Memo: The Pickleball Report

Fad, phenomenon, or something else?

It isn’t physically demanding but it’s challenging, it’s social, it’s fun, it’s becoming more and more accessible, and it’s America’s latest craze. Some would say it was accelerated by a pandemic-era need to get outside, and others say that it was time for the best-kept secret in sports to earn its place in American life.

Pickleball is all about the dink, a controlled shot where the the player hits the ball into the Non-Volley Zone (or kitchen) on the opponent’s end of the court. DINK, or “dual income, no kids”, is also a key acronym for a large demographic that happens to be drawn to the burgeoning sport. They’re in their late 20s or early 30s and, “They’ve stuffed their habitat with every toy an upwardly mobile adult could want — from the latest virtual reality headset to the hottest newfangled exercise machine. Their snack cupboards are full to the brim, thanks to splurging on the latest superfoods.” Pickleball, a luxury-adjacent lifestyle sport that is going mainstream, owes some of its rise in popularity to this group. But true fans of the sport know its history.

Pickleball’s inception in 1965 was an answer to summer boredom, a remedy of an invention by three dads on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington. One origin story is thanks to Joan Sutton, the wife of late state legislator Joel Pritchard.

A competitive rower, she felt the style of the game and the tools used were like a “pickle boat,” a motley crew of leftover rowers that “no one wanted on their team,” put together at random to compete in races. The sport was for leftovers. But over the decades, the game has evolved from homemade equipment and rules into a proper sport surging in popularity across North America and globally. According to DAO Insights:

Lifestyle-sharing app Xiaohongshu has seen an influx of Pickleball related posts since April, with total views for #pickleball climbing up to 2.5 million as of May 31. Sports and fashion influencers have been clambering to snap pictures at the pickleball court in carefully curated athleisure looks, pickleball racket in hand.

The pastime’s name, with its disputed origin stories, is as intriguing as its meteoric rise. However, its relevance transcends a mere fad; it is significantly impacting retail, urban development, and service-based industries like orthopedic care. This industry is set to become the biggest beneficiary of the sport’s boom in interest. Its relative ease of play attracts any and all but sometimes that may lead to a de-conditioned participant’s overzealous burst of Al Bundian athleticism. According to CBS News:

The explosive growth of the racquet sport in recent years is contributing to higher injury rates and health care costs, particularly among seniors, according to analysts at UBS. They estimate in a report that injuries related to pickleball could cost Americans between $250 million and $500 million in medical costs this year, mostly related to wrist and leg sprains and fractures.

But brand adoption of pickleball culture may be the biggest story; customer acquisition methods often reflect the popularization of new social media channels, rarely do we see a leisure activity’s growth become a strategy for brands.

When Beyond Yoga launched its Country Club collection in May, pickleball was one of the activities it used to market the collection. Teaming with Olivia Culpo (5.3 million followers on Instagram), it hosted a Beyond Yoga Country Club event, for which influencers received a branded Tangerine pickleball tote as their invitation. The totes came with Beyond Yoga pickleball outfits inside.

Understanding pickleball’s growth requires a dual perspective: its cultural and physical accessibility, coupled with the recent shifts in consumer behavior and retail landscape. By blending elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, pickleball presents as a user-friendly sport that caters to a broad age range. The learning curve is less steep compared to other racquet sports, making it appealing to novices and veterans alike. The moderate intensity of the game offers a fun yet effective workout, attracting fitness enthusiasts who are veering towards experience-based physical activities. There are social groups, leagues, and country club organizations built around the sport. The one local to our Columbus, Ohio suburb has its own commissioner. Mike was not available for comment.

It’s no coincidence that the COVID pandemic has significantly accelerated the sport’s growth beyond its west coast origins. Socially starved consumers were eagerly turning towards interactive, recreational activities, and pickleball fit the bill perfectly. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports an astonishing 159% growth over three years, reaching 8.9 million players in 2022. This growth, combined with the permanent closure of some retail stores and temporary closures of many indoor amusements, retail locales, and social events due to the pandemic, led to a win-win situation for the pickleball industry.

Shuttered stores at local malls are now making way for pickleball courts, replacing previous tenants like Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy, and Saks Off 5th. Facilities like Pickleball America and the well-designed and aspirational retail project “Camp Pickle,” for example, are opening up in vacant retail spaces, offering players a new place to enjoy their sport while simultaneously revitalizing previously unused spaces. While this may appear unusual, it presents benefits for both mall owners and pickleball players. For the malls, they fill vacant spaces and draw customers beyond traditional retail, aligning with the current experiential retailing trend. For pickleball enthusiasts, these repurposed spaces provide ample room for courts, addressing a need for play areas amidst the sport’s rapid growth.

This trend is not limited to malls; homeowners, too, are repurposing their spaces. The closing of swimming pools in favor of pickleball courts symbolizes a shift in preferences for outdoor leisure and fitness activities. With home-based courts, pickleball gains further traction as a social and recreational staple for families and social gatherings.

Moreover, pickleball’s spread across different demographics, from retirees to those under 24, highlights its wide appeal. Not only is it a legitimate sport, but its inclusivity also suggests that the infrastructure developed to accommodate this growth is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.

However, there are notable downsides to the sport’s rise in interest. The rampant expansion of the sport’s infrastructure mirrors the overbuilding of shopping centers, enclosed malls, and roads at the cost of valuable green space. This infrastructure development cycle is concerning and presents a challenge to urban planning and environmental conservation. We must strive for a balance that maintains the sport’s accessibility and growth without compromising precious natural resources.

Nevertheless, pickleball is a significant catalyst for reshaping retail, urban development, and the service sector. By attracting a diverse player base and filling gaps left by struggling traditional retail, pickleball has become a unique solution to several contemporary challenges. While it’s important to recognize potential environmental impacts, the sport’s positive economic and societal implications cannot be ignored. As pickleball continues to serve up benefits for retailers, urban developers, and consumers alike, we can look forward to seeing how this fascinating trend will shape the future. Per WWD:

The market for athletic skirts and dresses increased a combined 24 percent in the past 12 months compared to the prior year, and sales have more than doubled since 2019. Sales for tennis-inspired sneakers, which have the performance-based heritage of a tennis shoe but are intended for everyday wear, increased by 9 percent in the past 12 months, compared to the previous year.

In today’s age of eCommerce and online retail, it’s interesting to observe that a sport, specifically pickleball, is helping to revive dying brick-and-mortar establishments like malls.

Research suggests that playing pickleball provides a moderate-intensity workout, improving cardiovascular fitness and burning a significant number of calories. In addition, the sport requires agility and coordination, promoting neuromuscular development. Pickleball is not just an enjoyable pastime; it is a legitimate method of outdoor leisure and fitness, contributing positively to public health. It all seems too good to be true:

  • an answer to shuttered retail square footage
  • an opportunity for retail brands to efficiently reach customers
  • a “gateway drug” to many who may be interested in more difficult racquet sports
  • a new fitness movement, influencing more Americans to get active

Urban development often comes at the expense of natural environments, with potential negative impacts on local biodiversity and community wellbeing. However, in the case of pickleball, the transformation of already developed spaces like malls into sports facilities may help mitigate these effects, providing a model for sustainable urban development. Let’s hope that the focus remains on the latter strategy and not the former. In a small survey to my business school alumni group, I posed the question: is pickleball a fad or phenomenon? At the time of publishing: seventy-one percent replied with “fad” and 29% responded with “phenomenon.” Some unsolicited responses included:

  • “Although, pickleball is fun to play, it’s noisy and loud.”
  • “As population ages, pickleball is going to gain more adoption and is here to stay.”
  • “A fast rise is usually followed by a hard fall…”
  • “It is a sport that can be play by everybody of all ages at the same time. One neighbour told me according to him, that is the only sport that he can play with his grandkids and sons and feel that all can compete at a similar level.”

Just as the shopping mall was once a fad that changed the landscape of retail and urban development, pickleball is emerging as a new trend with significant influence over these sectors. Therefore, while it can be categorized as a fad, it is also a force for urban regeneration, community engagement, and public health improvement.

There are growing pains to address: “too much too fast” popularity, complaints and resultant city noise ordinances, and a resistance to the belief that pickleball could have staying power.

Our first two expansion team meetings were with the LeBron group and the Kevin Durant group. They’re passionate about pickleball, passionate about pickleball.

These sentences would have been hard to imagine just four years ago. As we move forward, it is critical to carefully manage the growth of pickleball, ensuring it benefits communities without compromising their environmental integrity. Furthermore, the sport serves as a reminder that even the most unexpected trends can have significant impacts on various facets of society and economy. I remain skeptical that the sport’s impact can maintain the relevance that it has earned today. But regardless, impactful things have already happened thanks to Pritchard’s 1960s gaming invention and Joan Sutton’s clever naming of her husband’s backyard game that became an international revolution – whether temporarily or not.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams

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