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Letter to the Editor: Tennis v Pickleball (and the City of Santa Monica)

In communities both large and small across America, the debate involving tennis and pickleball has become increasingly louder. But in the City of Santa Monica, the noise (not the noise of pickleball itself) between the two factions is becoming even more acrimonious as the civic leaders, including members of the City Council, are in bed with the pickleball contingent. It is becoming a story of concession after concession given to a torch-bearing band of merry clowns who are on a mission to disrupt the already existing tennis infrastructure in our seaside community for their own benefit.

Perhaps the major flaw of what has transpired on the tennis courts in Santa Monica is that there has been no strategic plan for assessing the situation with input from all stakeholders, establishing goals and objectives (both short-term and long range), executing an agreed upon rollout, and eventually providing evaluation on the results. In the words of Indiana Jones, the city is “just making it up as [they] go along.” The lack of planning, accountability, transparency, misinformation, public disclosure, communication with all stakeholders, bias toward pickleball and discrimination against tennis is mind boggling in a city that views itself as progressive.

The pickleball situation in Santa Monica is unique among all recreational sports in Santa Monica in that a private group, the Santa Monica Pickleball Club (SMPC), has been in essence given the keys to the city and unilaterally is determining how to operate the city’s and their program on tennis courts in the city. The city has allowed them to institute a system of “reserved open play” at Memorial Park in which players–not only from Santa Monica but from all other areas and municipalities–can show up to the courts and can play for free for as long as they choose. It is no wonder that on any given weekend morning or weekday evening, hundreds of players show up to the courts to play. I understand that SMPC asks people to make donations and become members; however, the City has no records of either the fees the individuals are paying or, more importantly, where they are from. Contrast that to tennis where there is a shortage of courts and city residents must purchase a reservation card and hope that they can schedule an hour of court time for a fee at only two locations. It is akin to the difference between an open bar and a cash bar at a social event–people are far more likely to indulge in a greater capacity when something is free rather than having to dig in their own pockets for every drink. The city has created a group of “Pickleball Crashers” whose intent is to have fun while disrupting the entire tennis ecosystem and the community as a whole in Santa Monica.

Another major question is how and when did SMPC acquire the permit for the use of the courts at Memorial Park and what public notices or hearings were instituted in order to take these actions? Didn’t the city realize that by allowing SMPC–unlike any other entity in the city–to unilaterally decide how many participants (obviously unlimited) can play and how much they will pay at the courts (nothing) that the end result would be an entitled group of players continually clamoring for more space on the tennis courts? Perhaps a group like the United States Tennis Association (USTA, the national governing body for tennis) Southern California would’ve made a larger bid for a permit to allow for “reserved open play” for an unlimited number of young tennis players in the city. You would also think that a group of people so intent on growing their game in the city might have a plan to include youth participation, but at this point their intentions only include the instant gratification of their players, not the game as a whole.

There has been no method to this madness. Just recently, Councilwoman Lana Negrete pushed through a request that was added to the City Council agenda for its meeting scheduled for October 25th, yet there was no public notice of the meeting, which would include “Public Input,” until just five days prior to the meeting. And while the city reached out to SMPC, which represents all the pickleball stakeholders in town, they failed to reach out to the very group being affected most by the concessions to pickleball–the card carrying tennis players who are struggling to find a court for a sport they’ve been enjoying for many years. Since the council was unable to move forward on the recommendations pushed forward by Councilwoman Negrete, the decision was made to add the agenda item scheduled for another meeting on November 1st, but this time without the public comments. Following the initial meeting, Councilwoman Negrete posted on the SMPC Facebook page her gratitude to the “PB fam” and her thanks for “pulling her in” and for the “countless hours and meetings to find a fair solution” while “working with the tennis community.” (And again, the city only sent out notices to its permitted organizations and individuals, including SMPC, excluding the thousands of individual tennis players in the city.) To say that the tennis community has had any part of these backroom discussions and negotiations between the city and SMPC is just utter nonsense! The nefarious actions of Councilwoman Negrete–who really has no choice now but to recuse herself from any official actions taken on account of pickleball–highlights the overall lack of any process in place to assess, plan, execute, and evaluate the heated debate before moving forward with any actions that will have, and already have had, a major impact on the tennis community in Santa Monica.

As Councilmember Negrete has outlined in her request, there are both short-term and long-term issues that need to be addressed in Santa Monica. There is a sense of immediate urgency, however, for the development of a strategy that will allow pickleball to expand and evolve in the city but not at the expense of tennis. It is imperative that the city moves to bring a task force together so that ideas can be shared and solutions can be reached before the situation becomes even more antagonistic and before any further actions are enacted. It is also imperative that the entire tennis community is informed of any and all public hearings scheduled to discuss such a divisive issue in the community. If corrective actions aren’t taken soon, I fear that a community fracas may ensue that will shed a negative light on the entire community. I must also remind everyone that this issue should be a dialogue rather than a debate.

In the short term, one must remember that there was a shortage of tennis courts in Santa Monica even before the rise of pickleball during the pandemic, and that making reservations at certain courts has been difficult even for those card-carrying residents of the city. Now, not only has the city reduced the available courts to appease pickleball, it is allowing hundreds of non-residents to utilize your facilities at no charge and without revenue for the city. Pickleball doesn’t need to be played on tennis courts; the fact that four pickleball courts fit onto one tennis court shows that a lot of space and equipment is not necessary to play the game. In fact, why have local Physical Education programs begun to add pickleball to their activities? It’s because it doesn’t require a lot of space to play and it doesn’t have to be on a tennis court! Rather than removing tennis from Memorial Park and allowing pickleball its space (trust me, in three months they’ll be clamoring for more space), a consideration must be made in the interim for utilizing the open blacktop space at every elementary and middle school, in addition to providing access to pickleball at large beach parking lots in the city. By establishing a system of reservation cards and fees for individuals like with tennis, the city can raise the revenue that can more than pay for the cost of nets, lines, and portable lights. It is pickleball that needs to find a home or homes, not tennis. Need I remind everyone that when the Dodgers first moved to Los Angeles, they agreed to play in the Memorial Coliseum for four seasons, despite its obvious drawbacks for baseball, in anticipation of their new home at Dodger Stadium?

Both the pickleball and tennis communities agree that pickleball courts should be a part of any city plans for the design and development of new recreational facilities at the proposed airport open space. And in that regard, the city is ahead of the curve because a large parcel of land is available! Throughout the country, the USTA has been working on this issue and has various plans (i.e., designs, diagrams, artist renditions, etc) that can accommodate any available space and any demand for construction of both pickleball and tennis courts. This is an incredible opportunity for Santa Monica to be at the forefront of integrating pickleball and the ensuing pickleball growth into the fabric of the city. Certainly the issue would be the prohibitive cost of such a project but I would argue that there are private individuals and corporations that would love the opportunity to be part of something so innovative and needed. We’ve all heard that athletes like LeBron James and Tom Brady, among others, are investing in professional pickleball franchises, which does nothing to grow the game. I would suggest that a capital campaign from the City of Santa Monica to athletes, entertainers, organizations, and corporations could have a huge impact in meeting the growing demand for courts, increasing the opportunity for the sport to grow, and putting the city on the national map as a hub for pickleball.

But none of this can happen if the City of Santa Monica continues its established pattern of a lack of planning, accountability, transparency, misinformation, public disclosure, communication with all stakeholders, bias toward pickleball and discrimination against tennis while conducting its business behind closed doors. The pickleball issue is a tremendous challenge for the city but it is an even greater opportunity to create a legacy for Santa Monica in so many ways. But not at the expense of tennis.

Andy Schwich
Santa Monica, CA

in Opinion
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