July 31 2019 06:00 AM

Outdoor living spaces are gaining a whole new dimension with the addition of game courts where family and friends can slam-dunk together.

Photo: Bay Area Rhino Court

There was a time when a home with a patch of turf in the back with a barbecue grill and a swingset for the kiddos was the epitome of the American Dream. In 2019, that sort of bare-bones backyard just won’t cut it anymore. Today, a backyard is expected to be an extension of one’s home, with spaces for entertaining, gourmet cooking, exercise and just plain fun.

That’s great news for us in the green industry, because we’re the professionals that residential and commercial property owners turn to when they want to create these customized outdoor living spaces.

Virtually every segment of our industry is affected by this trend: makers and installers of artificial turf, concrete pavers, outdoor televisions, court surfaces, masonry, pools, water features, decks, pergolas, fire tables, fire pits, pizza ovens, outdoor lighting and sound systems.

Playing the game

Many homeowners are no longer content with simply being entertained by watching a ballgame on television in their outdoor living space while chowing down on barbecued chicken and beer; increasingly, they want to get into the game themselves.

Photo: Lindgren Landscape

Bocce, basketball, pickleball and tennis courts; oversized chess sets; putting greens; flexible-use spaces for yoga classes or movie nights; outdoor gyms; enclosed trampolines; and even year-round ice skating rinks are being requested by these sports enthusiasts.

These game court buyers already have an outdoor kitchen, living room or both — so adding a basketball or bocce court just seems natural. Other people will have the game court or play area built at the same time, folding it into an overall outdoor kitchen or living room project.

On the commercial side, outdoor and indoor game courts are increasingly being added as employee perks to corporate office campuses and complexes. They’re also found in residence hotels and condominium developments.

Haddonfield, New Jersey-based landscape architect Joe DeShayes owns DeShayes Dream Courts, DeShayes Dream Greens and DeShayes Residential Resort Design. He can testify as to how good the game court business is — the Dream Court division is responsible for 50% of his overall revenue.

DeShayes began his business after graduating college with a degree in landscape architecture. He started building game courts when the high-end residential clients he was creating landscape master plans for began requesting them.

He started with a franchise operation, but after a while, decided he wanted to do things differently. “With a franchise, you’re contractually obligated to use and sell their products exclusively,” DeShayes says. “But there are many different solutions for every client, and this way, I can offer what’s exactly right for them. We deal directly with all the manufacturers.”

Court manufacturers

Most court surface products consist of polyurethane tiles that contain antioxidants and ultraviolet stabilizers to prevent fading. The tiles snap together tightly so that the seams won’t affect ball bounce. They’re typically installed over a poured concrete base.

Photo: Lindgren Landscape

Among the many manufacturers of play area equipment and playing surfaces is Salt Lake City-based Sport Court LLC. Its primary business is manufacturing and marketing sports surfaces as well as other components like hoops, lights, nets, ball containment systems and other related equipment.

“The original owners were big sports fans and created the concept of the backyard game court, and the Sport Court brand evolved from that,” says Ryan Day, national sales director. “That’s where we remain focused today, but we also do a lot of commercial applications.”

Sport Court isn’t a franchising operation, rather, it’s an exclusive distribution network. The company works through court builders who own the marketing rights to the product within a certain geographic area. “The way our model works is, a landscape contractor would work with one of our local court builders. They’ll typically work out a subcontractor arrangement or a finder’s fee, but our core builders will work it any number of ways.”

Another game court manufacturer is Scottsdale, Arizona-based Rhino Sports. Founder and CEO John Shaffer started the company in 2001 after spending over a decade working for another game court maker. It’s also not a franchising operation, and its products can be bought by any contractor. “We manufacture all the components that go into our courts and ship them globally, to Europe, U.S. military installations, U.S. embassies and resorts as well as to private homeowners,” says Shaffer.

The soundtrack for the shindig

Outdoor sound systems have come a long way from the old boombox-on-the-patio or the little Bluetooth speaker playing music from a phone. Property owners with fully featured outdoor entertainment spaces want something much better than that.

Sonance, San Clemente, California, is one of the companies they can get it from — rather, where you can get it for them. The company doesn’t sell directly to the public, but through channels that include landscape contractors.

With a Sonance system, music plays through small speakers that can be completely hidden by vegetation or hide in plain sight in housings that mimic the size and shape of outdoor lighting fixtures, rocks and even mushrooms.

“We hide all the technology that makes them sound fantastic,” says Mike Cleary, director of marketing. “We say that people don’t buy our speakers just to listen to music — they buy them to set the mood of a space, to provide the proper soundtrack for the barbecue or the glass of wine at sunset. The idea is to use the perimeter of the space. It allows you to turn the volume down to where it’s comfortable everywhere.”

Cleary says it’s analogous to the difference between sitting in front of a big box fan blowing right in your face or turning on a central air conditioning system. “With the fan, you know exactly where the cool air is coming from, and it’s a bit distracting — but the central air just feels like it’s the right temperature. When the music comes from two or three different directions, your brain starts to forget about where it’s coming from and just enjoys it. You’re able to hear conversations and you don’t have to turn that Bluetooth speaker up so loud that no one’s hanging out on the patio.”

Remove phone, insert basketball

As you might expect, the primary market for outdoor sports and play areas is families with children. “These parents want to make their homes ‘the hang house,’” says John Campbell, owner of Sport Court of Massachusetts in Andover. “I’ve been in the business for 22 years, and I’ve been told repeatedly by customers that building a home court was the best thing that they ever did for their families.”

Photo: Sport Court of Massachusetts

“These things are a kid magnet,” he continues. “You know where your kids are and who their friends are and can observe who you may — or may not — want them playing with. And it gets them outdoors, away from the phones and computers.”

All the contractors and manufacturers in this story said the same thing: Being able to keep watch on the kids and shoo them away from Snapchat seems to be the main motivator for homeowners who want to add sports play areas to their homes.

Ferrell Eckert, owner of Bay Area Rhino Court in Novato, California, has seen for himself how this works, having had a basketball court in his backyard since his son was five. “He played baseball and football in high school, but when he wasn’t, he was plugged into video games. But when we were out on the court playing horse, his guard would come down and we’d have real talks because the only thing in his hand was a basketball.”

Getting a good bounce for both ball and body

Ball bounce is critical in professional sports, particularly basketball. So how do outdoor game court surfaces perform compared to a traditional hardwood court? “We measure ball bounce,” says Ryan Day, national sales director, Sport Court LLC, Salt Lake City. “Our Power Game Plus product has 100% ball rebound, which means the ball is going to perform the same as it would on an indoor basketball court.”

John Shaffer, founder and CEO of Rhino Sports, Scottsdale, Arizona, says, “We mirror that hardwood-floor experience because that’s what people are used to.”

As it so happens, the same technology that makes the ball bounce just as it would on wood also safeguards a player’s body. “A good surface is one that gives you a proper ball response as well as absorbing energy so that the participants are protected,” says Shaffer. “We use a resilient copolymer surface that has an energy return factor. If you fall, it will absorb and dissipate that energy, which is obviously good for your knees and other joints. You can fall and hit your head on one of our surfaces from a 33-inch height and not get a concussion.” That’s a selling point for concerned parents and much better than having Junior bang his noggin on the hard concrete at the local park.

Other types of buyers

“Staycationing” is a term that was heard a lot during the recession of 2008. It fueled the idea of making one’s backyard a private resort, even if people didn’t have the funds to do it with at that time. With the recovery, it’s been full speed ahead for those projects.

“That’s what’s happening here on Long Island and across the country,” says Dan Steigerwald, owner of Designscapes Long Island, Patchogue, New York. “We’ve been building outdoor living rooms and entertainment centers since 1985. The trend now is, these folks, instead of going away on vacations are staying home more and investing in their properties. Then they seek out companies like ours to make those dreams come true.”

Photo: Sport Court of Massachusetts

“We have two types of customers,” Steigerwald continues, “families with children who want bocce and basketball courts and batting cages and older folks who don’t have children in the house anymore who want putting greens and tennis courts.”

Shaffer says multicourts that accommodate more than one activity are extremely popular. “While basketball courts are the driving force for our company, we want to make it so when the kids get tired of that they can play tennis, volleyball, shuffleboard or foursquare — give them more fun things to do.”

Eckert does a lot of tennis court conversions. “A family will move into a house with a tennis court but they’ve got two young kids and they don’t really play the sport,” he says. “So we’ll convert it into more of a multi-use facility by switching out the shorter tennis poles in exchange for 8-foot-tall posts. They can still play tennis, or they can raise the net for badminton and volleyball. We’ll also incorporate one or two basketball goals.”

While game courts may sound like upper-crust amenities, they certainly don’t have to be. “We get a mix of every income level,” says Steigerwald.

The Houzz page for Eckert’s Bay Area Rhino Court states that a typical job costs from $2,000 to $100,000. “I don’t ask my clients what they make, but they’re kind of all over the board,” says Eckert. “Of course there are the ultra-rich Silicon Valley people who can write a big check like they’re buying a baseball glove, but I also get quite a lot of business from middle-class to upper-middle-class people. They consider it an investment in their kids and in their property, to make it more usable.”

“Lots of people can afford to have a basketball half-court put in their driveway,” says DeShayes. “I can give someone a nice court for only $5,600.”

Regulatory complications

A newbie to the game court business can run up against some unexpected hassles. Joe DeShayes, owner of DeShayes Dream Courts, Haddonfield, New Jersey, says some contractors fail to consider all of the setback requirements, zoning laws and ordinances involved. In his state, there can be as many as 50 different zones in a single locale, each with their own sets of rules.

“Here, most of the time, when you’re going to put it in a surface that’s over 500 square feet, you’re going to have to deal with zoning and stormwater management issues. So, a $22,000 court might end up costing you another five thousand dollars.”

“The tile systems the courts are made of, with the exception of urethane ones, are 100% pervious, so water goes right through,” adds DeShayes. “The problem is you put them down over a hard concrete base, unless you put pervious concrete or pervious pavers under there. Also, some ordinances say you’re only allowed to cover a certain amount of your property with concrete.”

DeShayes says this is where being a landscape architect gives him a competitive advantage. “I know what people are and aren’t allowed to do. I can look at a property and let the owner know where the best location for a court is, especially if they’re considering installing other things in the future.”

Is this business for you?

The demand for outdoor play areas and game courts is growing. Shaffer says there’s been a spike in business in the last 24 months that equals that of the mid-2000s. “There have been a number of spikes in the business through the late 80s and 90s, but there was a huge growth spurt from 2000 to 2007 as people were beginning to understand what the product was.”

It’s a high margin business by all accounts. Even so, should you get into it? Tim Lindgren, founder and president of Lindgren Landscape, Fort Collins, Colorado, says, “Yes — if your market can support it. It is a high-end service that not a lot of markets can support. If you’ve got the clientele that can afford to install them, by all means go for it.”

But Lindgren adds a caveat, saying that his degree in construction management “fits really well into this business. A contractor who doesn’t have hardscaping experience will need to hire someone who knows construction in order to bring this into their portfolio.”

DeShayes, who has taught an accredited course through the American Society of Landscape Architects on the proper design and construction of playing courts, adds another caution. “The sports facility field is very technical, so you’re going to have a learning curve. People make so many mistakes.”

He recently worked with a contractor on a $350,000 landscape, where the client wanted to add a golf green. “The landscaper thought, ‘How hard can a golf green be?’ so he only charged $20,000. It was a very small part of that job, but it was the most important thing to the client.”

It ended up being pitched at the wrong elevation. “We went in and did it the right way, which cost the contractor $40,000. If he’d hired us from the beginning, charged the client $40,000 and marked it up 10%, he’d have made $4,000 instead of losing $40,000 — and he would have had a happy client.”

DeShayes advice is “do what you do well and hire an expert to work as a subcontractor, and build the courts so you don’t lose money or disappoint a client.”

If you’re determined to add game court installation to your menu of services, a good way to start might be to find a contractor who’s already experienced in this arena and find a way to work together. Whatever strategy you employ in this game, we wish you nothing but net — profits, that is.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.