Shaping the Sport: A Deep Dive with Carl Schmits, USA Pickleball's Equipment and Facilities Director
Welcome to another edition of our expert interview series where we delve into the minds of industry leaders and experts. In this edition, we have the privilege of speaking with Carl Schmits, a pivotal figure in the rapidly growing world of pickleball. As the Managing Director of Equipment Standards and Facilities Development for USA Pickleball, the national governing body of the sport in the U.S. Carl brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table.
In this interview, we aim to uncover the intricacies of Carl’s role and the challenges he faces in shaping the future of pickleball. From discussing the latest innovations in equipment standards to exploring the strategies behind facility development, this conversation promises to provide deep insights into the inner workings of USA Pickleball and the sport’s ongoing evolution.
Join us as we explore the dynamic world of pickleball through the lens of one of its key architects, understanding how strategic planning, innovation, and passion come together to drive the growth of this exciting sport.
Introducing Carl Schmits
SVC: Hello Carl and welcome to our expert interview series. To kick things off, could you give us a brief introduction about yourself, detailing your role, responsibilities, and what a typical day looks like for you in your organization?
Carl Schmits: Certainly, and thank you for having me. I serve as the Managing Director of Equipment Standards and Facilities Development at USA Pickleball, which is the national governing body for pickleball in the United States. My daily responsibilities are centered around two main areas:
- Equipment Standards: This involves ensuring that we have robust processes for testing and certifying paddles and balls for competition use in sanctioned events. We collaborate closely with National Testing Systems, an independent lab based in Baltimore. Our work has been ongoing for several years, focusing on evolving standards as new ratings, materials, and manufacturing processes emerge. It’s a technical process, managing an ecosystem of nearly a thousand equipment manufacturers. Our research extends to acoustics, developing quieter equipment for sensitive sites, and understanding the dynamics of power, friction, and spin in equipment.
- Facilities Development: This is a significant challenge, as we’re tasked with increasing the supply of facilities and courts to meet the rapidly growing demand for the sport. Initially, our role was to consolidate various communications from developers, owner-operators, and enthusiasts seeking advice on aspects like court striping and color selection. However, we quickly realized the greater importance of this function. We now assist from the initial concept to the ribbon-cutting of new facilities. This includes developing business plans, visualizing facility concepts, assessing potential acoustic impacts, and making detailed decisions like color choices and lighting, which are crucial for athletic performance. We also focus on material selection, such as coatings and surfaces, and have recently seen significant developments in rollout courts. These advancements allow for flexible use of spaces and a scalable business model for owner-operators.
Carl Schmits: Additionally, we’re cautious about not overbuilding, learning from past experiences in racquetball and tennis. We advocate for a master planning approach, ensuring affordability and viability. This approach allows for gradual expansion based on proven business models and market demand.
How do you ensure that overbuilding of pickleball facilities doesn’t occur?
Carl Schmits: Currently, there’s still a significant demand for more courts, estimated at around 25,000 to meet a $900 million gap. We monitor facility density, focusing on a master plan that considers the number of large facilities within states or regions. We also differentiate between large regional parks, indoor facilities, and entertainment-focused ‘Dink and Drink’ type facilities, each catering to different player demographics.
What are the current bottlenecks in developing pickleball facilities?
Carl Schmits: The main challenges are land availability and funding. Municipalities often consider repurposing existing recreational assets, which requires careful planning for parking and acoustic management. Private developments face high costs, especially for Greenfield projects. We advocate for phased, hybrid facility models, starting with a core indoor facility and expanding with covered or outdoor courts as demand grows. This approach allows for scalable, cost-effective development.
Exploring Funding Opportunities for Pickleball Facilities
Considering the bottleneck of funding, can pickleball facilities apply for grants and funding programs at various government levels?
Carl Schmits: Yes, several pickleball facilities have successfully obtained support from state and federal funds. However, accessing these funds requires a savvy developer or director who is well-informed and proactive. Successful examples include facilities in Las Vegas and on the East Coast.
Does USA Pickleball provide financial assistance to project owners?
Carl Schmits: Our primary focus is on assisting clubs and educational entities in their initial stages. The grants we offer are typically in the form of equipment, such as paddles and nets, rather than being directed towards facility-oriented projects.
The Emergence of Public-Private Partnerships
What other funding strategies are being used for pickleball facilities?
Carl Schmits: An emerging trend in funding is the formation of public-private partnerships. Public entities, often municipalities, may have available land but lack the funds or desire to develop and operate a facility. In contrast, private entities might have the capital but struggle to find suitable land, especially in landlocked areas. A notable example is the ‘Pictona’ facility in Holly Hill, near Daytona. This 50-court facility was privately funded on public land and has hosted several major events. It’s a prime example of how private-public partnerships can create facilities where funding or land is scarce.
Are these partnerships typically formed with private businesses obtaining funding from banks or investors, and then securing land from the community to mitigate economic and operational risks?
Carl Schmits: Exactly. This approach is beneficial for both parties, reducing economic and operational risks.
Is this a long-standing practice in the US, or is it a relatively new trend?
Carl Schmits: It’s a newer trend, gaining traction in the last five years. ‘Pictona’ started around 2018 or 2019, with an expansion in 2022. Another example is a facility in Griffin, Georgia, which utilized county land and a mix of private and public funding. These partnerships offer a balanced solution, avoiding the lengthy process of municipal funding through bonds and the challenges private entities face in acquiring land.
Private and Public Funding in Pickleball Facility Development
When considering the balance between privately and publicly funded projects, how would you describe the current landscape in pickleball court facility development?
Carl Schmits: Presently, we have about $300 million worth of projects in the pipeline. The funding mix leans towards public investment, with approximately a 60/40 split favoring public projects. Publicly funded facilities tend to be larger endeavors, like those in Wichita and in the Midwest, including smaller indoor facilities in the Twin Cities and Chicago area. These often have a club profile or an entertainment aspect, sometimes in partnership with local breweries.
Are the public facilities typically municipal recreational centers, parks, and similar establishments?
Carl Schmits: Yes, that’s correct. A prime example is in Downers Grove, Illinois, where a tennis court facility was repurposed. They transformed it into a versatile pickleball complex with eight dual-striped courts, alongside three dedicated tennis courts that can convert to pickleball. This setup allows for up to 24 courts to be available for regional events, combining taped, dual-striped, and permanent courts.
How does USA Pickleball help develop new facilities?
Could you describe the strategic initiatives USA Pickleball undertakes daily to achieve your organization’s goals and vision, particularly in facility development?
Carl Schmits: On the facility side, we handle 10 to 20 inquiries weekly from project planners and owners. Our initial step is a discovery call to understand the project’s scope and the client’s needs, especially since many come from different industries with limited development experience. We focus on helping them build a business plan that ensures profitability within a reasonable timeframe, advocating a cautious approach before any financial commitment.
With the numerous inquiries you receive weekly, what are the biggest challenges in helping with business plans, feasibility studies, and economic impact reports, and how do you plan to overcome them?
Carl Schmits: The main challenge is the time-intensive nature of designing and conducting acoustic simulations. To address this, we’re focusing on outsourcing and expanding our network of partners. This includes recruiting new firms for sound studies and building a network of architects aligned with our guidelines on facility design. By collaborating with experienced professionals, we can efficiently scale up our support for multiple projects without increasing our headcount.
Do you have a network of professionals for referrals and involvement in projects?
Carl Schmits: Yes, that’s correct. We have a network of professionals that we refer to and involve in projects. This approach has already yielded fantastic results, with several large facilities set to be announced soon.
Is there overlap between your work and that of court builders or architects?
Carl Schmits: We do collaborate with architects, referring clients to certified professionals for conceptual plans. Local architects are usually involved in site-specific designs, adhering to local codes. Our role includes both internal and external architectural consultation for facility design and concepting.
Providing Feasibility Study Development
We partner with companies like Ground Rule for feasibility studies, owner representation, and operational support. These entities, experienced in large-scale projects, take the lead in driving projects forward. Feasibility studies, crucial for projects requiring debt acquisition, typically cost about 1% of the total project value. For a $5 million project, this would be around $50,000. It’s important that these studies are independent, especially for municipalities seeking a clear view of their investment potential.
Providing Economic and Demographic Data
We regularly provide economic impact and demographic data, including market size and drive times, to both public and private entities. This data helps tailor business plans based on the facility’s objectives, whether attracting local visitors or drawing from a larger market. Our experience in the sector guides clients on necessary services and program offerings, considering the unique challenges and objectives of each location, whether in suburban, urban, industrial, or commercial areas.
Ensuring Sustainable Development
Our overarching goal is to ensure the sustainability of these facilities. We discourage overinvestment and overbuilding, aiming to avoid long-term challenges or closures due to unsustainable business models. We encourage a gradual ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach to development.
Is the service provided by USA Pickleball free for project owners?
Carl Schmits: Until now, our services have been offered free of charge. However, we’re introducing additional services, such as acoustic propagation modeling and simulations, which involve on-site tests using specialized equipment. For municipalities, as a nonprofit, we’re likely to continue offering services without charge, assisting them in understanding the potential of their area and addressing gaps in facility development knowledge. For private, for-profit enterprises, we will consider a commission or service fee, which is reinvested into our research, including equipment and facility studies.
Strategic partnerships and collaborations
Beyond your network of experts and professionals, what other types of partnerships and collaborations are you pursuing to expand the sport and reach a broader audience?
There are two main areas of focus. Firstly, in my role, I’m engaging more with material suppliers. This involves making recommendations on surfacing, lighting, and other court equipment, ensuring a diverse range of solutions for clients to choose from. We aim to partner with official suppliers while also certifying a broader array of options.
Leveraging Celebrity Influence and Professional Leagues
On a larger scale, to reach a wider audience, we’re making significant strides on social media platforms. The sport has gained visibility through celebrities and athletes like LeBron James,, and tennis legends like Agassi, McEnroe, Chang, Roddick, and Sharapova. These high-profile figures and events like the Pickleball Slam attract substantial spectator interest. They not only expand our audience but also appeal to a broader range of players, including former tennis players who find pickleball engaging and accessible.
Changing Perceptions and Growing Demographics
Additionally, professional leagues like the APP, PPA, and MLP are drawing more attention to the sport, showcasing it at a high level. This helps to shift the perception of pickleball from being a retirees’ sport to one played by elite athletes. Notably, the fastest-growing demographic in pickleball is the 25 to 34 age group, which is a positive indicator for the sport’s long-term vitality.
Regarding the under-20 demographic, including student athletes and grassroots initiatives, how significant do you view their role in the growth of Pickleball?
This demographic is crucial, and we’re increasingly focusing on it. We’ve initiated educational and scholastic programs, and we’re exploring university-level leagues. Engaging with athletes early in their life cycle is essential, just as we consider product life cycles. We’re examining how early investment in a sport can translate into long-term engagement. Our involvement in scholastic and collegiate programs aims to establish pickleball as a lifelong sport for young individuals.
Innovations in Pickleball Court and Equipment Technology
Can you share insights into the innovations being made in pickleball court and equipment technology? particularly for noise reduction and acoustic control?
Carl Schmits: Our recent investments in research have been significant, particularly in understanding soundscapes and their impact. This involves advanced technology like ambisonic microphones, which help decompose sound fields to assess a facility’s contribution to the local soundscape. This research is crucial for both existing facilities seeking mitigation and new projects requiring impact simulations. In cases where we bring in external architects or specialists, there will be associated fees.
How about innovations particularly for noise reduction and acoustic control?
Carl Schmits: Certainly. There’s significant research focused on reducing noise at pickleball facilities. Innovations include the use of acoustic foam and attenuating fabric, which are lightweight and can be easily removed during adverse weather. These materials are a shift from traditional mass-loaded PVC, which, while effective, is heavy and creates engineering challenges like supporting fencing and wind load. These advancements are particularly useful when retrofitting facilities with acoustic panels.
Final Advice for Project Planners
What advice would you offer to communities and project planners in pickleball facility development?
Carl Schmits: My primary advice is to engage with USA Pickleball as early as possible when considering a project. Early collaboration is key. We assist not only with defining the project scope but also in connecting with local support and leadership. This early involvement ensures you’re well-positioned on the board, facilitating future support for events and aligning with regional and sector-level opportunities, especially if there’s interest in entering the tournament pipeline.
Carl Schmits: Early engagement helps avoid common pitfalls encountered by other developers. We provide insights to navigate these challenges smoothly from the start. A clear and crisp business plan is essential, focusing on affordability and a phased development approach. Instead of attempting to build everything at once, we recommend testing the market with rollout courts and pro-grade disassembleable nets, which can be used both outdoors and in commercial or industrial settings. This approach allows for market testing with a reasonable investment, aligning with the current supply and demand dynamics in pickleball.
SVC: Well, Carl, it’s been great chatting with you. Thanks for all the insights into the world of pickleball. Your work is really shaping the sport!
Carl Schmits: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure to share what we’re doing at USA Pickleball. Here’s to growing the sport even more!