Pickleball players at Brommer Street County Park in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Recreation & Sports

Uproar over ‘pickleball tax’: Players aren’t game for new app to reserve courts at Santa Cruz County parks

Santa Cruz County says that encouraging people to pay for and reserve time at pickleball courts through a new app will improve efficiency and access amid the sport’s booming popularity. Avid pickleballers aren’t convinced, saying that the old system worked fine.

A pilot program at a pair of Santa Cruz County parks is causing an uproar in the local pickleball community, pitting veteran players who have evolved their own informal system against newcomers claiming time on public courts by booking via an app.

Clashes have already occurred between groups at Willowbrook and Brommer Street county parks, where signs with a QR code direct players to a site where they can reserve courts in time slots ranging from 30 minutes to two hours.

Sean McElhaney said that at Willowbrook on Aug. 19, he and his group were kicked out by a group of tennis players who scanned the QR code and got an immediate reservation. Rene Baker, who comes to Santa Cruz from Palo Alto to play pickleball, said that a church group reserved half of Brommer Street’s eight pickleball courts for several hours: “No one knew how to play so balls were flying everywhere, toddlers were out there ‘playing’ and running around and screaming,” she said in a comment posted on the Santa Cruz Pickleball Facebook group.

However, William Crimmer, a Washington, D.C., resident visiting family in Santa Cruz, said the antagonism came from the people without reservations. Crimmer and his fiancée came to Brommer on Aug. 19 with two other people who were playing pickleball for the first time. Crimmer had gotten a reservation, he said, because he felt that having a set time slot to play among friends would be a better experience for the new players.

After a game ended, the group said they had a reservation and began to play. For the rest of their time there, about an hour and a half, Crimmer says four or five people among a group of about 20 who all seemed to know each other spoke to them in a condescending tone and ridiculed their game play and equipment. The experience left them feeling “absolutely terrible.”

“I feel like I would never play pickleball in Santa Cruz again after that,” Crimmer said.

The county implemented the pilot program two weeks ago at Brommer Street and Willowbrook parks, where people can use an app to sign up to reserve a pickleball or tennis court.

At each park, a sign with a QR code and a link posted at the gate surrounding the courts directs people to rec.us, the website of a private company that helps operate court-reservation systems in Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento.

Rebecca Hurley, deputy director of the county parks department, said the county had always used a reservation system to manage its courts and charged players to reserve court time. It previously had a form that people would sign and print out, though few players used it, preferring to show up on a first-come, first-served basis to play for free.

But with pickleball skyrocketing in popularity, Hurley said the new app-based reservation system is the best way to ensure a set time to play for visitors while helping the county manage the courts.

People can use the app to reserve the courts in time slots ranging from 30 minutes to two hours. A one-hour slot costs $7 for residents of unincorporated areas of the county and $8.50 for nonresidents.

The reservation system is not mandatory. Several courts are set aside on a first-come-first-play basis and cannot be reserved.

A QR code on the fence outside Brommer Street County Park's tennis/pickleball courts
Scanning the QR code on the fence outside Brommer Street County Park’s tennis/pickleball courts takes users to the reservation system.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

However, the app has made the reservation system — and its associated fees — much more prominent, leading more people to make reservations. The change has caused veteran players accustomed to just showing up and playing to now face off against relative newbies who don’t mind paying to get a guaranteed slot.

Some players object to the idea of having to pay a fee to guarantee court time, when they have long been able to show up and play for free. One group of about 30 to 40 who play pickleball in the early mornings has started circulating a petition decrying the reservation fees, which they describe as a “pickleball tax.” They say the new electronic reservation system is “entirely antithetical to pickleball’s cherished traditions of free communal gathering and socialization through sport” and would exacerbate the issue of people from wealthier communities coming and taking over the courts without having to share with locals.

While pickleball shares the same court space with tennis and basketball, the reservation system particularly affects pickleball players who want more flexibility instead of being limited to one reserved court. Pickleball games are typically shorter, with the average game lasting 15 to 25 minutes versus 40 to 60 minutes for tennis. And as pickleball’s culture emphasizes community and socialization along with game play, players might prefer hashing out times to play among themselves and rotating through several courts to play multiple matches against different people.

For those reasons, many longtime pickleball players argued that there was no need for this system because pickleballers had already worked out how to share the courts by informally waiting and negotiating among themselves whenever they came to play. But supporters of the reservation policy said this approach could be intimidating to newer players. Hurley said the reservation system would improve equity and access to the sport for groups that had specific days and times when they could play. Pickleball is the country’s fastest-growing sport, with the number of players rising by nearly 40% from 2019 to 2021.

A whiteboard used by the Santa Cruz Pickleball Club during their reserved court time at Brommer Street County Park
A whiteboard used by the Santa Cruz Pickleball Club during their reserved court time at Brommer Street County Park in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The bigger issue is that supply of places to play has not kept up with demand. Discussions over the past few years between the county and the Santa Cruz Pickleball Club, the county’s most prominent pickleball association, to convert tennis courts to pickleball courts at Twin Lakes County Park and in the San Lorenzo Valley fizzled out, while efforts to find pickleball court space at UC Santa Cruz are still underway. Mark Dettle, president of Santa Cruz Pickleball, said that with the number of members nearing 400, “there’s just not enough courts” to meet the needs of local players. “Everyone’s competing for these courts.”

Hurley said that finding new land for pickleball courts was “not a high endeavor on the county parks’ priorities.” Instead, the county is looking to build more parkland in South County “because we’re really park-poor in that area,” she said. Last week, the county announced the $2.3 million purchase of a 38.5-acre lot next to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, which will become the county’s first new park in over 20 years. The county parks department did not respond Monday afternoon when asked whether it planned to build pickleball courts in the new park.

Currently, the county operates over 30 parks in the area around Brommer Street and Willowbrook, and just two (Pinto Lake County Park and Mesa Village County Park) around the predominantly Latino communities of Freedom and Watsonville. Neither has pickleball courts.

At the Brommer Street courts on Friday morning, attitudes toward the new reservation system were mixed. There were no conflicts on the courts, which Santa Cruz Pickleball had already reserved from 9 a.m. to noon. While several players said they opposed the reservation system, others were in favor or did not know much about the policy.

Pickleball players at Brommer Street County Park in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Larry Yien, who lives on the Westside of Santa Cruz and described pickleball as “life-changing” for him, said he felt his taxes were already going to support the pickleball courts and that the reservation protocol disadvantaged low-income players. “By creating this whole pay-to-play system,” he said, “it actually rewards people that have more money.”

Erik Widuch, who has played pickleball across the East and West Coasts, said he felt the reservation system was necessary as pickleball had grown in popularity. “As something gets bigger, you need to establish new rules, new parameters, new boundaries,” he said. “I think it makes perfect sense.”

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