Pickleball is turned into big business with tournaments, investments

Two men playing pickleball.

Seth McConnell | Denver Post | Getty Images

About eight years ago, when brothers Rob Barnes, then 19, and Mike Barnes, then 21, founded a pickleball paddle, they encountered many skeptical glances.

“We mentioned the word ‘pickleball’ – people would say, ‘What is it?’ Nobody knew about the sport back then, but now that we’re talking about pickleball, almost everyone has heard of it and wants to try it, “said Mike Barnes..

The name of the sport, whimsical and indefinable, may invoke an image of a slow-moving game played by retirees in Florida. But the sport of paddling – a cross between tennis, badminton and table tennis – is now America’s fastest growing sport and attracts great interest and financial investment.

“It really is just that easy to learn,” Rob Barnes said. “With pickleball, you can go out there with your grandparents, your parents, be on different levels and really still enjoy the game. So we think it contributes to this massive growth and this addiction that people have with this sport.”

Today, the two brothers from Idaho are co-CEOs of paddle-maker Selkirk, one of the new sport’s leading equipment manufacturers. They have recently signed an agreement with the big box retailer Costco to sell their equipment across the country.

“It’s really exciting to see them invest in the sport,” said Rob Barnes.

Pickleball boasted 4.8 million players last year in the United States, a participation growth of 39.3% since 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Associations 2022 Topline Participation Report. And from 2020 to 2021, growth was fastest among young players; participation among 6- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 24-year-olds each increased by 21%.

The new craze is hard to miss. Tennis courts across the country are being transformed into pickleball courts. The “pop” sound that a pickleball makes when it hits a paddle divides cities and drives non-players crazy. Major broadcast networks such as CBS, Fox Sports and Tennis Channel now air pickleball matches. Retailers like Sketchers also sign pickleball athletes to represent their brands.

Economically, professional pickleball has expanded across the country, drawing big names. Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk have both made investments in Major League Pickleball. Private equity buys in too: Carolina Hurricanes owner and private equity investor Tom Dundon recently bought the Pro Pickleball Association and Pickleball Central.

Speaking about his investment in the sport in 2021, Lasry Sports Business Journal said: “I think you’ll be shocked [by] where it is five years from now. “

And then there are the players – former athletes from other sports such as tennis player Andre Agassi, billionaires such as Melinda Gates and celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kardashians everyone calls themselves pickleball players.

For many, playing pickleball during the pandemic offered a way to get some fresh air and meet people in a new society at a time when it was hard to do. The sport attracts people of all ages and athletic backgrounds. (In fact, the club champion I play for is a 75-year-old who reminds me daily how much work I still have to do).

According to statistics provided by SFIA and the United States Pickleball, about 60% of pickleball participants are men, but female players arrive at the sport at a faster pace. The average age of players continues to drop to 38.1 years last year from 41 in 2020.

Tyson McGuffin, one of the best pickleball players in the world, is sponsored by Selkirk

Source: Selkirk

Its sudden popularity has boosted sales at Pickleball Central, the largest pickleball retailer in the United States, which reports a 30% to 40% increase in unit sales year to date. And the Barnes-owned Selkirk is set to sell more than a million buckets by the end of 2023. The co-CEOs said the company has tripled in size since 2020.

“The pandemic was very good for pickleball,” Mike Barnes said. “Across the industry, nets were sold out, paddles, especially new paddles, grew very rapidly and we have seen growth continue since then.”

The pickleball wave has also washed up on foreign shores.

Terri Graham, one of the co-founders of the 2022 Minto US Open Pickleball Championship, saw a business opportunity in the early days of the sport. In 2015, she and her business partner, Chris Evon, quit their jobs at Wilson Sporting Goods, where they had worked for about two decades.

“I realized there was going to be this huge explosion [with pickleball]she said. “So we just decided to go all in.”

Together, they branded “US Open Pickleball” and started what they call “the largest pickleball tournament and party in the world” in Naples, Florida. In the process, they helped turn East Naples Community Park into a 64-lane pickleball mecca.

This year’s tournament started on Friday, where the competition was to start on Sunday and run for almost an entire week. Nearly 3,000 players – both amateurs and pro, ages 8 to 87 – will compete for $ 100,000 in prize money.

The championship will be shown on the CBS Sports Network in front of an estimated 25,000 tournament spectators. Graham says the tournament now has more than 40 sponsors and contributes more than $ 9 million to the local economy in Naples, where people fly to the event from around the world.

“Getting into pickleball was the best move we’ve made professionally in our lives,” Graham said.

The advanced health club group Life Time, with its more than 160 locations in 41 markets, is adding lanes and also entering the ground floor of tournament games.

Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi said the company has added 84 permanent lanes in 30 clubs since October. Last month, he said, 7,000 new players took up the sport in Life Time clubs, an increase of 1,100% year-on-year.

Akradi says he plays pickleball daily (adding that he has lost 10 to 15 pounds in the process) and it plans major investments in the sport for the company he founded almost 30 years ago.

“I love the sport because it’s the first sport I see that brings the whole of America together. It’s accessible to everyone and easy to learn,” he said.

The health clubs have partnered with the Professional Pickleball Association to hold tournaments. In February, Life Time hosted more than 700 players at their Minnesota facility.

But Akradi says he has only just begun.

“By the end of next year, our plan is to deliver 600 to 700 dedicated pickleball courts across the country. So a Life Time member can attend events even when they are traveling,” he said, adding that the company will invest $ 50 million. to $ 75 million and expand the additional courts before the end of the year.

“In my more than 40 years of sports fitness, I’ve seen all sorts of things come and go – gain momentum and then lose it,” he said. “This sport, I can not see [that happening]. It’s just easier and it’s wider. It brings people together and there is really no reason why people should not do it. “

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