Pickleball Points: Pickles, plastic and pickleballs

The game of pickleball has been around more years than the median age of the average American, but still many people haven’t heard of pickleball. Maybe that is a national marketing problem, because the game is just great fun, and the recent inflow of thousands of athletes from different backgrounds has elevated the level of play.

There are almost 200 tournaments scheduled around the country from now until the end of June, and these are the official events that have decided to pay for registration nationally.

What is the one thing they all need? Pickleballs!

I have been interested in the actual pickleball since my first encounter with the game. I politely told my instructor to shush for a moment because I wanted to first find out what I could do with that yellow whiffle; what kind of spin would it take, how much speed could I generate, how did it feel on the paddle?

I wore many hats, but one of my early jobs at Wilson was managing the tennis ball play tests, another was assistant tennis ball business manager, when the ball business alone contributed millions dollars in net profit. So I was more interested in the pickleball than the pickle score. 0-0-2?

Among those millions who play pickleball there is a great interest in the playability differences among the popular brands. That’s right: different brands, different playability characteristics, different feel, different accuracy, different bounces, different reactions to different surfaces.

There are pickleballs with 26 large holes, exactly positioned for aerodynamic precision, for indoor play, and there are pickleballs with 40 precise holes for outdoor play — and there is actually a rhyme and reason for these stipulated differences:

Smaller holes in outdoor balls, reduces the effects of wind and breeze,

Not so in indoor halls — no wind, bigger holes, go ahead and serve, please.

Outdoor balls, like the Dura Fast, receive more abuse on the various outdoor surfaces, so they need to have thicker walls. Each bounce tears away a microscopic bit of plastic until the ball finally goes out of round, or breaks. Their outdoor balls are also heavier than indoor balls, to help them navigate pesky winds.

On the other hand, indoor balls, such as the popular Jugs, are smaller and might weigh 4 percent less, because indoor surfaces are less abrasive.

Several years ago, pickleballs used in sanctioned competition were allowed to bounce as high as 37 inches, but the bounce police declared they can only bounce 34 inches. (Well, if you never heard of pickleball, I thought the name “bounce police” would get your attention.)

The lower bounce of 34 inches puts more emphasis on player skill,

And of course forces the need for better players to drill and drill.

The balls come in various colors: white, optic yellow, neon green and orange, as some are easier to see in one indoor facility, while others colors are better sighted in other locations. There is even an indoor black pickleball. Good luck with that!

At Wilson, we put a great deal of emphasis on quality control, so that the tennis player would never need to notice our product after purchase. From my own experience, I knew there was quite a bit happening behind the scenes to bring you a ball that you hardly noticed.

I decided to go directly to the source and talk with a fellow who sold over a million pickleballs last year.

Edward Hechter is a very astute businessman who has a unique perspective because he not only manages the largest retailer of pickleballs, PickleballCentral.com, he is also the president and CEO of the oldest pickleball company, Pickle-ball Inc., which is responsible for the popular brand Dura Fast.

It would, for example, be his job to tell the space entrepreneur Elon Musk to pack pickleballs for Mars colonization. Dura Fast balls have been used since 1980, about the time of the first composite pickleball paddles, and his Dura Fast 40 will be used at the U.S. Open Championships in Naples, Fla., this year.

In Naples, Dura Fast will provide small machines with a sandpaper-type interior where balls will be roughed to prepare them for championship matches.

When any ball first comes out of the mold in the manufacturing process, the exterior surface of the ball is quite smooth and needs to be roughed up for competitive play. Now, every team going out for a match will receive two new Dura Fast balls, and those balls will be exactly like the balls given every other competitor for each match. I recommend readers take light sandpaper and rough-up their ball surface.

When speaking with Mr. Hechter, we covered a wide range of pickleball subjects, but the most interesting to me was his caution for players to select balls for the various types of surfaces.

Indoor courts might range from cement, tile, wood, to different synthetic surfaces, and each has a different coefficient of friction and absorb more or less energy. I would be surprised if the pickleball community didn’t hear more about indoor ball selection in the months ahead.

Like pickles evolve from cucumbers, the Dura Fast pickleballs evolve from slugs of hot plastic injected into a one-piece mold, which is then rotated rapidly to spread the plastic evenly around the inside walls. When the 2.9375 inch diameter ball is removed from the mold, the quality-control processes then begin to make each ball exactly like every other.

The sizes of the holes in the Dura Fast Ball are engineered to vary in size, to assist the flight path of the ball, and the ball will weigh only .92 ounces after drilling.

Meanwhile, the Onix Pure 2 ball — another player favorite — has a slightly smaller diameter and a different manufacturing process, where two halves are molded with a proprietary material and then joined by heat. Their softer proprietary material does not abrade like the harder Dura, but, instead, reacting to continuous ball strikes, decays linearly in rebound performance.

The Onix claims to weigh more, but I could not find that weight in the product information. It definitely plays differently, because the softer proprietary material compresses more.

When interviewing Rick Bell about a major tournament in Utah, he mentioned that the Onix Pure definitely changed playability characteristics as the temperature changed from 38 in the morning to 88 degrees in the afternoon.

After January 2018, the Onix Pure 2 ball was no longer approved for official USAPA-sanctioned tournaments, but Onix just introduced last week their new Onix Fuse outdoor ball to the market. First reactions are that they play similar to the original Pure 2, but bounce lower, in accordance with USAPA specifications. Like the Pure 2, their bounce will continue to decline with usage.

There are four giants in the pickleball biz — Dura, Onix, Jugs and Top. Franklin, Gamma Photon Indoor and Riverstykes are new brands poking their heads over the horizon.

There seems to be a great deal of positive industry energy involved in improving and standardizing pickleballs. As a player, I definitely find it irritating when players gather at their communities and introduce different brands of balls on the same court. Balls definitely play differently, and if you don’t detect the difference, it might be time for more practice.

If, on the other hand, you organize a tournament, you should consider providing new balls, because some pickleballs continue to degrade in bounce height with usage. If you provide Dura Fast, then be sure to rough up the surface.

Again, I don’t like the pickleball marketing claims for consumers any more than the pickleball paddle claims, but for three bucks for a ball, you can’t get too burned financially. Rather than “Weighs More” (than what, a truck?), why not playfully say, “We inject the Quality, so you can have pickleball equality.” Or, better, “We eliminate maybe and probably, so you don’t experience pickle wobbly.”

For readers interested in more details about the technical requirements of pickleballs, Glen Petersen wrote an excellent article on Jan. 23, 2017, in the Pickleballcentral Blog at pickleballcentral.com.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.