Nothing generates a retreat to one’s own philosophical corner in pickleball like the traditional scoring vs rally scoring debate. Opinions are passionate and plentiful – and, like politics, one is not likely to change the mind of another.
(Updated October, 2023)
- What is Traditional Scoring in Pickleball?
- What is Rally Scoring in Pickleball?
- Rally Scoring in Major League Pickleball
- Where is Rally Scoring in the “Official” Pickleball Rulebook?
- Sports [and Scoring] Have Evolved Over Time
- Final Thoughts on Pickleball Rally Scoring
What is Traditional Scoring in Pickleball?
In traditional pickleball scoring, the serving team is the only team awarded a point if they win the rally. The non-serving team, by winning the rally, can only force the second player to serve – or force a side-out if both players have served.
When traditional scoring is implemented, games are usually played to 11 points, win by 2.
What is Rally Scoring in Pickleball?
In rally scoring, a point is awarded to whichever team wins the rally – be it the serving team or the non-serving team.
Because a point is always awarded at the end of each rally, games are generally played to a higher score – usually to 15 or 21 points.
Benefits of Rally Scoring
Rally scoring proponents cite a couple of different benefits that it has over traditional scoring:
This may be particularly beneficial for the local YMCA or Community Center where people are sidelined and waiting for long periods of time to play.
Even in a “shortened” traditional game to 7 points, the game duration could vary significantly – from 5 minutes to 20 minutes – depending on the number and frequency of side-outs.
In a rally scoring game to 15 (win by 1 point), the game duration is guaranteed to range from 15 rallies to 29 rallies – resulting in a much more predictable time for the game to be played.
How Does Rally Scoring Work?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that, similar to traditional scoring, the only time one rotates court positions with his/her partner is when one wins a point on their serve. At all other times, you do not switch sides with your partner. This represents zero change.
As such, the server only announces 2 numbers (not 3 numbers) when calling the score (the serving team score first, and the non-serving team score second).
The serve will be made from the right side (from the player positioned on the right side) if the serving team’s score is even and from the left side (from the player positioned on the left side) if their score is odd. Rest assured, both partners will get a chance to serve during the game – just not immediately after your partner serves.
If the serving team wins the rally, they score a point and the partners from the serving team rotate court positions. If the serving team loses the rally, the serve goes to the other side. Remember, there is no second server in rally scoring. The other team will then serve from the right court if their score is even or from the left court if their score is odd.
Rally Scoring in Major League Pickleball
Major League Pickleball (MLP) has successfully implemented rally scoring into its events with a few nuanced modifications:
- Games in MLP events are played to 21 points (win by 2).
- Once one team reaches 20 points (one point away from winning the game), the team with 20 points can only score going forward on their own serve. This is called being frozen at 20 points.
- Once your opponent reaches 20 points, your team can continue scoring points as the receiving team on side-outs until 20 points are tallied. Once the trailing team reaches 20 points (remember, the opponent already has 20 points), the traditional scoring method is implemented for your team as well— with points only tallied going forward if the rally is won on the serve.
- Players do not rotate sides with their partner after winning points. Player A for each team serves and receives on the right side when their score is even, and Player B serves and receives on the left side when their score is odd.
The professional players love MLP and most frequently cite MLP events as their favorite event(s) of the year. The prize money for MLP may have something to do with it, however, as the prize purse for just six tournaments in 2023 will be over $5 Million!
Where is Rally Scoring in the “Official” Pickleball Rulebook?
You may be thinking, “Quick, Show me the rule that mentions rally scoring.” Nowhere is it referenced in the “Official” Pickleball Rulebook. And that’s the crux of the debate.
Furthermore, they would argue that changing the scoring would change strategy, and, consequently, negatively impact the integrity of the game.
Personally, I’m not sure either represents an air-tight argument – although I definitely see their point and appreciate their passion. Most sports have evolved over time – to factor in nuances in scoring as well as to speed up the games for practical purposes.
Sports [and Scoring] Have Evolved Over Time
Both badminton and volleyball, for example, have evolved over the last couple of decades to incorporate rally scoring.
Tennis has noticeably changed as well – and they have done so recently to, ironically, speed up the matches.
The All-England Lawn Tennis Club — which hosts Wimbledon — is introducing a final-set tiebreaker beginning in 2019 when the final set is knotted at 12 games. In 2023, the Australian Open matches were decided by a first-to-10-points tie-break at 6-6 in the final set. No longer will we be seeing a 70-68 5th set at Wimbledon.
Tennis also has experimented with no-ad scoring and 8 or 9 game pro sets over the years at the amateur level. All changes, I’m certain, required an adjustment in strategy. In my opinion, tennis should be applauded for trying new things.
What is Traditional Scoring in Pickleball?
Traditional scoring in pickleball is when the serving team is awarded a point if they win the rally. The non-serving team, by winning the rally, can only force the second player to serve or force a side-out if both players have served on a side.
There are also 3 numbers called during each play – the serving team’s score, their opponent’s score, and the server number.
What’s a Freeze in Pickleball?
A freeze in pickleball is used in rally scoring when you reach a certain number of points (typically, 18 or 20). At that time, a team can only win a point on their serve.
What is MLP Scoring in Pickleball?
MLP uses rally scoring at its events until a team scores 20 points. After that, a team can only score on their serve.
Final Thoughts on Pickleball Rally Scoring
The debate over rally scoring in pickleball is sure to continue. I’m all for pickleball scoring experimentation – particularly at crowded venues. It makes the rotation go quicker and it eliminates the wild variation in game durations. It’s also a little different which makes it exciting.
I look forward to hearing your feedback. What say you? While I don’t think we should change it everywhere, I do think various venues could benefit from a modification to the rules. Does rally scoring at least have a seat at the pickleball table in some instances?
See you on the courts!
Todd is the talent behind PickleballMAX. He knows pickleball and demonstrates it on the court as a 4.5 – 5.0 player. In addition to creating content and running the PickleballMAX business, Todd is IPTPA Level II certified. As an instructor at the Ohio Pickleball Academy, he instructs students and runs adult and youth clinics. He also manages tournament desks throughout the tri state for tournaments ranging from 100-500 participants.