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In the middle of winter, I decided to visit my parents in their suburban community outside of Disney World near Orlando, Florida. After years of visiting the famed theme park resort, my parents bought a house to enjoy their golden years in the company of Mickey Mouse and a nightly pageant of fireworks displays. Or, so I thought.
Upon arrival, my parents immediately whisked me to their new favorite attraction: the community pickleball court. Packed to the rafters, my parents jockeyed with other couples for a space at one of the courts that were booked “until next week.” We played for two hours, and my parents said they'd be more interested in this new sport than going to Disney World.
Pickleball has been dubbed the “fastest-growing sport in America” right now. Invented on Bainbridge Island in 1995, it is a novel paddle game — a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong.
Overnight, pickleball has gone from an obscure sport to a household name. There are now almost 5 million players in the U.S., and that number has nearly doubled over the last three years. There's even a newly formed Major League Pickleball entity that comprises 12 teams, and former NFL star Drew Brees recently bought a stake in one of the teams.
So what's behind this sport's rapid ascent?
It's quick to learn and can be played almost anywhere. Retirees love it because it's easy on the body. Young players can pick it up faster than tennis. And what is perhaps the most enticing part of the game: it's social. It's almost always played as doubles, with two players on each side volleying in close quarters. You can join an open play session, a popular round-robin format and get introduced to dozens of new partners in an afternoon.
This community aspect is what took the sport from a popular outdoor pandemic activity to the mainstream, with many calling for it to be added as an Olympic sport.
Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs are waking up to this unique market opportunity. Millions of dollars are pouring into the pickleball industry, and new startups are appearing by the week. Entrepreneurs are moving quickly into the space.
With millions of new players comes the need for paddles, balls and other gear. Pickleball Central, the largest pickleball retailer in the U.S., reports a 30% to 40% increase in unit sales year to date. Established players like Selkirk dominate the high-end market and is on track to sell more than a million paddles by the end of 2023. Meanwhile, budget brands like Franklin capture sales on Amazon, and new D2C brands are emerging in the mid-tier.
Take Cincinnati-based Nettie, an upstart brand selling retro-themed paddles and kits designed for beginners. Nettie has followed the classic D2C playbook with a well-designed ecommerce site, quality products, and acquisition through email and social media channels. They were just named by Men's Health as the Best New Brand in the pickleball space. As the sport continues to grow, this will be an exciting company to watch.
Media has become increasingly fragmented, paving the way for vertical-specific news sites. The Pickler is attempting just that for pickleball fanatics. Founded by competitive player Stacy Townsend in 2017, the Pickler has become a go-to resource for players of all levels.
The site has become a media powerhouse with strategy-related articles, videos, podcasts, tournament coverage and pickleball news. The Pickler was selected as the partner for USA Pickleball's video series, and their popular newsletter covers everything you can imagine – from tips and tricks to a nudist pickleball resort in Kissimmee, Florida. Its best-in-class content has grown the Pickler to over 75,000 subscribers and made it one of the most exciting media plays in the space.
Topgolf revolutionized the driving range by adding modern technology and high-end food and beverage. In 2021, they were acquired by Callaway for $2.6 billion. Around the country, companies like Chicken N Pickle are applying this same playbook to pickleball. Chicken N Pickle offers pickleball courts surrounded by a full bar and restaurant. The company has already opened six locations in five states, with more coming soon.
Like Topgolf, you can imagine Chicken N Pickle becoming a go-to destination for corporate events, introducing tens of thousands of new potential players to the sport.
Today, there's a glaring lack of technology in the pickleball space. There are few quality tools for finding courts, organizing leagues, booking lessons and scheduling open play sessions.
Strava built a unicorn with technology for runners. Pickleheads is one startup tackling this problem for pickleball players. Pickleheads has already launched a court finder and the team plans to release a suite of other useful features for players, instructors and facility managers.
Unique market opportunity
We're in the early innings of entrepreneurs building exciting companies to serve this rapidly growing sport. Pickleball is still only 25% the size of tennis despite being more accessible, social and easier to learn. Should pickleball grow to match — or even exceed — the size of the tennis market, there will be many success stories.
Will we see a pickleball unicorn? Only time will tell, but whether you're a restaurant owner or a software engineer, now is the time to build something new for pickleball players.