A cool, fall Wednesday night at the Walter Reed Recreation Center in Arlington County is anything but desolate.
More than 40 people gather under the lights of three tennis courts, laughing and talking over the hollow sounds of plastic balls whirling in the background.
But it’s not tennis, it’s pickleball — a paddle sport that combines elements from badminton, tennis and ping pong.
“It’s like a party of sorts,” player Bruce Shuttleworth said of the crowd.
Shuttleworth said he became addicted to the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic because it was perfect to play outside while social distancing.
“Pickleball is just the most fun of all the racquet sports I’ve ever played,” he said.
Shuttleworth isn’t the only one addicted— and Arlington County has noticed.
The county’s Department of Parks and Recreation launched a project and community engagement process at the beginning of the month to review current and future uses of outdoor athletic courts.
The project’s goal is to better understand the need for pickleball courts while reviewing existing outdoor athletic spaces to meet the increased demand for the sport.
Pickleball’s popularity rises
The sport, played on a badminton-sized court with a perforated plastic ball and wooden paddles, can be played indoors or outdoors and as singles or doubles, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
Pickleball grew in 2020 to 4.2 million players across the country — a 21.3% increase compared to 2019, according to the association.
“With the exponential growth of pickleball over the last couple of years, there are many entertainment venues that are being announced to bring more pickleball courts to the United States,” Laura Gainor, media relations director for the USA Pickleball Association, said.
Sports courts in Arlington County
The county released its 2019 public space master plan to serve as a planning document for public spaces, parks and public space amenities. The master plan includes two steps to establish a dedicated pickleball facility to meet the growing demand in Arlington County.
The county’s short-term goal is to identify existing courts for permanent pickleball lines with the long-term goal of funding a new pickleball facility or converting an existing facility, according to the plan.
Multi-use courts would allow for numerous sports, such as basketball, tennis or volleyball, to be played at one facility.
The Department of Recreation currently operates more than 150 outdoor sports courts.
There are currently 18 multi-use outdoor courts that can accommodate pickleball in the county and one single-use pickleball court. The county also offers indoor pickleball court options.
Bethany Heim, associate planner and project manager for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation, said when the public space master plan was completed in 2019, pickleball was barely on the county’s radar.
“Since then, it’s just exploded,” she said.
Heim said the county’s project is looking to create new spaces for the sport despite challenges with the county’s physical size and population density.
“We have to be really smart and creative on how we make use of what we have,” she said.
Arlington pickleball players: ‘We need more courts’
Pickleball player Bruce Shuttleworth said he is hoping to see the three tennis courts at the Walter Reed Recreation Center converted into 10 pickleball courts.
“We’ll fill them,” he said, explaining how over 100 people often show up to play at the courts in the morning session.
Shuttleworth said the culture of the sport is to play with a large group of people during round-robin style games.
“There’s greater value in having six courts in one location than to have eight courts in onesies or twosies spread throughout the county,” he said.
Gayle Ray was also one of many players at the outdoor courts at the Walter Reed Recreation Center.
“Luckily, they redid this area and put lines because it used to just be tape for a period of time and they repaved,” she said.
Ray said there’s often a line of 20 players waiting to play. She said designated pickleball courts outside would be beneficial as well as more indoor court options for the winter.
“It does seem like there are some dedicated tennis courts, you could probably have some pickleball courts that were dedicated,” she said.
Crystal City resident Elizabeth Chan plays pickleball at the Lubber Run Community Center courts once per week.
The multi-purpose courts at Lubber Run are also designated for volleyball, she said, which adds different painted lines on the court.
“They’re definitely designed not with pickleball players in mind,” she said. “It does confuse people who are playing pickleball to have the different colored lines.”
Ana Castillo is a five-year pickleball player and plays indoors in Arlington County four to five days each week.
She said when she first started, there were nowhere near as many people who played, but now she often has to compete to find a court.
“It’s sometimes very packed,” she said.
She said it would be a good idea for the county to create more multi-use facilities for pickleball, however, she expressed concerns with having to share the courts with other sports players.
“When we have basketball players and we really have to share, I would say it’s dangerous because you’re playing and all of a sudden a ball comes,” she said.
Tennis, basketball players need courts, too
Other sports court players already face similar challenges vying for space to play.
Arlington County tennis players said they often have to wait in line for a court, specifically during evening hours when more people come to play.
Tennis player John Sherlock said he would not want to see existing courts be turned into multi-use facilities for pickleball. He said it would bring more competition.
“It’s tough at times getting courts,” he said.
He said in the past there’s been time limits for courts, but it’s always been challenging to ask people to leave.
“Basketball players you’d probably never get them off because of how many guys are playing at one time,” he said. “It’s bad enough trying to kick off two people.”
Arlington County resident Pete Goddard plays basketball every day in the county.
While he thinks generally there are enough basketball courts, he described times in the summer where outdoor courts are crowded and in the winter when there’s fewer options for indoor courts.
“Weekday evenings, this whole place is going to be overrun,” he said, describing the Thomas Jefferson Community Center. “There’s just no room for people.”
Goddard said he does not like the idea of turning basketball courts into multi-use courts for pickleball.
“I think the pickleball lobby is pretty strong from what I’ve seen,” he said. “They have a lot of voices talking to the council so they tend to get a lot of things they want.”
Community engagement and next steps
Arlington County’s Heim said through the county project, the parks and recreation department will reach out to pickleball players and court users to obtain their feedback.
Over 1,000 people have already responded to the feedback form.
“It’s really cool to see something new just kind of pop up and its evolution,” she said of pickleball.
Heim said she wants to hear from groups that are dedicated to tennis and basketball and understand which courts are in heavy demand.
“I guess we’re hoping to find that needle in the haystack where we can find space that can accommodate some additional use or play and additional visitors,” she said.
The parks and recreation department will review feedback from the form and develop a draft criteria for converting single-use courts to multi-use courts based on the community’s feedback.
There will be another public engagement in January 2022 to gather more feedback.