- February 27, 2023
After months of debate and planning, Longboat Key pickleball players finally have their wish: two new pickleball-only courts in Bayfront Park.
Players took to the new courts early last week, and permanent nets were finished Friday morning. The additions bring the total number of pickleball courts at Bayfront Park to five: three pickleball-only and two tennis courts that have lines and portable nets for pickleball.
The change came at the expense of the full-court basketball area, which has been converted to a half court. There are still two additional hoops along the sideline.
Some pickleballers who have had the chance to play on the courts expressed their gratitude toward both the town of Longboat Key and Sara Cullen, an ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association on Longboat Key. (Cullen, by most accounts, has done more to grow and advocate for the pickleball community than anyone else on the island.)
“These courts are fantastic,” Al Mattacott, 82, said. “They're the best ones I've ever played on. I’ve played on hardwood, which is pretty good too. But for outdoor courts, the job they did here is really good.”
At a total of five courts, pickleball open play groups (which meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon) now include three courts designated for social play and two “challenge” courts for advanced players. It’s a vast improvement over the wait pickleball players used to deal with because of the lack of courts. Last year, the crowd at Bayfront Park pushed Mattacott to brave the commute to G.T. Bray Recreation Center on the mainland, even though the round trip sometimes took 90 minutes. The Bayfront courts are five minutes from his home.
Although everyone agrees the additional courts represent an improvement, many pickleball players don’t believe it’s enough. Crowds of 50 and 60 people are routine during season, and numbers can reach 70-plus on occasion. Cullen said she has 190 email addresses corresponding to Longboat pickleball players, and some of those 190 represent more than one person, such as married couples.
Sometimes families, including children and grandparents, come to the courts during open play. This happened recently on Cullen’s watch; she set up the family with a court but said they’d have to rotate into open play like everyone else once they had finished a game.
“We will need more courts,'' she said. "Just as the Tennis Center asked for 10, we want to have something that is equal to that so that there are opportunities. I have players who are like, ‘Can we have a men's night? Can the women have a ladder league?’ They want to have all the same amenities. And they want to have enough courts that they can accomplish that. … This is just a numbers game. We have the numbers.”
Longboat Key manager of streets, facilities and parks & recreation Mark Richardson said he walks through Bayfront Park and looks at the courts every day. He believes five courts should be enough to comfortably suit 60 people. If four people play on each court and each game takes 10 to 15 minutes, nobody would have to wait more than a half-hour. However, he will continue to evaluate the situation.
“[We need five courts] for about three months during the season,” Richardson said. “So we didn't want to build 20 courts. I mean, even they know they go home when May hits or when Easter hits. And then obviously the five courts will be plenty for the rest of the year. So we tried to find a happy balance on what's enough to get us through the busy season, but not too much where we're taking away other amenities from the park that everybody loves.
“I'll take calls if it's not [sufficient] obviously, as we find out over the next six to eight months. But I don't think we will, because I've been monitoring courts forever. So I think it'll be good, but you never know.”
Richardson said it’s a delicate balance trying to keep people from different sports happy with Bayfront Park, especially considering the additional dynamic of season. For example, pickleball experiences the largest decline in players during season, while basketball players might start coming out more during March Madness and continue through the summer. There’s no more space to build another park on Longboat, so it’s vital to maximize the existing space.
For now, pickleball players are here, and they’re playing morning, afternoon and night. Mattacott and Cullen are convinced that the number of pickleball players on Longboat Key will only continue to grow.
“Invariably, the people [at Bayfront Park] walk past these courts,” Cullen said. “And when they walk past, they stay on that other side of the fence going, ‘What is that? What are they doing? Gosh, that looks like so much fun.’ And people are friendly, so people say, ‘This is pickleball.’ And then they'll say, ‘How do I become part of that? ... I used to be a tennis player, I don't play tennis anymore.’ ... We just say, ‘Come and we'll give you a free beginner lesson.’
“All you have to do is show up with court shoes and a paddle and join in the fun.”