Pickleball picks up popularity, pros and business opportunities

Pickleball, the sport with the funny name, has been the fastest-growing sport in the US over the past two years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. It’s now the official sport of the state of Washington, where the game was invented. What started as a summer pastime is taking on the trappings of a multifaceted commercial enterprise.

Pickleball’s origin story dates to 1965, when three fathers on Bainbridge Island, Washington, invented a new racket sport to occupy their teenagers. They combined the gear they had on hand: a wiffle ball, pingpong paddles and a lowered badminton net. Decades later, it’s grown into a sport with two competing tournament tours, network TV coverage and enough moneymaking opportunities to support hundreds of professionals.

Interest in the sport is so strong that top-ranked player Tyson McGuffin, 32, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, can parlay his success into a personal brand, which appears on a clothing line, a series of training camps, a podcast, a $75 insulated water bottle and — of course — a signature paddle made by gear sponsor Selkirk.

Tracie Dejager, a mother in Lake Oswego, Oregon, said she has made the transition from working in real estate to a career as a pickleball pro.

“I’ve always had the idea, do what you love and the money will come,” Dejager said.

Now, that’s possible for her. Money comes from tournament winnings, plus a gear sponsorship. There’s high demand for lessons, training camps and instructional videos.

“Just over the last couple years, it has really grown drastically,” Dejager said courtside after teaching a clinic for advanced intermediate players from the Portland area.

“If we want to get involved and make a living out of it, now is the time because it’s mind-boggling how many people are now playing pickleball,” Dejager said. “Ten years ago, five years ago even, I could say, ‘I play pickleball,’ [and the response was] ‘You do what?’”

Dejager teaches at a brand-new indoor pickleball center in suburban Clackamas, outside Portland. It’s named RECS — short for Recreate, Exercise, Compete, Socialize. The nine rubber-cushioned pickleball courts replaced an indoor soccer business.

“Soccer players, those are folks, kids or adults, who are working during the day. With pickleball, you have a lot of active retirees, and they are looking to play during the day,” said Kevin Richards, the co-owner and manager of RECS. “It changes the business model when you’re not just busy at night and on weekends. Now you’re busy 16 hours a day, potentially.”

Richards said people of all ages took up pickleball during the pandemic.

“Because you are physically distanced from others you’re playing with, and you can play it outdoors,” Richards explained. “A lot of people who started coming here and discovered this place have said, ‘I started playing during COVID times, and I can’t get enough.’”

Pickleball enthusiasts practice and take classes
Pickleball enthusiasts practice and take classes at a new indoor complex in Clackamas, Oregon, that draws players from a wide area.

Businesses like Richards’ are popping up all around the nation. A startup named Volli Entertainment aims to cash in on the “eatertainment” concept with a combination of indoor pickleball courts and sports bars. It’s beginning with outlets in Bellingham and Marysville, Washington, and suburban Fort Worth, Texas, slated to open this year.

Pickleball has matured to the point that it can justify having a shrine to its luminaries. A Pickleball Hall of Fame is slated to open next year in Texas on the premises of the Austin Pickle Ranch, another private club now under construction with 33 courts (about half of which are covered), a music stage and beach volleyball courts.

Pickleball Hall of Fame inductee Steve Paranto said he was very excited to see Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sign legislation on March 28 to designate pickleball as the state’s official sport.

“It makes perfect sense, the sport was invented there,” Paranto said. “But if you would have said this to me in 1974 … oh, pshaw. There’s only 40 of us playing and we know how great it is, but everybody else thinks we’re crazy that we’re addicted to this little game.”

Paranto, who played with the game’s founders during his youth in the Seattle area, was inducted into the hall of fame for his contributions to the sport over nearly 50 years. Among other things, he helped his dad invent the first composite paddle in 1984 using surplus material from the Boeing jet assembly line.

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