- Pickleball now boasts the support of LeBron James, Tom Brady and more than 36 million other Americans.
- The rapidly growing sport is easy to learn and inexpensive.
- The pickleball restaurant-entertainment model is also gaining steam. From Chicken N Pickle to Camp Pickle, entrepreneurs are hoping to capitalize on the craze.
The pickleball boom is real.
More than 36.5 million people played pickleball from August 2021 to August 2022, according to a new report by the Association of Pickleball Professionals released exclusively to CNBC. Earlier data pinned the participation rate of the sport at 5 million players in 2021.
The latest numbers unveiled in the 2023 APP Pickleball Participation report, via a study conducted by YouGov, shows that 14% of Americans played pickleball at least once in that 12-month period. And over 8.5 million people played pickleball eight times or more.
"When you look at participation rates alongside golf, and basketball and tennis. ... I don't think anybody would have thought a year ago that pickleball would be right up there with those more traditional sports," said Tom Webb, chief marketing officer of the Association of Pickleball Professionals, the group that represents professional, recreational and amateur players.
In recent months, star athletes ranging from LeBron James and Tom Brady to Kevin Durant and Patrick Mahomes have brought more high-profile attention to the sport by investing in professional pickleball teams. What began as a way to get in on a professional sport early has become one of the hottest sports investments with the ability to own a team in the low seven-figure range.
"When you look at the number of people that are now picking up a paddle and playing for the first time, it is inevitable that the investment market is going to look at that and say, this is something worth us investing in," said Webb.
Across the country, tennis courts and being replaced, and pickleball courts are moving in as other investors are shoring up big money. In Southern California, the Santa Monica Tennis Center just invested $250,000 in a new facility dedicated to pickleball. Outside of Sarasota, Florida, real estate developers have invested $180 million into a 15-court facility called The Pickleball Club. They expect to have 600 members.
The pickleball restaurant-entertainment model is also gaining steam. From Chicken N Pickle to Camp Pickle, entrepreneurs are hoping to capitalize on the craze. Food and entertainment industry veteran Robert Thompson says he plans to roll out at least 10 Camp Pickle facilities across the country in 2024.
Terri Graham, the co-founder of the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships, the largest event in the sport since 2016, says enthusiasm is at an all-time high.
Player applications are up 30% over last year and they've seen a 25% uptick in sponsorships with their leading sponsors Minto and Margaritaville, which both signed multiyear extensions at a 30% increase.
"Last year we established a new record for attendance at a pickleball tournament with more than 35,000 spectators — 10,000 more than we estimated. And from the early demand for tickets, "The Biggest Pickleball Party in the World," will be even bigger in 2023." She says when tickets go on sale later this month, she expects they will sell out within 48 hours.
Life Time founder and CEO Bahram Akradi is a pickleball player himself and it led to him getting in on the craze early. The upscale fitness center, described as an athletic country club, has deployed the equivalent of half a billion dollars of assets into pickleball at 120 of its more than 160 locations to date.
Since 2022, Life Time has constructed indoor and outdoor pickleball courts at a rate of five new permanent courts each week. It now has 400 courts across their clubs, with the goal of exceeding 600-700 by the end of 2023. Members are offered lessons, social play and even competitive leagues and tournaments.
"Pickleball participation [at Life Time] in a given month has risen from about 16,000 people to like 160,000. So, it's almost tenfold January to December," Akradi tells CNBC.
Major League Pickleball and the Professional Pickleball Association took notice and they have partnered with Life Time to host multiple tournaments across the country this year.
Equipment makers are also benefiting. Selkirk Sport, one of the top paddle makers in the sport, has grown from a family-owned business in Idaho to selling gear across the country at big-box stores at major chains.
The company's business with retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Costco and Walmart is growing at more than 100% year over year, Selkirk co-CEO Rob Barnes told CNBC.
Pickleball, a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong, was first created in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, by three fathers looking to give their bored children a new activity by using a hodgepodge of other sports as inspiration.
The sport saw some success among boomers in more recent years. The Villages in Florida now features more than 220 pickleball courts.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and the sport saw an unexpected boom. As the coronavirus prevented people from playing traditional team sports, people flocked to the paddle sport as a socially distant way to be outdoors and stay active.
Experts also pin the rapid popularity of the sport to a few other factors — the ease of play, the low cost of entry and sociability. Pickleball can be learned in a just a few lessons, and players can find tournaments at varying competitive level.
The cost of entry is also more affordable than sports like tennis or golf. You don't need a fancy country club membership, and a good paddle can be found between $100 and $200.
Pickleball is also incredibly social and provides an outlet for many to make new friends of all ages. While boomers dominate the sport, younger players are increasingly taking to the court.
There is some concern that pickleball is growing too fast.
Sports Illustrated outlined many of the problems of the rapid rise in May of 2022, including too many leagues, battling billionaires and bad behavior. Since that article was published, the two competing leagues have merged, and other changes have been made.
There are still widespread noise complaints, leading some to even take legal action regarding the "pop, pop" sound that a pickleball ball makes when making contact with a paddle. The unique noise is driving many neighbors crazy and even dividing towns. But slowly these things are being worked out and attributed to normal growing pains.
Webb said he believes the sport is just getting started and is not a fad since people are returning to the sport and playing regularly after picking up a paddle for the first time.
He also pointed to the expanding coverage of the sport from major TV networks and the fact it is being considered as a possible event at a future Olympics.
"I think it's inevitable that it will reach a certain number and growth trajectory will start to flatten out," Webb said. "But who knows what that number could be. I don't think we've gotten close to it yet."