Across the blacktop of New York, adults in athleisure are charging waist-high nets, swinging at plastic orbs, calling out “dinks shots” and “dill balls” like school kids inventing a recess game.
Pickleball, once relegated to middle school gym classes and pensioner clubhouses, is having a moment. But the fastest-growing American sport is also becoming one of the most contentious. In recent months, reports of turf wars – along with arrests, violence, and sabotage – have filled local newspapers across the country.
In New York, the battle is currently raging through the West Village. Parents have compared the pickleball players to invaders – “the human version of Blank Street Coffee,” decried one local – accusing them of forcibly evicting their children from playgrounds.
“The park used to be teeming with kids playing basketball and football and tag and chase. Now they’ve stopped going. It’s all adults playing pickleball,” complained Allan Trub, a local parent. “It’s not a coexistence, it’s a complete and utter takeover.”
The conflict erupted earlier this year in Cpl. John A. Seravalli Playground, a 1 acre stretch of open asphalt carved into the neighborhood’s crooked grid that has long been popular with local kids.
It has since expanded Sixth Avenue and West Houston; on most days, the once-varied blacktop at the William F. Passannante Ballfield is blanketed almost entirely by makeshift pickleball courts.
Fed-up parents said their kids are forced to dodge the whiffle balls while playing catch or learning to ride their bikes. Players accuse the parents of enlisting their kids as combatants against the sport, urging them to launch projectiles (footballs, Nerf darts, etc.) into their courts. Both sides are quick to furnish video evidence.
The standoff has prompted intervention from city officials and the Parks Department.
Last month, the city created two designated pickleball areas at Seravalli, while erasing “unofficial courts,” according to an agency spokesperson. But the chalked lines quickly returned, infuriating parents and earning condemnation from City Councilmember Eric Bottcher and state Sen. Brad Hoylman.
In place of a compromise, a petition to stop the pickleball “takeover” has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures. Its backers – which include the influential Greenwich Village Little League, and at least four other downtown sports leagues – see the West Village as a tipping point: if the city doesn’t step in now, the insatiable pickleball players could monopolize untold open spaces across the city.
Lydia Hirt, a local pickleball organizer, described the characterization as “unfair,” noting the group has worked to share space with other park users.
“Pickleball is a super happy, fun sport, you know, it's called pickleball,” said Hirt, who also runs a pickleball lifestyle newsletter called the "Love At First Dink." “We all just want to enjoy New York’s limited outdoor space.”
Like many, she has called on the city to increase its designated pickleball courts. A slate of courts are set to open on a temporary basis on the Hudson River early next year.
The parks department is currently exploring adding new locations on top of its 72 existing outdoor pickleball courts. In the meantime, the hostilities have shown little sign of cooling.
“The fact that this was a nice place to ride a tricycle in the past is irrelevant,” wrote one pickleball player on an app, Team Reach, where players schedule games. “There’s no reason why a 5-year-old with a bike should be prioritized over adults playing a sport.”
The actual rules around bringing a pickleball net to a public park are murky. The parks department said that organized sports must be played in designated areas, though it's unclear whether setting up a net inside a city park is considered a rules violation.
The sport’s governing body, USA Pickleball, has local ambassadors who are tasked with scouting locations and scheduling matches. (The nonprofit also asks members to “refrain from publicly criticizing USA Pickleball and its rules.”)
But similar debates over access to recreational space have long dogged New York athletics. In the 1990s, an explosion in the popularity of soccer and softball prompted frequent fights over playing fields – as well as a black market for permits.
To meet the demand for athletic fields, city officials have spent the last two decades converting public asphalt into synthetic turf. But while the change benefits some, it has also left a shrinking supply of open, non-specialized asphalt – the type of surface valued by both free-roaming kids and pickleball players.
“I’ve lost so many places to turf,” lamented Rob Rodrigues, a 59-year-old skateboarding instructor, who has battled the influx of pickleballers at Passannante. His remaining spots, he said, “are all occupied by 25- to 40-year-old yuppie pickle players. And they’re super aggressive.”
Katherine Hedden, another USA Pickleball ambassador, is one of the few enthusiasts who has been playing for years. She now gives lessons in the West Village for $100 an hour, occasionally sparring with parents, who say she has threatened to call child services on their kids for running around unsupervised.
In an email to Gothamist, Hedden wrote that the comments came during a moment of frustration – and don’t reflect her true feelings.
“Sometimes angry people bring out angry comments,” she wrote. “The pickleball community has grown in such positive directions. It is such a sad state of affairs that this is what we have come to today.”