Game On!

Photo: K-SWISS

Pickleball, billed as the fastest-growing sport in America and boasting nearly nine million participants in 2022, is ready to make some serious inroads into the team market. At the moment, team dealers that are involved in the category primarily serve school PE programs, rec programs and clubs – as well as a growing number of individual players – but many of those who have stuck their toes into the kitchen believe that it’s only a short matter of time before more schools and colleges start to add pickleball programs and intramural clubs as well as varsity teams.

“I see pickleball as being a sport in schools and the future is bright in that respect,” says Dan Santorum, CEO of the Professional Pickleball Registry (PPR) and Professional Tennis Registry (PTR). “We’re seeing it being taught in more schools. It could be a bigger sport than tennis in a year or two.”

Dink about it … A relatively new sport just may be larger than an established team sport within the next two school years!

Santorum notes that more people want to get certified as coaches. He also sees pickleball as a club sport opportunity in colleges — and eventually becoming an NCAA sport.

“Pickleball is definitely on the rise and good things are happening in schools. Leagues are growing, too,” he says.

For dealers that want to grow their pickleball business, Santorum advises: “Go to local clubs that don’t have pro shops, talk with athletic directors at schools and get pickleball into PE classes — and reach out to college pickleball clubs in your area.”

Photo: istock/ FatCamera

Ramping Up The Game

From the manufacturers’ point of view, pickleball is a goose that is expected to lay golden eggs for many years to come. For team specialists such as Champion Sports – which launched Rhino Pickleball by Champion Sports in 2018 and entered the DTC pickleball market in 2020 – the game’s broad appeal and explosive participation make being involved a no-brainer.

“The pickleball category 1000 percent has a place in the team market,” exclaims Zach Meller, EVP and chief strategy officer at Champion Sports. “The growth of the game has made it viable as a competitive, leisure and must-have for schools, camps and towns/municipalities.”

Meller reports that the company is seeing growth and more demand from team dealers in terms of broadening offerings from just paddles/balls/nets to court accessories, storage and pickleball-centric mobility and fitness products.

“Product assortment expansion is key,” he says, pointing out that pickleball was previously a three-product segment proposition and now there are dozens of accessorial opportunities ranging from on-court equipment and specialized storage for equipment to, of course, a growing apparel and footwear market. “It’s important to promote to organizations and customers of all types that you’re a one-stop shop that houses all their pickleball needs.”

Meller advises dealers to carry a range of product that covers recreational up to competition levels.

“The more needs you can fill for what has become a broad consumer base, the more likely you are to capture both market share and customer loyalty,” he says. For Champion Sports, the strength and backbone of the dealer form of this business has been entry-level paddles and sets, where they have seen a massive increase in schools, camps and municipal purchasing, and all at volume.

At Gared Performance Sports Systems, which produces pickleball equipment such as nets and posts, the outlook for the team portion of the pickleball market is bright.

“As the popularity of pickleball continues to increase, schools and other community organizations will begin organizing competition teams and rec leagues,” explains marketing manager Kara Oughton. “Along with the demand for uniforms will come a demand for the equipment as well and team dealers will want to capitalize on as many sales opportunities as possible by offering both clothing and hardgoods to end-users.”

Oughton notes that Gared regularly gets requests from team dealers for pickleball equipment and points out that to be involved in the category dealers need not inventory pickleball systems. “Small items like paddles and balls are great for stocking because they make great add-on sales and don’t take up a lot of room in storage areas. We can conveniently drop ship the systems directly to end-users after the team dealer places an order with us,” she explains.

For dealers already carrying pickleball, Oughton advises that a great way to sell even more to rec programs, clubs and towns/municipalities is to reach out to different local organizations and let them know that your business offers equipment for the sport.

“Maybe offer a table at an evening program to let players know they can come to you for equipment,” she suggests. “Prominent placement of products on your website or in stores will also attract customers. In addition, cost-effective advertising, such as social media ads, will help generate sales without breaking your marketing budget.”

For pickleball specialists such as Selkirk Sport, the team market is poised to expand at all levels.

“Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the USA with a trajectory that’s seeing it gain mainstream appeal for its great approachability to players of all ages and skill levels,” points out Rob Barnes, co-founder and co-CEO of Hayden, ID-based Selkirk Sport, a pickleball-only, family-owned and operated company founded in 2014. “The widespread adoption of the sport among cities and facilities points towards its potential as an excellent addition to high school, college, and recreational team markets.”

Barnes notes that Selkirk is seeing more interest and demand from team dealers. “As pickleball’s popularity continues to soar, we’ve observed a significant growth in interest across the board, especially from collegiate pickleball clubs and schools introducing the sport to the youth,” he says. “It’s a testament to pickleball’s rising popularity and also provides a great opportunity for add-on revenue for those in the sports retail sector.”

For team dealers in particular, Barnes advises, “first and foremost, align yourself with brands that are known for their quality and dedication to the sport, such as Selkirk. We’re the leading high-performance pickleball brand with our paddles proudly made in the USA and we’re the first manufacturer to offer a lifetime warranty.

“Additionally, invest time in understanding the game, its players and its equipment. This is more than a sport — it’s an obsession and it’s contagious.”

Barnes also suggests that dealers can leverage the Selkirk Sport Advocate Program as a model, which focuses on nurturing relationships with community influencers such as pickleball teachers, USAP ambassadors and advanced players who can serve as enthusiastic brand ambassadors.

“These individuals are trusted sources in their local communities. By collaborating closely with them, dealers can organize events, demos and training sessions to raise awareness and interest,” he says. “[Dealers] should tap into marketing initiatives that highlight the unique value propositions of pickleball and its products, showcasing how they can benefit rec programs, clubs and municipalities. It’s about fueling the pickleball obsession found inside every player and harnessing that energy to drive sales and community engagement.”

Photo: Selkirk

Dealers are Ready to Serve

Despite pickleball’s surging popularity, some dealers simply don’t have the interest, clientele or bandwidth to take it on. It’s a familiar story in a market that was at times slow to adopt to emerging sports in the past such as soccer and lacrosse. However, those that have entered the category see it as a positive, opening up opportunities and revenue streams that are destined to expand over time.

“We’ve been selling pickleball for close to 10 years. Although we don’t sell a ton of it, it’s getting bigger,” says Zeke Garretson, co-owner of Garretson’s Sport Center in Greeley, CO. “We started with PE classes in schools since pickleball can be played indoors in gyms. We do sell quite a lot to schools. About 50 percent of our pickleball business is selling to schools and PE programs, and 50 percent is retail.” He notes that Garretson’s sells balls, paddles, nets and accessories.

Harbor City, CA-based California Pro Sports is also active in the category and started selling it about seven years ago.

“Pickleball is a hot ticket retail product for us and we even have displays at the entrance to the store,” says Aaron Karsh, director of operations. “Our pickleball customers are mostly older, but that’s working its way down to players in their 20s and 30s.”

It also helps that California Pro Sports is located near multiple pickleball venues. “We have a couple of courts near the store, there are five courts at a nearby rec center and five to 15 courts in cities near us,” says Karsh, who reports that most of its growth is on the recreational side, where it sells pickleball primarily in-store to individual retail customers and they haven’t cracked the team uniform side yet. Key products include entry-level, mid-tier and advanced paddles, portable net systems, balls, bags and gym bags — but no court shoes yet.

“It’s interesting to see pickleball grow,” Karsh remarks. “High school tennis is a unique sport for us with lots of uniforms. One of the elementary schools by us put in 10 pickleball courts, so it’s a good opportunity to find new customers. Pickleball might start as an intramural sport or student organization – the sport has the right blend of athletic necessity and excitement – it’s competitive but also fun.”

Across the country at Holyoke Sporting Goods in Holyoke, MA, owner Betsy Frye notes that pickleball has been slowly catching on in her area.

“We’ve been involved for about two years, carrying balls and are getting some better paddles and most of the customers are individuals,” she says. “I think pickleball will grow. I’ve invested in better paddles and equipment and people are coming in and buying them. Now there needs to be some conversion of tennis courts to pickleball courts to help grow the game locally.”

For Hoosier Sporting Goods in Columbus, IN, owner Michael Bodart says pickleball is a fairly new category.

“There are an overwhelming number of manufacturers in pickleball. We’re geared more toward the rec side of the business rather than high-end product. We have a fairly large pickleball population here and we mostly serve clubs with team shirts, apparel and recreational equipment.”

He believes that his clientele will continue to get younger, depending on how local communities support pickleball with court availability. “Pickleball is getting more national coverage and that will trickle down and help our business and build popularity.

Curt Hauff, owner of Sioux City, SD-based Dakota Lettering, concurs. “We’ve been in the market for about a year and the sport isn’t yet into schools extensively. Pickleball is probably experiencing bigger growth in our area than our sales show, but the sport is definitely growing.”