April 2022 Newsletter: Pickleball

Sports are an important part of American culture, at both professional and amateur levels of play, but they can present acoustic issues. Residents who live near courts and fields are often disturbed by the sounds of basketballs pounding on the pavement, whistles on the football field, or the crack of a base hit. A new sport, pickleball, is dominating the sports scene in many places across the country, with a two-year growth rate of almost 40% and up to 4.2 million players in 2021. Despite its popularity, it tends to generate many noise complaints from nearby residents. Read on to learn more about this banging sport and what can be done.

Sounds can be characterized as either tonal or broadband. Broadband sounds contain a wide range of frequency components that blend together and form the ambient sound of a neighborhood. Tonal sounds are typically in one or two frequencies that stand out above the ambient sound. Even if a tonal sound is not as loud as the ambient sound, it can be very audible due to our discreet hearing capabilities. Human hearing has evolved to be most sensitive at 1000-2000 Hz, which corresponds to consonants in speech and babies crying.

Pickleball is a family friendly sport that combines aspects of tennis and ping pong. It’s played on a hard court with a net dividing two sides. Players take turns hitting a plastic ball (comparable to a wiffle ball) over the net with a hard paddle. When the ball is hit by the paddle, a tonal sound is generated, similar to a percussive instrument like a wood block. Measurements of pickleball sound show that the ball contacting the paddle generates the most sound between 1000 and 2000 Hz (!!!). Additionally, one pickleball court is equal to one half of a tennis court, so player density is increased where tennis courts have been converted. As a result, many residents that live near pickleball courts complain about the noise and ask for noise control measures or for courts to be removed. This puts local officials in a pickle to figure out how to solve the issue without disrupting enthusiasts’ ability to play the sport. 

One control measure that officials have implemented are limits on the hours that courts can be used. This can help, but if a noise ordinance must be met, limiting hours is not enough. In a few municipalities, sound absorbing and blocking curtains have been installed on the fences that surround the courts. This reduces some sound closer to the courts at ground level, but as you move further away and at higher elevations, these curtains don’t do much, and most residents are still dissatisfied with the sound. Other than the actions above, there is not much more that can be done other than enclosing the courts, which takes away from the fresh outdoor air aspect of the sport.

Pickleball may be a fun sport but does put municipalities on the hook for noise. Next time you are out on the courts, wave to the neighbors that put up with your pickling and maybe buy them a drink.

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