The Brawlin’ Betties during a match at Earl Warren Showgrounds | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Barbara’s only roller-hockey rink, located in the back corner of Earl Warren Showgrounds, is currently embroiled in a tense discussion over its lease and future, steeped in the larger context of the region’s pickleball takeover. 

Established in the late 1990s by Santa Barbara Roller Hockey (SBRH), the rink has been managed and leased by the nonprofit organization and its volunteer board ever since. It has hosted a variety of sports, including roller derby, box lacrosse, futsal, and, more recently (and one could say, inevitably), pickleball.

As the rink’s annual lease at Earl Warren neared its June 30 expiration date this year, its current management was taken by surprise when Dynamite Pickleball — who subleases space from SBRH to operate seven pickleball courts on the property — threw their name in the hat, and applied to be awarded the 2023-2024 contract. 

Despite the planned renewal date of July 1, the Showgrounds is still in the process of choosing a leaseholder. For now, the rink is lights-out and the postulated contract remains unsigned. 

Dynamite Pickleball’s undisclosed bid (known to be more than what SBRH is paying) stirred up concerns from the rink’s other users, who feared they may lose access to the space. The conflict led to op-eds from each side, a change in leadership for SBRH, and a pause in rink operations.

In a recent press release from June 29, SBRH emphasized the significance of the rink as a cherished home and a “safe space” for diverse communities, including at-risk youth and LGBTQ adults. They expressed concerns that a pickleball takeover could snuff out the multi-sport community nurtured by the rink.

A local roller derby team, the Brawlin’ Betties, has been using Earl Warren as their practice grounds for more than a decade and aspires to host “home games” at the Showgrounds, which their coach Andrea Alvarez said they have been unable to do for years. In response to fears about the rink’s future, a petition titled “Save Santa Barbara’s Only Roller Rink” has garnered more than 2,000 signatures since its creation on June 29. 

“Our league and [roller derby] as a whole is a safe place for people who may not fit in or feel comfortable in traditional sports environments,” said Kimberly Colvin, President of Mission City Roller Derby. “There simply isn’t another equivalent space for us.” 

Dynamite Pickleball, however, has said that they would not overshadow other users if awarded the contract. Their proposal informed the Showgrounds that they would maintain the current hours and rates for all rink users. 

“I would need them to stay; I would need them to help me,” Dave Wilcox, cofounder of Dynamite Pickleball, told the Independent.

“I’d need roller hockey, roller derby, futsal — I’d need all those groups. From our perspective, the roller hockey folks have done an awesome job.”

Wilcox noted that the rink’s operating hours have increased in recent years, from about five-six hours a day to 12-13 hours on weekends, which he thinks necessitates additional daily management. Dynamite Pickleball currently utilizes the space for 25-30 hours per week.

“It’s gonna require more than a volunteer organization to run that,” Wilcox said. “And that’s why we’re putting our name in the hat, to say we would love to be considered if possible.”

Despite any drama, both the rollers and picklers have emphasized they want the rink to remain accessible and inclusive. Each party has also expressed willingness to invest in the rink, particularly to repair its surface, which has deteriorated over the years.

“We have been partners with the Showgrounds since 1998. The Showgrounds supported us through the pandemic when we could not skate,” said the members of SBRH and Mission City Roller Derby in a joint statement.

“We have been communicating with Showgrounds CEO Ben Sprague and Rosie Miranda to work together to move in a positive direction so that our community can continue to enjoy activities at the rink,” the statement continued. “We look forward to continuing together under the new rink leadership.”

The Showgrounds’ CEO Ben Sprague views the situation as “growing pains” in their efforts to expand the venue’s recreational and community use. It ties back to the change in their mission statement in March that rebranded the 34-acre facility from one focused on agricultural events and horsemanship, to a “multi-use” center that serves the evolving needs of “Santa Barbara’s culture, history, and community.”

Sprague acknowledged that even with those 34 acres off Calle Real, the event center is a limited resource, leading to conflicts over the years. He added that SBRH and the Showgrounds’s efforts in the past few years to improve the rink and open it up to other sporting groups — futsal, lacrosse, pickleball — were in the name of expanding the facility’s uses for the broader Santa Barbara community.

“We have to balance being self-supporting and supporting the community at large,” Sprague said. “This is a way where we can support the community, which is in desperate need of recreational space, and have it be financially advantageous to us. It’s an idea that still has legs.”

While Sprague said he could not provide a definitive timeline for the contract decision nor disclose its potential value, he expressed the desire to reopen the rink as soon as possible. Its closure coincidentally aligns with pre-planned blackout dates for the National Horse Show this month. Regardless of the contract outcome, Sprague assured the protection of all existing rink residents. 

“We’re going to be making the decision based on what we think is going to be the most inclusive and efficient use of the space, so that we can support as many different community groups and members as possible,” he said.


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