Pickleball translates into big business with tournaments, investments

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

“We mentioned the word ‘pickleball’ — people would say, ‘What is that?’ No one knew about the sport then, but now when we talk about pickleball almost everybody has heard of it and wants to try it,” said Mike Barnes.

The name of the sport, whimsical and nondescript, may invoke an image of a slow-moving game played by retirees in Florida. But the paddle sport — a cross between tennis, badminton and table tennis — is now America’s fastest-growing sport and is attracting major interest and financial investments.

“It’s really just so easy to learn,” Rob Barnes said. “With pickleball, you can go out there with your grandparents, your parents, be at different levels, and really still enjoy the game. So we think that’s contributing to this massive growth and this addiction that people are having with this sport.”

Today, the two brothers from Idaho are co-CEOs of paddle-maker Selkirk, one of the sport’s top equipment makers. They’ve recently signed a deal with big-box retailer Costco to sell their gear across the country.

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

Pickleball boasted 4.8 million players last year in the U.S., a participation growth rate of 39.3% since 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 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 surged 21%.

The new craze is hard to miss. Tennis courts all across the country are being converted into pickleball courts. The “pop” sound that a pickleball makes when it hits a paddle is dividing towns and driving nonplayers crazy. Major broadcast networks like CBS, Fox Sports and the Tennis Channel now air pickleball matches. Retailers like Skechers are also signing pickleball athletes to represent their brands.

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

Talking about his investment in the sport in 2021, Lasry told Sports Business Journal: “I think you’re going to be shocked [by] where it is five years from now.”

And then there are the players — former athletes from other sports like tennis player Andre Agassi, billionaires like Melinda Gates and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Kardashians all call themselves pickleball players.

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

According to statistics provided by SFIA and USA Pickleball, about 60% of pickleball participants are men, but female players are arriving at the sport at a faster rate. Players’ average age continues to drop, to 38.1 years of age last year from 41 in 2020.

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

Source: Selkirk

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

“The pandemic was very good to pickleball,” said Mike Barnes. “Across the industry, nets were sold out, paddles, especially new-entry paddles, picked up very quickly and we’ve seen that growth continue since then.”

The pickleball wave also has 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 sport’s early days. 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 about to be this huge explosion [with pickleball],” she said. “So we just decided to go all in.”

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

This year’s tournament kicked off Friday, with competition play set to start Sunday and run nearly a full week. Almost 3,000 players — both amateur and pro, ranging in age from 8 to 87 — will compete for $100,000 in prize money.

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

Two men play pickleball. 

Seth McConnell | Denver Post | Getty Images

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

The high-end health club group Life Time, with its more than 160 locations in 41 markets, is adding courts and getting in on the ground floor of tournament play, as well.

Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi said that since October the company has added 84 permanent courts at 30 clubs. Last month, he said, 7,000 new players picked up the sport at Life Time clubs, a 1,100% year-over-year surge.

Akradi says he plays pickleball daily (adding he’s lost 10 to 15 pounds in the process) and that plans big investments in the sport for the company he founded nearly 30 years ago.

“I love the sport because it’s the first sport I see bringing all of America together. It is accessible to everybody 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 its Minnesota facility.

But Akradi says he’s only getting started.

“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 participate in events even if they’re traveling,” he said, adding the company will invest $50 million to $75 million and build out the additional courts by the end of the year.

“In my 40-plus years doing sports fitness, I’ve seen all kinds of stuff come and go — get the momentum and then lose it,” he said. “This sport, I don’t see [that happening]. It’s just easier and it’s more broad. It brings people together, and there’s really no reason for people not to be able to do it.”