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Tournament Desk Feedback – A Behind-the-Scenes Peak At Our Decision-Making Process

As a pickleball tournament director and/or tournament desk operator over the years, we’ve seemingly heard it all from those playing tournaments in which we helped facilitate. While the vast majority of feedback is gracious, helpful and constructive, others (the minority) are, unfortunately mean-spirited, silly or absurd.

As a player who has likely dished out between $40 and $100 (perhaps more) to participate in a tournament, you deservedly expect the tournament to be run well. But, as you can imagine, when dealing with hundreds of players – and an equal number of opinions – flexibility by all parties is needed in order to provide the best experience possible for the players, volunteers, sponsors and spectators.

This post isn’t intended to be a rant. Rather, it’s simply meant to offer perspective from a tournament director’s point of view, so both players and directors can better understand the decision-making process that goes into running a great tournament.

There’s a reason why we have a registration cut-off-date. There’s a reason why we may minimize the size of your bracket. A reason why your scheduled start time is early in the day or late in the day. A reason why one bracket might have 8 teams while another has 11. A reason you likely won’t be refunded in its entirety. A reason why a specific court may not be available at a particular time.

In the following post, we will address some of our thoughts behind our decision-making process. Please know, however, that as it relates to start time preferences, sandbagging, scoring or game-day formats, there is no shortage of opinions on how a tournament should run. For those who are experienced tournament directors and/or tournament desk operators, there is, indeed, a method-to-the-madness as it relates to a majority of these decisions. The overarching goal of most is to oversee an efficient tournament with minimal downtown and maximum play for players.

Start Times

Start times that fit into everyone’s schedule is certainly a challenge. Unfortunately, start times cannot be published months or even weeks in advance because the start time for each event is mostly dependent upon the total number of players registered for each event. Therefore, start times are generally published shortly after registration closes.

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In a double-elimination tournament, each event’s start time is primarily dependent upon the number of teams registering for that event. For example, those with the earliest start times will generally be those participating in events that have the largest number of players/teams competing. A bracket of 16 teams, for example, will require more time to complete and will generally have start times earlier in the day than that of a bracket consisting of only 6 or 8 teams.

A round robin tournament, on the other hand, is treated a bit differently. As we have realized after running countless tournament desks, higher skilled teams – as a general rule – are more likely to play longer matches with a higher degree of variability in match duration times than lower-skilled brackets. That is simply because of – and I’m once again generalizing here – longer rallies and more frequent side-outs in higher-level play.

It’s the variability of match length for these higher skilled teams that’s critical to understand. A higher-skilled match is much more likely than a lower-skilled match to last significantly longer than what is deemed average. It also has a larger standard deviation. Therefore, in a round-robin format, it makes the most sense to put the highest skilled brackets on the courts last. If we put the higher skilled brackets on the courts first, there is a good chance that all start times for successive matches during the day will be delayed.

Start Time Feedback

Here is feedback from one particular player who felt entitled to have an early start time. Don’t be that person! As I just detailed, there is a logical method-to-the-madness when it comes to assigning start times.

I would like to inform you that we will be dropping out of the tournament. The reason is the late start time. If I can make a recommendation: 4.5-5.0 players have earned the right to have the 8:00 AM start time. The best players in the tournament have to sit all day and wait for a late start time. We should compete and be able to finish up at a reasonable time.

3.0-3.5 players should follow the best players in the tournament. Their goal should be to develop their skills to have the privilege to have the optimal start time.

Sandbagging

Sandbagging occurs when higher level players/teams play down in skill level – presumably for the easier opportunity to “earn” a medal. It’s, undeniably, one of the biggest concerns – and most frequent pieces of feedback – from tournament players looking to get a “fair shake” in their bracket.

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Please understand that teams should enter an event at the highest skilled player’s rating – not at the lowest skilled rating –  and not an average of the two ratings. A 4.0 player and a 3.0 partner, for example, should be playing in a 4.0 tournament bracket – not the 3.0 (the lowest player’s rating) or 3.5 bracket (the average rating of the two players).

With an absence of a singular, consistent and reliable rating system, sandbagging will most likely continue to go unchecked. While a good tournament director will do their best to ensure players are registered for the appropriate event, it’s unlikely all offenders will be caught until there is a successful integration/implementation of DUPR (the major player in the Ratings Game) and PickleballBrackets (the major player in the tournament management game).

The Match Format

Every player has their own preference when it comes to match formats. We’ve heard it all. “We want to play double-elimination, not round robin.”  And vice versa.  Ugh.

Each match format possesses inherent advantages/disadvantages. Double elimination tournaments have an added pressure component to it – tournament pressure is real – as one loss puts you in the consolation bracket and a second loss takes you out of the tournament. While a bit more stressful, a double-elimination tournament has a bit more of a “tournament feel” to it. And some like that. The drawback, of course, is being eliminated from the tournament after two matches.

Round robin formats, on the other hand, allow you to play all other teams in your bracket or pool, regardless if you win or lose. Many round-robin tournaments, then take the top 2 or 3 teams from each pool and play single elimination medal rounds to determine final finishers. Round robin play allows for more games for everyone.

If double-elimination, round-robin or traditional scoring tournaments is not your cup of tea, you may want to try your hand at an MLP-style, rally-scoring, team tournament.

Whatever your preference, search out those formats that you enjoy the most and enter that tournament. Game-day is not the time to express your displeasure with the Match format.

Scoring Format

In playing double-elimination, the standard format for most tournaments is to play traditional side-out scoring, 2 out 3 games, with each game to 11 (win by 2) until you lose. Once you enter the “loser’s bracket,” games are typically played to 15 (win by 2).

Round robin match formats, however, are likely a little shorter. Because every player/team is playing more matches, the scoring format is likely going to be more a function of time and court constraints. In tournaments we facilitate, we generally play traditional side-out scoring to 15 points for smaller round robins (up to 6 teams/pool). For 7 or 8 teams/pool, however, we’ll generally play to 11. If playing medal brackets after pool play, we’ll generally play single games to 15 (win by 2), regardless of the format we used for the round robin matches.

Wait Times

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Minimizing wait times are, for the tournament desk operator, the single-most important part of running an efficient tournament. Nobody wants to see idle courts. A good tournament director/tournament desk operator – with the help of knowledgeable court monitors – will ensure that courts get reassigned quickly after a previous match completes.

If playing a double-elimination tournament, you’ve likely encountered long wait times waiting for the consolation bracket to catch up to the main (winners) bracket. And this idle time is, no doubt, frustrating. Please understand that’s simply the nature-of-the-beast as it relates to double-elimination format. There’s no getting around that and it is one of the drawbacks of such a format. You will have to wait for matches to complete so you can ultimately determine your opponent.

Ironically, we’ll frequently hear the opposite feedback (“I didn’t have enough time between matches”) when managing round-robin brackets. It seems we can never win. 😉

Again, find the tournament format option you like best and play in that tournament.

Registration Cost

There is no question about the fact that tournament registration costs are ever-increasing. For amateurs playing APP or PPA events, you’re likely to drop $150 for a single event. Not all tournaments are like that, however. Search for local pickleball tournaments in your area. You’ll likely find several options well under $100 that are a blast to play in.

Final Thoughts

In order to successfully traverse the myriad of challenges that come with running a successful pickleball tournament, tournament directors/tournament desk operators must be exceptionally organized, strategic planners, good communicators, possess attention to detail, and be able to troubleshoot and adjust on the fly.

Afterall, in addition to the aforementioned challenges, you’re likely to get another 1,001 “ideas” from well-intentioned participants as it relates to the venue/courts, warm-up time, player meetings, the wait-list, the forfeiture policy, court assignments, rain policy and so much more.

As a player, please remember you’re not the only one playing in the tournament. There are typically hundreds of other players who are also participating. Your request/feedback will certainly be considered. However, please understand the director has to make decisions that will benefit the entire tournament.

A good tournament director / desk operator puts in significant time preparing for the tournament prior to “game-day” to ensure the experience is positive for players, vendors, volunteers and spectators. With some understanding among all parties, fun will be had by all!

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Coach Todd
About Todd

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.

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