Rally Scoring or Traditional?

Rally Scoring or Traditional?

By Matthew Schwartz

April 16, 2024

(Bill Wolfe)

Bill Wolfe is addicted to playing pickleball. The 70-year-old Asheville, North Carolina resident plays five or six days a week. He’ll happily play in 20-degree weather at eight o’clock in the morning. When necessary he’ll arrive early and use a blower to remove leaves on the court or use his homemade squeegee to push water off. I have seen this myself. Wolfe has been playing for over two years and is a 3.5 player. He is traditional in many ways but doesn’t favor traditional scoring.

“Rally scoring speeds up the game,” Wolfe told me, “especially when there are many [players] waiting. Also, it gives you a point instead of just a side out. Lastly, it just makes sense. You make a good shot and you get rewarded.”

For those still in the dark, rally scoring means exactly what it says: A point is awarded after every rally. You don’t have to be the serving team. The one exception is the last point, aka game point, when only the serving team can score.

In the past 30 years, table tennis, volleyball and badminton have all switched from side out, or traditional scoring, to rally scoring. Some see rally scoring as the future standard in pickleball as the game’s growth continues and wait times increase. Major League Pickleball switched last year to rally scoring.

Rally scoring advocates enjoy the faster matches and that both sides can score on every play. Tournament officials say times for events are more predictable and easier to plan when rally scoring is used.

Here are some tips for players when using rally scoring, according to The Dink Pickleball:  

Don't give away points. Every rally that you lose results in a point for the other team. It's time to pull back on the wild third-shot drive that works 30% of the time. Instead, lean on the consistent and high-percentage drop more often.

There’s no third number to designate the server (the “one” or “two” you’ve become accustomed to saying). This is because each team only gets one serve opportunity for each side-out. This means that the serving team will continue to serve as long as it keeps winning the rallies (points) as the serve team. The return team only needs to defeat the serve team once (no longer twice) for there to be a side-out and the serve to change ends. As a result, the third number in the score is not necessary when using rally scoring.

With rally scoring, every point is a potential game-changer, so tensions are high and your heart races with every hit. Players need to be on their A-game from the get-go, and the increased sense of urgency adds a whole new layer of excitement to each match.

Pros of Rally Scoring

  1. Shorter Games:Who doesn't love a fast-paced game? Rally scoring ensures that every point counts, and there are no time-wasting "side-outs." You get to keep playing until someone wins the point, and that's the kind of intensity we all crave. Another component of this that's particularly valuable as pickleball takes the airwaves is the predictability of games. With traditional games, it's anyone's guess how long it will last.
  2. Increased Excitement: Rally scoring means that every point could decide the game. The pressure is on, and the stakes are high. Who doesn't love a good adrenaline rush?
  3. Keeps the Game Fair: Rally scoring ensures that each team gets an equal number of chances to score points.No more complaining about the unfair advantage of serving first or going on a run with your serves. Plus, you get to switch sides after every odd number of points, so there's no need to worry about one side having a better advantage than the other.

Cons of Rally Scoring

  1. Less Strategic: Are you one of those "strategy enthusiasts" who love to overanalyze every move and countermove? If so, rally scoring might not be for you. With every point counting, there's little time to plot everything out or sit back and plan your next move. The rapid pace leans far more on reaction than proactiveness.Who needs strategy when you can just swing your paddle and pray?
  2. Less Forgiving:Room for error is at a minimum in rally scoring. One mistake, or 11, and you could be handing your opponent the game on a silver platter. So, better bring your A-game, because the stakes have never been higher. No more second chances or do-overs.
  3. Divides the Community: With rally scoring, there's bound to be some disagreement among the pickleball community.Some players might love the fast-paced, high-stakes nature of the game, while others might yearn for the days of slower, more strategic play.

I asked a couple of prominent pickleball website operators who are also terrific players for their take on rally scoring. John Kew Williams, the paddle reviewer and impresario behind John Kew Pickleball, told me rally scoring is used at one of the venues where he plays when it’s crowded.

“But people are always eager to switch back to traditional side-out scoring, Williams said.  “People love what they're used to. And most rec players don't use the MLP style of rally scoring because it's (seemingly) too confusing. But to me, MLP rally scoring is fun (alternate servers, partners keep their positions on left or right, switch to serve-only scoring near the end). I don't know if I would prefer it over traditional, but I think it would be a popular alternative if most people used it for more than a few games.”

Braydon Unsicker, who runs the Pickleball Effect website and YouTube channel, says, “Rally scoring has a general bad vibe around it in the pickleball community because it changes the dynamics of the game a little and people just aren't familiar with it. But I think rally scoring makes the most sense for two reasons. 1) It helps tournaments/events move along at a predictable pace and reduces the amount of dead time between matches for players. Rally scoring keeps things moving and enables players to plan around the event better. You know you'll be there for three to four hours, then you're done. I attended a tournament last year where the matches were played best of three games to eleven with traditional scoring and one match lasted just over an hour in the first round because points were slow to come by, the games were close and the match went to three games. Everyone else finished in under 25 minutes but had to wait for a long time for the second round to start due to the one long match. If it was rally scoring then this couldn't have happened.”

Unsicker says rally scoring “helps the flow of games at public courts. Courts are packed during peak hours and if rally scoring isn't in place then a game can take 10-20 minutes, but with rally scoring I'd guess it's more like 10-12 minutes a game. You may not stay on the court as long during the one game but you ultimately get to play more games by the time you leave.”

Bill Wolfe, the Asheville player who loves rally scoring, says, “Some people resist it, probably just because it’s different.”

Rally scoring is trending towards becoming standard. It seems only a matter of time when all matches are starting with the server no longer yelling, “zero-zero-two.” Just “zero-zero.”


My thoughts of the week, not all pickleball

Now that OJ Simpson is no longer with us, I wonder, who’s going to continue his oft-stated “search for the real killer or killers” of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman?


My wife runs a dog rescue and volunteers at a local shelter as a walker. Every time she visits the place she wants to take home the oldest, sickest dog no one else wants. Our most recent foster is a gorgeous Beagle mix. His name is Grapes, which I think is silly but we didn’t name him. He’s 10 and has heartworm. He was abused by his previous owner and kept outside. He’s the most skittish dog I’ve known, afraid of everything, including my pickleball bag when I walk near him with it. But he’s getting calmer and more trusting every day and after three months in our house I love the guy. 

How many of you remember the TV sitcom, The Honeymooners? The series starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and Audrey Meadows produced only 39 episodes in 1955 and ‘56. Yet those “Classic 39,” as they’re known, are so funny that they still air late-night on some  stations, and they’re still a regular riot. Gleason and Carney were comedic geniuses (and fine serious actors). I’ve seen every episode at least 50 times and still crack-up whenever I watch.

I’ve played with and against a lot of good dinkers who can also bang but not as many  bangers who are effective dinkers.

I had the serving yips for a month. I’d hit at least three serves a game from the right side that landed wide right. It was embarrassing and frustrating. I was twisting my wrist and couldn’t stop. I bought a wrist brace but what really helped was switching to a drop serve. I still fault on serves but not nearly as often.

Last year I ditched DirecTV after the satellite service lost the NFL Sunday Ticket package to YouTube TV. I switched to YouTube TV and like it much more than DirecTV and cable. Great user-friendly features and less expensive.

How many people do you know who follow professional boxing anymore?

If one of my favorite teams in any sport isn’t playing in a game I’m watching, I’ll almost always root for the underdog. I like when David beats Goliath. What are your three greatest upsets in sports history? My choices:

3) James “Buster” Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, knocking out Mike Tyson to win the heavyweight championship in 1990. Douglas’ mother died at age 46 after suffering a stroke weeks earlier. She had told him he’d win, and then he fought the fight of his life.

2) The New York Jets, an 18.5 point underdog, beating the mighty Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III. Jets QB Joe Namath had famously guaranteed a Jets win. This was the game that showed the AFL could play with the NFL.

1) The USA’s mens hockey team in 1980, days after losing to the Soviet Union 10-3 in an exhibition contest, shocked the Russians and the world, 4-3, in the Olympics semifinals. The game forever known as the “Miracle on Ice.” The final seconds were punctuated perfectly by Al Michaels classic call, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

Send your list of your three greatest sports upsets to me at mhs7386@gmail.com.  I’ll put some of them in next week’s column.