six courts can only handle 24 players at a time – four to each court. She, like many other speakers, asked the Commissioners to consider converting the adjacent tennis courts.

“I have found an amazing community of people (through Pickleball) that I now call friends,” she said, noting the 500 people who regularly receive emails from the Pickleball community.

“We welcome people from all over the world,” added Steve Jensen, another Pickleball backer. “We want to work together with you to increase access for Pickleball” … that’s why “we’re asking you to convert the Battle Point tennis courts into Pickleball courts now.”

Jensen said the Pickleball community has raised $120,000 in support of converting the tennis courts and has offered up solutions to tennis players who may be looking for court access, such as free punch cards to BIRC, which has four indoor tennis courts*.

Perhaps the biggest revelation unveiled at the meeting came from Clay Roberts, a long-time spokesperson for island Pickleballers. Roberts said he has been in contact with the International Pickleball Federation, which holds “the Bainbridge Cup” tournament each year in far off countries, such as Italy, Spain and India. (There are an estimated 4 million-plus Pickleball players worldwide).

Roberts said the Federation is planning to change its format and hold regional tournaments, leading up to the finals. “They’re thinking of incorporating Bainbridge Island into the first regional cup in 2024,” he said. “This would bring an unparalleled tournament to Bainbridge,” meaning players or delegates from some 73 countries would be staying and playing on the island. Representatives from the Federation are planning to visit Bainbridge in late August to discuss the notion, he said.

Pickleball recognition ceremony courtesy of Clay Roberts“In order to do this, we need (additional) courts,” added Roberts, whose idea has received endorsements from Gov. Jay Inslee, a Bainbridge resident and Pickleball fan, as well as at least eight island organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Historical Museum and Visit Bainbridge. He estimates the economic impact of holding the regional tournament on the island could be as much as $750,000.

“Make the switch and make it soon,” he emphasized to the Commissioners.

Other speakers made similar pleas, such as John Shea, who said Pickleballers are happy to work with the Parks “to get this thing done, similar to what we did with the Founders Courts… We’re ready, willing and able to help Parks get this work done. If we don’t move quickly, we’ll lose time and miss the opportunity” to support Robert’s idea, for example.

While no obvious solutions emerged from the comments to placate the two sides: Pickleball and Tennis. Some ideas were put forth, such as striping all island tennis courts with Pickleball dimensions and having nets available to accommodate Pickleball play, as well as – perhaps – adding an online reservation system to potentially disperse play throughout the day.

“Some feathers will be ruffled,” said Lise Newman, who plays both tennis and Pickleball. But the “best solution is often when not everyone gets everything that they want.”

The Parks commissioner made no decision at the meeting – held Thursday June 15 – and deferred any next moves to Executive Director Terry Lande and the Parks District staff.

Read a previous article on Pickleball:

*Correction: a previous version stated “six tennis courts”, BIRC only has four tennis courts.

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