Two men are 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 manufacturer of pickleball racquets, they were met with a lot of skeptical eyes.
“We mentioned the word ‘pickleball’ – people were like, ‘What is that? No one 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 images of a slow game played by retirees in Florida. But the sport of paddle – a cross between tennis, badminton and table tennis – is now America’s fastest growing sport and is attracting major interest and financial investment.
“It’s really so easy to learn,” said Rob Barnes. “With pickleball, you can hang out with your grandparents, your parents, be on different levels and really enjoy the game. So we think that’s contributing to this massive growth and addiction that people have with the sport.”
Today, the two brothers from Idaho are co-CEOs of paddle manufacturer Selkirk, one of the leading manufacturers of equipment for this new sport. They recently signed a deal with big-box retailer Costco to sell their gear across the country.
“It’s really exciting to see them investing in the sport,” said Rob Barnes.
Pickleball had 4.8 million players last year in the United States, a growth rate in participation of 39.3% since 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation 2022 report. And from 2020 to 2021, growth has been fastest among young players; participation of 6 to 17 year olds and 18 to 24 year olds jumped 21% each.
The new craze is hard to miss. Tennis courts across the country are being converted into pickleball courts. The “pop” sound a pickleball makes when it hits a paddle divides towns and drives non-players crazy. Major broadcast networks like CBS, Fox Sports and Tennis Channel now broadcast pickleball matches. Retailers like Sketchers also sign pickleball athletes to represent their brands.
Financially, professional pickleball has spread across the country and is attracting big names. Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk have both invested in Major League Pickleball. Private equity is also buying: 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 told the Sports Business Journal: “I think you’re going to be shocked [by] where he will be in five years.”
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 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 hard to do. The sport attracts people of all ages and from all sporting backgrounds. (In fact, the champion club where I play is a 75-year-old player who reminds me daily of all the work I still have to do).
According to statistics provided by SFIA and USA Pickleball, approximately 60% of pickleball participants are male, but female players are coming to the sport at a faster rate. The average age of players continues to decline, from 41 in 2020 to 38.1 last year.
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 30-40% increase in unit sales year-to-date. And Barnes-owned Selkirk is on track to sell more than one 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,” Mike Barnes said. “Across the industry, nets were sold out, paddleboards, especially new paddleboards, picked up very quickly and we’ve seen that growth continue since then.”
The pickleball wave has also washed ashore 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 about to have this huge explosion [with pickleball]”, she said. “So we decided to go all-in.”
Together they trademarked “US Open Pickleball” and kicked off what they call “the world’s greatest pickleball tournament and party” in Naples, Florida. In the process, they helped transform the East Naples Community Park into a 64-court pickleball mecca.
This year’s tournament kicked off on Friday, with competitive play set to start on Sunday and run for nearly a full week. Nearly 3,000 players, amateurs and professionals, aged 8 to 87, will compete for a prize of $100,000.
The championship will air on CBS Sports Network to approximately 25,000 tournament viewers. Graham says the tournament now has over 40 sponsors and contributes over $9 million to the local Naples economy, with people coming from all over the world to attend the event.
“Getting into pickleball was by far the best decision we’ve made professionally in our lives,” Graham said.
Upscale health club group Life Time, with its more than 160 locations in 41 markets, is adding courts and also launching on the tournament ground floor.
Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi said that since October the company had added 84 permanent courts at 30 clubs. Last month, he said, 7,000 new players returned to the sport at Life Time clubs, a 1,100% year-over-year increase.
Akradi says he plays pickleball every day (adding that he lost 10-15 pounds in the process) and plans big investments in sports for the company he founded nearly 30 years old.
“I love this sport because it’s the first sport I see bringing all of America together. It’s accessible to everyone and easy to learn,” he said.
Health clubs have partnered with the Professional Pickleball Association to host tournaments. In February, Life Time welcomed more than 700 players to its Minnesota facilities.
But Akradi says he’s just getting started.
“By the end of next year, our plan is to deliver 600 to 700 dedicated pickleball courts across the country. This way, a lifetime member can participate in events even if they travel,” he said. he said, adding that the company would invest $50 million. to $75 million and build the additional courts by the end of the year.
“In my 40-plus years of athletic fitness, I’ve seen all kinds of things come and go — gaining momentum and then losing it,” he said. “This sport, I do not see [that happening]. It’s just easier and it’s wider. It brings people together, and there’s really no reason people can’t do it.”