Pickleball looks at next phase of still-growing craze: Cashing in

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On Tuesday morning, pickleball club owners, manufacturers, retailers and promoters were scheduled to gather in a conference room outside of Dallas and, over coffee and pastries, plot the future of the sport.

They were expected to sit through panels called “The Business of Pickleball and the Opportunities That Lie Ahead” and “Driving Your Pickleball Business With Impactful Marketing and Social Media.” They will discuss all the ways to further grow a sport that appears to have no discernible ceiling.

The PickleForum, held in conjunction with the USA Pickleball national championships this week at Brookhaven Country Club, is a first-of-its-kind event whose mere existence suggests the sport’s popularity has entered a second phase of development—Pickleball 2.0, let’s call it—focused less on grass-roots growth and more on the thing that drives all sports: money.

The industry is still struggling to keep pace with pickleball’s surging participation numbers. But small businesses and large corporations alike are catching up, while municipalities and private clubs race to build courts across the country. This week’s championships will be the sport’s biggest showcase to date, providing clues on the sport’s popularity and potential. More than 4,000 amateur players, 200 pros and 50,000 spectators are expected. Perhaps just as important, more than two dozen sponsors are signed on.

The sport has attracted investment from private equity firms and celebrities, including Tom Brady, LeBron James and Drake. While builders construct new courts and manufacturers race to produce new products, broadcasters have signed up to televise pro tournaments and major brands have lined up to sponsor athletes and competing pro tours.

“What’s happening is everyone’s trying to figure out what their role is going to be,” said Tom Dundon, owner of the Professional Pickleball Association, or PPA.

Dundon, the billionaire owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, purchased the PPA in 2021. Back then, he says, pickleball felt like a promising mom-and-pop business. But with so many companies and investors racing to get involved, the sport is growing up fast. The PPA, which is helping stage the PickleForum, merged this year with Major League Pickleball, a team-based outfit, and competes for players, sponsors and fans with a second tour of elite competitors, the Association of Pickleball Professionals.

“It doesn’t seem fun to try to sell something people don’t want,” Dundon said in a recent interview. “I wouldn’t want to be an inventor and try to convince people, ‘Hey, you should use this product.’ What was fun about this is people already liked it. Now you just had to expose it to them in a cleaner way.”

USA Pickleball officials say they have registered about 45,000 courts across 11,000 facilities. They estimate more than $250 million is in the pipeline for court construction, and the sport’s national governing body expects to register 1,000 new pickleball facilities annually. Courts are popping up in city parks, in gyms, at country clubs and even in abandoned department stores, shopping malls and movie theaters.

Sporting goods and apparel companies are racing to fill retail shelves. Players can find more than 40 brands of paddles on the market, at least 10 companies producing balls and more than a dozen selling nets. There are pickleball-specific clothes, shoes, books, jewelry, eyewear, fingerless gloves, training aids, electric ball machines, even a pickleball-specific sports drink called Dink.

“You’re going to see pickleball everywhere next year,” said Adam Franklin, president of Franklin Sports, the 77-year-old sporting goods company. “I still think we’re really in the early days of how this is going to look in the U.S. landscape.”

What’s yet to be seen is whether the industry can sustain all the companies elbowing for market share.

“When the piston cars came, there were 400 car companies in Detroit. Eventually there was four,” said Bahram Akradi, founder and chief executive of Life Time, the fitness center chain that boasts 170 locations across the United States and Canada. “When something’s hot, everybody gets into it, but they don’t understand all the aspects of the business. And then eventually, when the supply and demand starts evening out, if you’re not a great player with the right model, you’re not going to do well.”

Most stakeholders agree that it isn’t yet close to evening out. Data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association suggests the number of pickleball players has grown more than 80 percent since 2021 and 150 percent since 2019.

Fifteen percent of Americans say they have played pickleball in the past two years, according to an August Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. Perhaps more importantly, the sport is more popular among younger people than older ones: A quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds have played in the past two years, compared with just 8 percent of those 65 and older and 10 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds.

That suggests a significant shift for a sport that made its first big inroads among active seniors, leaving the industry encouraged about long-term growth potential. But interest from younger people is particularly appealing to advertisers and brands that covet younger consumers.

The sport was technically invented in 1965 and was popular in retirement communities for years. But it only crossed into the mainstream during the pandemic. Franklin says his company started producing pickleball products in 2017, when Walmart wanted to feature “emerging” sports in its stores. Then the pandemic hit, and people flocked to the game—a safe outdoor activity with built-in social distancing. Pickleball nets were among the first sporting goods items Franklin sold out of during that period.

“Retailers are doubling and tripling the space allocated to the sport of pickleball at the expense of other sports,” he said.

Other sports have experienced bursts of popularity with varying degrees of sustainability. Carl Schmits recalls the racquetball boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which inspired a flood of new clubs and courts, equipment and apparel. By the mid-1980s, clubs were shuttered, converted into gyms and aerobics studios.

Schmits was a racquetball pro at the time who coached and also managed racquetball clubs. Now, as managing director of equipment standards and facilities development for USA Pickleball, he often reminds people of racquetball’s roller-coaster ride.

“I still carry the scars of that period,” he said.

But there are key differences, he said, mainly that pickleball is more accessible and appeals to a range of age groups. In addition to courts popping up in public parks across the country, players can find games at public and private recreation centers, country clubs, pickleball-specific clubs, school campuses and “dink and drink” businesses such as Chicken N Pickle, which has eight locations and seven more on the way.

According to the Post-Maryland poll, 50 percent of Americans were in support of building more pickleball courts in their communities, while 13 percent were opposed and 37 percent were not sure. But they were more divided about converting tennis courts into pickleball courts; 22 percent supported their local government doing this, 24 percent did not, and 53 percent were not sure.

Schmits said many municipalities are smartly growing in phases, making sure pickleball proves it has the staying power of tennis.

For now, those sports remain linked. Many new pickleball courts are replacing tennis courts, but tennis’s popularity has not necessarily suffered. In the Post-Maryland poll, 1 in 5 Americans said they had played tennis in the past two years, five percentage points more than those who had played pickleball. About half of pickleball players also play tennis. While 44 percent of Americans said they have a positive view of tennis, far fewer—24 percent—hold similar feelings about pickleball. Two-thirds of Americans said they’re neutral toward pickleball, while 10 percent had negative views.

The poll also found that more Americans rated pickleball as easier to play (39 percent) than tennis (17 percent) and said it was cheaper (31 percent vs. 9 percent). But Americans were about evenly likely to say pickleball and tennis were fun (27 percent vs. 25 percent).

Akradi, the Life Time chief executive, was a tennis player who initially had misgivings about pickleball, irked by the space the game was taking up, the lines taped all over his court and the sound the ball makes. But then he tried the sport.

“I got roped in playing one Sunday morning, and that was the epiphany,” he said. “That was the kind of the realization that the sport has got way more legs than people think.”

Life Time started with seven courts at two locations in 2021. Akradi told his property managers to start finding more space—underutilized tennis and basketball courts and unused land across properties. Life Time has more than 600 courts available to players today and will probably hit 1,000 by the end of next year, far more than any other operator in the country.

He views the growth strategy as similar to a hotel manager studying foot traffic per square foot. If the courts are being used, he says, they’re a worthwhile investment for Life Time, which offers members a range of exercise and wellness activities. He sees others racing into the pickleball business, though, and isn’t sure how sustainable it all is.

“They’re all rookies. They’re going into spaces that used to be a Bed Bath & Beyond or something else, and they’re paying a lot in rent,” he said. “If that’s all you do—people coming and playing pickleball—nobody in that space, in my mind, has proven the business model.”

Because Life Time has emerged as an industry leader, Akradi hears from companies and entrepreneurs who see pickleball’s growing pie. They’re all eager for a piece, wondering whether they’re too late.

“I’ve had like 50 different people come to me and they want to build a paddle company or something,” he said. “You know, eventually there’s going to be five or six paddle companies, not 50 or 100. Everybody is getting in right now, which is great. Competition is fantastic, and it makes people think, develop, improve, right? And then certain species of any kind will survive, and some won’t. It’s just the way that everything works.”

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One thought on “Pickleball looks at next phase of still-growing craze: Cashing in

  1. I’m OK with pickleball. Love the excitement and energy, just don’t take over tennis courts. You don’t need a 40 foot ceiling to play indoor pickleball.

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