ARLINGTON, Va. — It sounded like popcorn warming in a microwave: sporadic bursts that quickened, gradually, to an arrhythmic clatter.
“There it is,” Mary McKee said, staring out the front door of her home in Arlington, Virginia, on a recent afternoon.
McKee, 43, a conference planner, moved to the neighborhood in 2005 and for the next decade and a half enjoyed a mostly tranquil existence. Then came the pickleball players.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
She gestured across the street to the Walter Reed Community Center, less than 100 feet from her yard, where a group of players, the first of the day, had started rallying on a repurposed tennis court. More arrived in short order, spreading out until there were six games going at once. Together they produced an hourslong ticktock cacophony that has become the unwanted soundtrack of the lives of McKee and her neighbors.
“I thought maybe I could live with it, maybe it would fade into the background,” she said of the clamor, which began around the height of the coronavirus pandemic and now reverberates through her home, even when her windows are closed. “But it never did.”
Sports can produce all kinds of unpleasant noises: referees’ whistles, rancorous boos, vuvuzelas. But the most grating and disruptive sound in the entire athletic ecosystem right now might be the staccato pop-pop-pop emanating from America’s rapidly multiplying pickleball courts.
The sound has brought on a nationwide scourge of frayed nerves and unneighborly clashes — and those, in turn, have elicited petitions and calls to police and last-ditch lawsuits aimed at the local parks, private clubs and homeowners associations that rushed to open courts during the sport’s recent boom.
The hubbub has given new meaning to the phrase racket sport, testing the sanity of anyone within earshot of a game.
“It’s like having a pistol range in your backyard,” said John Mancini, 82, whose Wellesley, Massachusetts, home abuts a cluster of public courts.
“It’s a torture technique,” said Clint Ellis, 37, who lives across the street from a private club in York, Maine.
“Living here is hell,” said Debbie Nagle, 67, whose gated community in Scottsdale, Arizona, installed courts a few years ago.
Modern society is inherently inharmonious — think of children shouting, dogs barking, lawn mowers roaring. So what makes the sound of pickleball, specifically, so hard to tolerate?
For answers, many have turned to Bob Unetich, 77, a retired engineer and avid pickleball player, who became one of the foremost authorities on muffling the game after starting a consulting firm called Pickleball Sound Mitigation. Unetich said that pickleball whacks from 100 feet away could reach 70 dBA (a measure of decibels), similar to some vacuum cleaners, while everyday background noise outside typically tops off at a “somewhat annoying 55.”
But decibel readings alone are insufficient for conveying the true magnitude of any annoyance. Two factors — the high pitch of a hard paddle slamming a plastic ball and the erratic, often frantic rhythm of the smacks — also contribute to its uncanny ability to drive bystanders crazy.
“It creates vibrations in a range that can be extremely annoying to humans,” Unetich said.
These bad vibrations have created an unforeseen growing pain for pickleball, which emerged from relative obscurity in recent years to become the fastest-growing sport in the country.
The sounds were even dissected last month at Noise-Con 2023, the annual conference of North American noise control professionals, which featured an opening-night session called “Pickleball Noise.”
“Pickleball is the topic of the year,” said Jeanette Hesedahl, vice chair for the conference.
The same story, the same jarring sound, has echoed across American communities like rolling thunder.