What’s the 'racquet' about? Pickleball could soon dominate city courts

Andrea Stetson

The overwhelming surge of pickleball players on Marco Island may soon oust tennis and racquetball from the City of Marco Island Racquet Center.

Monday night Marco City Councilors voted 6-1 to approve a plan to eliminate the tennis and racquetball courts and make it a facility solely for pickleball. This comes after an extensive study by Ken Ballard, president of Ballard-King & Associates, the recreation consulting firm hired by the city last year to help them determine the fate of the declining sports facility.

YMCA of South Collier celebrated the opening of nine pickleball courts on Marco Island on Jan. 22, 2021.

Monday night Ballard went over four options. All four scenarios recommended removing racquetball which he says is rarely used. After that each plan differed.

  • Option 1 is to maintain the balance of tennis and pickleball courts and add improvements to lighting, surface, irrigation and parking.
  • Option 2 is to make the facility a tennis center, make improvements there, and build a new pickleball center elsewhere.
  • Option 3 makes improvements while it removes two tennis courts to add eight more pickleball courts
  • Option 4 gives the facility 24 pickleball courts and removes all tennis.

Ballard recommended Option 2, but parks and recreation advisory members and City Council dismissed that idea as being too costly and taking too much time to plan and build. At the heart of the issue is the booming increase in pickleball players and the decline in tennis and racquetball participants.

Doug Kelly, a member of the Parks and Rec Advisory Committee, told council there are 371 pickleball members and 163 more on the waiting list. He added that there are about 200 more that requested a spot on the waiting list, but that list is now closed.

Kelly previously said here are just over 90 tennis members and six racquetball members.

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“The shift that we have seen is a greater increase in pickleball memberships and a decline in tennis memberships.” said Carlos Portu, chairman of the Parks and Rec Advisory Committee. “The recommendations center on that shift and the demand in pickleball and a waning demand in tennis.”

Portu said his committee recommended Option 3 which replaced two tennis courts with eight pickleball courts and then renovating the remaining tennis courts and replacing the failing irrigation on these clay courts.

But City Council members thought it was a waste of money to pay for improvements on the remaining tennis courts especially the costly irrigation when tennis participation is declining. Currently there are nine pickleball courts, five usable tennis courts and one unusable tennis court.

 “Looking at Option 4 long term might be a better option to take because of the significant interest in the sport, not just on Marco, but all over the place,” said councilman Jared Grifoni.

The Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships took place at East Naples Community Park on Saturday April 30, 2022. The pro mixed women's doubles finals was played by  Catherine Parenteau and Lea Jansen who faced off against the team of Irina Tereschenko and Andrea Koop. The matches were partially delayed due to rain.

Portu had parking concerns about that option. With more pickleball courts, that typically have four people playing on each court, he felt that parking would not be sufficient for that many players.

“If we made it all pickleball we would exceed the parking capacity,” Portu stressed. “We would have to redo the entire facility from the ground up to allow that number of people. So, the reality is we were dealing with some constraints. If we choose to eliminate tennis there are not a lot of other public options for tennis. We would be sort of depriving the community of that resource and we would be hard to manage that amount of people.” 

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That didn’t deter council members for throwing their support to Option 4.

 “I am kind of leaning toward doing a full conversion,” said Councilman Erik Brechnitz.

Brechnitz said refurbishing the four remaining clay courts would be very costly. Most of the courts currently have an above ground watering system which he says doesn’t work in Florida. The more common below ground system costs about $50,000 per court, Brechnitz explained.

“So, the better bang for the buck is to convert it all to pickleball,” Brechnitz said. “I don’t think it is worth doing a full irrigation for just four tennis courts and I am a tennis player.”

But Councilman Darrin Palumbo stood up for tennis.

 “Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the country, but you can’t just throw tennis people under the bus just because their sport is less popular,” Palumbo stressed.

Lisa Hogan, a pickleball instructor at the Racquetball Center, told council members about the extreme need for more courts.

“This week alone I had 29 lessons,” Hogan began. “These people have no place to play. I teach them and they can’t get memberships. They have to pay $15 a day and play in the afternoon and it snowballs. It just gets busier and busier. Pickleball has been around for over 60 years. It is not new. We need something now. We don’t need something two years from now or four years from now. It is only fair to all the people moving here and paying taxes to have something to go to.”

Councilwoman Becky Irwin suggested building the entire facility from the ground up to make it more efficient. But others on the council shot it down as too costly and time consuming. Councilman Richard Blonna said he believes it is hard for tennis and pickleball to co-exist and pushed for the “separate cultures to go their separate ways.”

Councilman Joe Rola expressed his frustration at moving forward on any plan without knowing any costs. City council chairman Greg Foley said the ideal situation would be two separate facilities, but the city needs to make a decision that will help the situation now.

“We need to try to do things as inexpensively in the short term,” he said.

After more than an hour of debate, city council voted 6-1 for Option 4. Councilman Rich Blonna was the sole dissenting vote.

“I am opposed to phasing out tennis,” Blonna said. “Tennis has a long history on this island. My vote was more of a protest vote against that.”

Pickleball instructor Peter Prodanov had another solution. He suggested leaving  two tennis courts and creating 20 pickleball courts leaving room for players to move between courts without interrupting games.

“I don’t think tennis needs to go away,” Prodanov said. “I don’t think we need 24 pickleball courts; 15-20 is probably sufficient. I was never an advocate of getting tennis completely gone.”

But Prodanov understands how much cheaper it is to maintain pickleball courts. Clay courts not only need a new watering system, it also costs $5,000 to $6,000 in general maintenance. Pickleball courts only need resurfacing every 5-6 years and new nets every few years, both costing much less.

Blonna said the next step will be for the council to get some concrete numbers on the costs of updating the Racquet Club.

“I really don’t know where the money will come from if this becomes a costly endeavor,” he said.

Brechnitz said cost will determine the next step, and if it is too costly then Option 4 may never happen.

“We said that is what we would like to do depending on cost and how many courts you could get in there,” Brechnitz concluded.