In an effort to facilitate evenly matched pickleball play, clubs across the country often turn to ladder leagues to accomplish this goal. While many ladder leagues focus on competition and advancement within the league, Bellingham Pickleball Club’s ladder leagues, located in Bellingham Washington, emphasize having fun while building solid pickleball skills. Their Google Form sign-up sheet is clear that “if you are someone who expresses appreciation for a good rally, even if you didn’t win it, or who [compliments] your opponent after a good shot, this league is for you.” Further, they want to discourage players who take themselves, or pickleball, too seriously from joining the league in order to protect the experience of all participants.
Several years ago, John Hatten, a volunteer and the Flex-Ladder League Coordinator at Bellingham Pickleball Club, became interested in how players were rating themselves and how it affected the quality of their matches. Hatten sought to establish a league that would link up evenly matched opponents, be flexible enough that missing a week of play did not preclude a player from participating, and most of all was rooted in having fun while playing pickleball. Thus, the flex-ladder league at Bellingham Pickleball Club was born.
Bellingham Pickleball Club utilizes a thorough Google Form for player sign-ups and solicits information such as contact information, a player’s estimated skill level and doubles DUPR numbers, availability, and more. That self-rating is used for initial seeding in the league and players are separated into brackets of four with fill-ins being used in cases when the total number of players is not divisible by four. Hatten uses alphabetic identifiers for the brackets with “A” being the top bracket and “Z” being the lowest. Hatten then compiles all of this information, along with player’s contact information, in a Google Spreadsheet that is shared with participants so they can see the brackets and be able to contact participants to arrange matches.
Every week, each bracket, comprising four players each, is responsible for scheduling their brackets’ matches consisting of games between each combination of players within the bracket. Then, the players submit their scores to a Google Form and the players are sorted according to how they did within their bracket. “Players that earned more than the average number of points move up in ranking,” while those who earned less than the average will move down in ranking. Hatten decides ties by giving the lower ranked player the edge. Thus, by the end of each week of the league, there is a new set of brackets. This system creates progressively more evenly matched competition and allows players to see where they started within the league versus where they end up.
The brackets range from players just beginning their pickleball journey to players with DUPR rankings in the 4s. The method of this flex-ladder league is that “better players move up, less skilled players move down, until everyone is playing fun, competitive matches.”
Their August-October 2023 league was the third iteration of ladder leagues at Bellingham Pickleball Club, with each league growing in size and popularity. In the beginning, the league comprised approximately 60 players of their total 200 members. The second time the club ran the ladder league, approximately 80 members participated. In the most recent edition of the league, Bellingham Pickleball Club has had over 140 participants out of their almost 1000 club members. While participants are able to miss a week or two of play during the league because of the flexible structure, Hatten noted that they “had 30 matches (120 players) [their] second week [of the league] this year, but it fluctuates each week.”
Hatten has found that the main limiting factor for the size of the league is court availability, with weather also being a consideration. With Bellingham Pickleball Club having both indoor and outdoor courts, this creates more flexibility for when players can schedule their matches. Hatten is generally not worried about the size of the league outgrowing the club’s court infrastructure as he “always wanted to be able to include as many people as possible” and there have “only [been] a few situations where a bracket was unable to get a game scheduled in a given week.”
In the past, Hatten has had several volunteers to assist him with running the league, yet he emphasizes that once the Google Sheets are up and running, it’s a relatively low maintenance system. He appreciates the extra eyeballs to catch any mistake he may make and continues to improve upon his spreadsheets to help him stay on track. Hatten estimates it takes him about three to four hours per week to manage the league. This includes sending reminder emails to participants and troubleshooting problems as they arise, such as a player submitting an incorrect score or submitting a score with the wrong player’s name.
Hatten understands that his unique flex-ladder leagues system is not for everyone. He jokes, “If you want a smooth and out-of-the-box system, this isn’t for you.” His spreadsheets may be a bit funky and have their quirks, but it is truly a labor of love for him. Moreover, this system has proved extremely valuable to the Bellingham Pickleball Club over the last several years, allowing members to “meet new players who are close to their level… and see what they need to do to improve their game.” Having dedicated hundreds of hours to creating and fine tuning this system, Hatten believes in this craft and appreciates many of the benefits as a pickleball player himself.