Two men play pickleball.
Seth McConnell | Denver Post | Getty Images
When brothers Rob Barnes, then 19, and Mike Barnes, then 21, started a pickleball paddle manufacturer about eight years ago, they were met with a lot of skepticism.
“We mentioned the word ‘Pickleball’ — people were like, ‘What is that?’ Nobody knew about the sport back then, but now when we talk about pickleball almost everyone has heard of it and wants to try it,” said Mike Barnes.
The sport’s name, whimsical and nondescript, may conjure up an image of a slow-paced game played by Florida retirees. But the sport of paddling – a hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis – is now America’s fastest growing sport, attracting huge interest and financial investment.
“It really is that easy to learn,” said Rob Barnes. “With Pickleball, you can go out with your grandparents, your parents, be on different levels and really enjoy the game. So we think this is contributing to this massive growth and addiction that people are having with this sport.”
Today, the two Idaho brothers are co-CEOs of paddle manufacturer Selkirk, one of the leading gear manufacturers in the new sport. They recently signed a deal with major retailer Costco to sell their gear across the country.
“It’s really exciting to see them investing in the sport,” said Rob Barnes.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Topline Participation Report, Pickleball had 4.8 million players in the United States last year, a 39.3% participation growth rate since 2019. And from 2020 to 2021, growth was fastest among young players; participation among 6-17 year olds and 18-24 year olds each increased by 21%.
The new trend is hard to miss. Tennis courts across the country are being converted to pickleball courts. The “pop” sound a pickleball makes when it hits a paddle is dividing cities and driving non-players insane. Major television networks such as CBS, Fox Sports and the Tennis Channel are now broadcasting pickleball matches. Retailers like Sketchers also sign pickleball athletes to represent their brands.
Financially, professional pickleball has spread across the country, attracting big names. Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk have both invested in Major League Pickleball. Private Equity Also Buying: Tom Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes and private equity investor, recently bought the Pro Pickleball Association and Pickleball Central.
Speaking about his investment in the sport in 2021, Lasry told Sports Business Journal: “I think you’re going to be shocked [by] where it will be in five years.”
And then there are the players — ex-athletes from other sports like tennis player Andre Agassi, billionaires like Melinda Gates, and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Leonardo DiCaprio and the likes Kardashians all call themselves pickleball players.
For many, playing pickleball during the pandemic has provided a way to get some fresh air and meet people in a new community at a time when this has been difficult. 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 have to do).
According to statistics from SFIA and USA Pickleball, about 60% of Pickleball participants are men, but female players get into the sport faster. The average age of players continues to fall to 38.1 years last year from 41 years in 2020.
Tyson McGuffin, one of the best pickleball players in the world, is sponsored by 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 Selkirk, owned by Barnes, 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 has been very good for Pickleball,” said Mike Barnes. “Nets sold out across the industry, paddles, particularly entry-level paddles, picked up very quickly and we’ve seen the growth continue ever since.”
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 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 the US Open Pickleball and launched what they call “the largest pickleball tournament and pickleball party in the world” in Naples, Florida. In doing so, they helped transform East Naples Community Park into a 64-court pickleball mecca.
This year’s tournament started on Friday, with competitive matches scheduled to begin on Sunday and lasting almost a full week. Nearly 3,000 players—both amateur and pro, ages 8 to 87—will compete for a $100,000 prize pool.
The championship will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network to an estimated 25,000 tournament viewers. Graham says the tournament now has more than 40 sponsors and contributes more than $9 million to Naples’ local economy, with people flying to the event from all over the world.
“Getting into pickleball was by far the best step we’ve made professionally in our lives,” Graham said.
High-end fitness club group Life Time, with its 160+ locations in 41 markets, is adding seats and also moving into the ground floor of tournament play.
Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi said the company had added 84 permanent courts in 30 clubs since October. Last month, he said, 7,000 new players added the sport to Life Time clubs, a 1,100% year-over-year increase.
Akradi says he plays pickleball daily (he adds he’s lost 10 to 15 pounds doing it) and plans to invest heavily in the sport for the company he founded nearly 30 years ago.
“I love this sport because it’s the first sport to bring all 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 host tournaments. In February, Life Time hosted more than 700 players at its Minnesota facility.
But Akradi says he’s just getting started.
“By the end of next year, we plan to have 600 to 700 dedicated pickleball courts across the country. That way, a Life Time member can attend events even when they’re traveling,” he said, adding that the company will invest $50 million to $75 million and expand the additional courts by the end of the year year.
“In my 40+ years in sports fitness, I’ve seen all kinds of things come and go – get the momentum and then lose it,” he said. “This sport, I don’t see it [that happening]. It’s just simpler and wider. It brings people together, and there’s really no reason people can’t.”