As thousands of athletes descend on Pittsburgh for the 2023 National Senior Games (through July 18), you might want to get your earplugs ready because 1,500 of them will be playing in one of the competition’s feature events, the NSGA National Pickleball Tournament.
Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in North America, with 10,724 places to play in the country. According to USA Pickleball and the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the sport has grown on average by 11.5% over the past 5 years, now totaling 4.8 million participants. And 1.4 million of those participants play eight or more times annually.
Yet with all of that growth, pickleball has also been a lightning rod for criticism — because it’s noisy.
The sport is played on concrete courts with plastic balls similar to whiffle balls, and each player strikes the ball with paddles typically made of wood. The result is a loud staccato beat as the ball strikes both the paddles and the ground. It’s a louder, more piercing sound than tennis because of the materials, and since you can fit four pickleball courts in the same space as a single tennis court, the number of sounds emanating from the game can be four times what you’d hear coming from one tennis court.
Upper St. Clair native and Carnegie Mellon University-educated engineer Bob Unetich decided to do something about it.
In 2013, Unetich retired as a snowbird living in a Florida community during the winter months. After getting involved in pickleball, his neighbors “started to complain about the noise the pickleball club was making. So I got deeply involved then in trying to help the situation.”
Using the skills and techniques he honed as an engineer in the broadcast industry at WTAE and later at RCA, Unetich says, “We sort of solved the problem.”
Then, when he kept getting requests to solve the pickleball noise problem for others, Unetich decided to charge for it.
To solve the problem, he resorts to measuring the noise — the specific sound (volume and pitch) from a particular type of ball hitting a specific type of racket. He then shares the data with his clients and makes recommendations on what actions they can take to decrease the noise.
A common recommendation is to build a sound barrier (often a high wall), which he says is not always easy. If built solidly enough, the barrier can block a large portion of the sound. But to build it effectively can also be costly.
Changing the material used to make the paddles is also one of his common recommendations, because different types and shapes of wood have different sound properties. Unetich says that the hardwood and the hard plastic ball together are more likely to make a piercing sound due to the way sound waves oscillate with stiff surfaces. And it’s not only the volume that’s the issue; the specific frequency of the paddle and ball combination also determines the annoyance factor.
USA Pickleball has a set of specifications for both paddles and balls, but those specs only apply to the organization’s sanctioned tournaments. For casual play, there is no requirement to comply. Plus, according to Unetich, many of the manufacturers are not worried about complying as long as their equipment sells.
Although reducing noise makes him somewhat unique in the pickleball world, Unetich’s involvement with the sport goes beyond that role. He’s also certified as a referee — which he’s doing at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center during the National Senior Games.
He’s also quick to note that the sport is played by all ages, although he says that finding space in some communities for pickleball courts can cause issues.
Retirement communities usually find support to place a new set of pickleball courts where a tennis court was, because they can serve four times the residents at once.
It’s more difficult in municipalities like Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon, he says, because of the lack of space. In Mt. Lebanon, he chalks it up to having world-class tennis facilities that are consistently used. In other areas, he says adding pickleball courts can be seen as removing spaces for 8-year-olds in favor of facilities for 80-year-olds — and that’s not popular.
The stats show that the sport is not just for oldsters, though. While annual growth among players 55+ is at 10%, it’s 21.2% for 6-to-17-year-olds. For Gen Z and millennials who are 18-34, the growth rate is 28.8% annually and 33.5% for those who play casually.
There are public pickleball courts located throughout the city. In June, RustBuilt Pittsburgh along with The Salon — organizations that both serve the technology and entrepreneur community — announced Dinks & Deals, a new series of pickleball events for startup founders, investors and enthusiasts happening in Frick Park throughout the summer. That community skews younger with many members in their 20s and 30s.