Nov 20, 2023 - Sports

Inside the quest for quieter pickleball

Illustration of a ball and a pickleball paddle with a pillow tied to it.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Fearful that noise complaints are putting a damper on the nation's seemingly limitless zeal for pickleball, the sport's governing body has created a "quiet category" for new products and invited manufacturers to start innovating.

Why it matters: Spats over the high decibel level of the nation's pervasive athletic preoccupation have gotten pickleball banned at city parks and homeowners' associations.

Driving the news: USA Pickleball is pouring money into the noise problem.

  • It hired acoustic experts to come up with sound barriers and other noise solutions for public pickleball courts, making "considerable investments" in the issue over the last 15 months, per a press release.
  • It created a "quiet category" for equipment that delivers "essentially 50% or less of the acoustic footprint of equipment commonly sourced and used in community parks," the organization said.

What they're saying: "Many manufacturers have leaned in and are working on products for this category," Carl Schmits, managing director of equipment standards and facilities development for USA Pickleball.

  • At first, USA Pickleball officials were "concerned that the technology required to reduce the acoustic signature [of pickleball] would significantly change the nature of the sport," Schmits said.
  • "In the end, we came up with the specs that we were comfortable with," he said. "They needed to be achievable — too low a target would be too difficult and present engineering challenges — and they needed to be meaningful."

What's happening: USA Pickleball last week announced the certification of the first product in the "quiet category": the OWL paddle, from a new company called OWL Sport — founded by pickleballers eager to solve the noise problem.

Two pickleball paddles laid out on a playing court.
The OWL paddle is certified to be 50% quieter than normal pickleball paddles. Photo: Courtesy of USA Pickleball and OWL Sport

Details: The OWL paddle is "the first paddle on the market that delivers a hertz level below 600 and a decibel level below 80," per a press release.

  • By contrast, standard pickleball paddles "register 1,100-1,200 hertz and a near-harmful decibel range of 85+ when striking a ball."
  • For comparison: 80 decibels is the typical level of an alarm clock or vacuum cleaner, while a power tool may clock in at 90.

How it works: The OWL paddle, endorsed by tennis pro Tracy Austin, is swathed in a noise-dampening sheath made of a proprietary material called Acoustene.

Where it stands: The OWL paddle is just a start. USA Pickleball says it wants the "quiet category" to "encompass a wide range of products, including paddles, balls, paddle covers, and noise mitigation screens for pickleball courts."

  • "The largest global brands are looking at development of quiet balls, and we're very excited about that," Schmits said.
  • "If the ball component can be addressed satisfactorily, that is the greatest common denominator," he added. "If all players are using the ball, it may not matter what paddle they're using."

Zoom out: Even as pickleball fanatics agitate for more places to play, community courts have been curtailing hours because of noise complaints.

  • USA Pickleball is well aware of the problem, and has begun offering free acoustic evaluations to parks and recreation departments, Schmits said.
  • It's also compiling a database of acoustic engineers and consultants who will, for a fee, help public and private entities design or retrofit pickleball facilities with sensitive ears in mind.
  • "There's been considerable development on the materials used to dampen the acoustics in the facilities," Schmits said. "We're seeing additional approaches with sound-attenuating fabrics, acoustic foam, clear panels that will reflect and block the sound from the courts but still allow law enforcement or park rangers to see inside the courts from a safety standpoint."

Yes, but: The OWL paddle is only approved for recreational use, not tournament play — and additional products in the "quiet category" may be limited in the same way for now, Schmits said.

  • Delivering competition-level equipment that meets the sport's quiet standards is a trickier assignment, he said.
  • But there's hope: USA Pickleball has introduced an incentive program for manufacturers "to deliver noise-reduced solutions in the Competition-Certified Category," the organization said.

The latest: Pickleball's professional organizers have been lining up boldface names to promote the sport — and the push to make it quieter.

  • On Tuesday, tennis great John McEnroe and NFL star Drew Brees will join professional pickleball player Jessica Warren in New York City for a demonstration of the OWL paddle.

What's next: Pickleball's champions are hoping the muffling of their sport will appease its critics — and return the welcome mat in the many places pickleball has been curtailed or banned.

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