In a Pickle

Photo: Courtesy of Champion Sports

Now considered the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., pickleball accrued 4.8 million players last year, soaring 14.8 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the 2022 SFIA Topline Participation Report. However, Dan Santorum, CEO of the Professional Pickleball Registry (PPR) and the Professional Tennis Registry (PTR), believes the actual number of players has been under-reported and is actually closer to six million participants.

“Racquet sports are hot right now and by the end of the decade many people predict that pickleball will be the largest participation sport [in the racquets category], growing at 30 percent annually,” Santorum says. “Pickleball will be a high school sport and a college club sport before the end of the decade and possibly an NCAA women’s or co-ed sport. 

“We’re seeing more and more leagues starting and this trend will only get bigger and will help grow the sport and the demand for lessons,” he adds. “For team dealers, pickleball hasn’t reached a tipping point yet and it’s not too late to get involved. We’re bullish on the future.”

Sonny Tannan, a PPR clinician and certified professional, concurs. 

“Historically, pickleball was a sport played mostly by people ages 50 and over, but now much more attention is being focused on players of college age and younger. The sport’s expansion is mostly due to a combination of growth in schools as well as the increasing popularity of youth programs and adult rec leagues,” he explains. 

“From a business aspect, there is value in adding pickleball to the team sports portfolio. It’s a fast-moving industry right now and it’s important to get people engaged in the sport.” He suggests that team dealers work with local assets such as schools, coaches, PTAs and booster clubs to help drive sales.

Gearing Up for the Rush

From the manufacturers’ perspective, pickleball is the gift that is expected to keep giving for many seasons to come. For team specialists such as Champion Sports, the game’s broad appeal, low learning curve and rapidly expanding participation among schools, municipalities, leagues, rec programs, camps and the like have huge growth potential. In fact, the company launched Rhino Pickleball by Champion Sports in 2018 and made its first foray into the DTC pickleball market in 2020. 

“In the past two years, whenever we’ve exhibited at shows and other industry events, our Rhino Pickleball products are the number one-touched products that we set out on display,” says Zach Meller, EVP and chief strategy officer at Champion Sports. “It’s been an interesting progression. At first, pickleball was only familiar to dealers located on the coasts where the sport was being played. As the game eventually spread to the Midwest and then to other parts of the country, enthusiasm rose and dealers started to become interested. There’s a shift taking place now and as pickleball continues to grow across the U.S., there’ll be more demand for product.”

Meller reports that Rhino Pickleball has experienced massive growth. The brand primarily offers core products – paddles, balls, nets and court accessories – for the high-volume entry-level and recreational market. “We’ve built a nice network of dealers and we’re seeing tremendous growth there. Most of our pickleball sales and volume come from the team side of the business,” he says. “We want to tap into the value proposition of the products as well as the grassroots game. We’re creating additional touch points and establishing Rhino Pickleball awareness on both the dealer and the front-facing consumer levels.”

Because pickleball is a great way to stay in shape, the company decided to highlight the game’s health and fitness aspects by integrating its Rhino branded fitness line into Rhino Pickleball, with the intent of promoting fitness within the pickleball community. 

“We have lot of fitness products to help improve core and overall strength and improve flexibility and stability. It’s a value-add to the pickleball line,” explains Meller. “It will also help diversify the Rhino line and leverage what we already do. It’s about focusing on the fitness and wellness aspects of playing the sport, and we have the product to support that.” 

Meller believes there are huge growth prospects available for pickleball. “It’s a sport as well as an activity, so it attracts a broader range of participants and allows us and our dealer partners to tap into a larger market,” he says. “Our goal is to make dealers aware that there are opportunities in pickleball. We want to educate them about which products to carry and how to serve the market.”

Rob Barnes, co-founder and co-CEO of Hayden, ID-based Selkirk Sport, a pickleball-only, family-owned and operated company founded in 2014, is also bullish on all aspects of the sport, including the team market. 

Photo: Courtesy of Champion Sports
Getting Bigger in a Pickle

“The team category is a good-size part of our business, but it needs to be a lot bigger,” says Barnes. “We’re starting to deal with schools more and that’s partly what our Selkirk Growth Program is for — to target schools and help grow the sport. We’ll donate a certain number of paddles to a school and then they can buy additional ones at an extremely reduced rate.”

Although Selkirk does not currently work with many team dealers, instead servicing schools, teams and leagues directly, this could soon change. 

“We tend to work directly with the schools and leagues. We do deal with some team sellers and dealers, and it’s a category we definitely want to expand,” says Barnes. “I think that portion of the market will get much bigger. It’s a huge growth opportunity within the sport.”

He continues, “Schools are starting to see the health benefits of pickleball as well as the social benefits where kids are close and interacting with each other on the court. We see that side of things expanding very quickly, especially with easy-barrier product lines, which will hopefully make the sport a lot easier to learn and play.

“I think you’ll begin to see junior programs and team programs at schools really start increasing because of all the positive factors of the sport,” Barnes adds. “The team aspect has a lot of potential. It’s a category that hasn’t yet had a lot of time devoted to it, but we’re hoping to put more effort into it over the years and really grow that segment.”  

Barnes points out that most team customers are looking for entry-level products that are reliable, of good quality and have affordable price points. 

A Range of Product Price Points

In pickleball, unlike in tennis or even other sports, there are pretty wide deltas, he explains. “You have wood paddles, which are kind of crappy and heavy and are hard for kids. And then you go up to composite, but that’s almost three times the cost jump, from $10 for wood to $30 for composite.” 

Selkirk tries to subsidize some of those [team and school] programs by offering composite paddles at around $20. “One thing we’re also doing for team programs long-term is that we’re looking to develop a broad line of junior paddles. It’s one thing that’s really been lacking in the sport.”

Meanwhile, over at Carron Net, which produces high-quality nylon netting for volleyball, tennis, pickleball and a host of other sports, Russ Schirmer, director of sales, reports that demand for pickleball nets is exploding. 

“We’re selling more pickleball nets to team dealers now than ever before, including custom sizes. As the sport has become more established, it has come out with regulation size nets,” he says. 

“We’re seeing more pickleball now in high schools and rec centers,and we’re selling more pickleball nets all the time.” The company is also doing a brisk business with leagues and teams that want customized products such as imprinted nets, divider curtains for courts and even headbands.

Jeff Roth, co-founder of First Team Sports in Hutchinson, KS, a maker of residential and institutional sports equipment, is also eager for pickleball to stake a claim in the team business. “Right now, the majority of our pickleball sales have gone through court construction companies, dealers that sell tennis equipment and online retailers. 

“Are the traditional team dealers recognizing this opportunity? Pickleball is booming,” he says. “Dealers should be taking steps to get involved and not sit on the sidelines. A lot of new [court] construction is going on, and dealers can be a part of the business.”

Dealers Get in the Game

Admittedly, for some team dealers, pickleball is a non-starter. “We don’t carry pickleball and have no plans to add it. It’s just not in our world,” says one dealer who prefers to remain anonymous. But for many others, the sport is opening up new opportunities and revenue streams which will no doubt expand over time. 

“We’re selling a good amount of pickleball equipment and we have to restock about once a month,” reports Kim Karsh, owner of California Pro Sports in Harbor City, CA. “We’re seeing some growth in the pickleball category, particularly within the past year to year-and-a half, mostly for recreational adult leagues. It’s a slow increase, but it’s definitely making progress. There’s very little school business so far.” 

The products most in demand are hardgoods such as nets, balls, paddles and accessories, as well as sets comprised of two balls and two paddles. “Pickleball is definitely growing and is coming in waves for us,” says Karsh. “It’s not a big part of our business, but it’s something we’ll stick with.”

Likewise, Garretson’s Sport Center in Greeley, CO, has been involved in pickleball for the past seven or eight years and currently carries 15 paddle models as well as balls and nets. “We don’t have a lot of calls from schools yet, but I think it’ll gradually come along, especially high schools,” notes co-owner Zeke Garretson. “Pickleball would be great for PE programs and intramurals.”

The company currently does some league business, which is growing, and rec and club programs are also gaining popularity thanks to more court availability. “We’re not sure how pickleball will incorporate itself into the team sports business, but we do anticipate growth,” says Garretson.

In Idaho, Twin Falls-based Donnelley Sports sells a small amount of pickleball. “We’ve sold paddles, nets and balls for decades to PE classes and the sport is growing for sure,” says Pat Donnelley, president and co-owner. “We sell almost exclusively to schools.”

Of course, it also helps team dealers when their local communities have top-notch pickleball facilities and programs already in place. Such is the case for Cook’s Inc., situated in North Wilkesboro, NC. 

“The local government built eight pickleball courts in Cub Creek Park about two years ago and it’s become a hot sport in our area,” explains Phillip Greene, who handles inside team sales at Cook’s. “We’ve been in the team pickleball market for about two-and-a-half years and we’re seeing kids of all ages play, including middle school and high school kids.” 

He also points out that Cook’s is involved in local pickleball tournaments and helps promote the sport with T-shirts and other grassroots initiatives.

Greene notes that Cook’s entered the team pickleball category by selling portable nets for use on basketball courts and has since added men’s and women’s pickleball shoes, paddles, balls and accessories. “We work with schools and more of them are asking for temporary net systems for indoor play,” he says. 

“Pickleball is an old sport that was mostly played by seniors, but it’s had a rebirth in the past couple of years. It’s a great game for all ages. The team business will happen eventually and the way that pickleball is growing, we’ll soon see high school pickleball,” Greene predicts. “Pickleball is a growing sport and the sky’s the limit right now.”