Some sports just suddenly seem to harness the enthusiasm of the public. Rock climbing was one. Mud races were another.
Now, the buzz is all about pickleball. And it’s not letting up, so event planners should brace themselves.
The paddle sport with the funny name, the one that is growing at a faster pace than any other, is holding its inaugural national championship. The first-ever US OPEN Pickleball Championships will take place in Naples, Florida, April 26-May 1, 2016. And the only two words for the sports business industry are this: Get ready.
"It was incredible,” said Terri Graham, whose company, Spirit Promotions, is producing the U.S Open. “Before we even opened our registration portal, we had more than 600 people expressing interest, in one week.”
It’s going to behoove sports planners to acquaint themselves with pickleball. Those who aren't familiar with the sport can learn about it easily. It is played like a racquet sport: on a court the same size as a badminton court, with a lower net, special regulation pickleball paddles and a ball similar to a whiffle ball. It is played in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. A winning score is 11 and a player needs to win by at least two points.
The sport is way easier to learn than it sounds, and way more fun to play than most first-timers can imagine. And for both those reasons, it’s growing explosively.
Pickleball is a sport filled with what might jokingly be called evangelists. Graham says the sport’s accessibility is part of its charm, and its main selling point.
"You can walk up to any place in the country where pickleball is being played. You can show up without a paddle, without a ball, without any equipment and I guarantee you someone is going to come over and hand you a paddle and say, ‘Here, come on and try this.’ And you’ll get hooked.”
And that’s not just a platitude. At Palmetto Dunes, tennis pro John Kerr has been offering a pickleball clinic on a regular basis and says the demand is such that he is ready convert a few more of his tennis courts for use as pickleball facilities, rather than turning away players.
“We’ve had a very good turnout for our clinics,” he notes. “And we’ve had success with people who are also tennis players.”
And it’s not just resorts. Pickleball is going in everywhere – in parks, on cruise ships and in private courts. It is wildly popular with the 50-and-up crowd; in fact, it was recently added to the National Senior Games, and state qualifying games have seen over-the-top participation, as well as exponential growth.
"Pickleball was added to the National Senior Games in 2013," noted Sue Hlavacek of NSGA. "We had 362 players in 2013 and 652 in 2015."
The numbers speak for themselves. The Desert Health News estimates that between 40-50,000 people worldwide are currently infected with what is laughingly called ‘pickleball fever.’ And that number continues to grow.
Why? Easy. It uses the same skills as tennis, making it appealing to individuals who were enthusiasts of that sport (as well of sports like racquetball and squash), but whose joints have suffered from years of bounding across a court. And since baby boomers are one of the top forces driving the sports event market, it’s easy to see who’s spending the money to travel to these tournaments.
It’s gotten to the point that nobody can shrug off the sport, silly name and all. Even the USTA is running scared, according to interviews. That's something Terri Graham finds almost laughable, since in her view, having a sport older tennis players can turn to is far more beneficial than simply writing them off because of their inability to continue playing.
Chuck Vietmeier of Gamma Sports adds that a new sport is only a boon for the sporting goods industry as a whole, and for brick-and-mortar stores as well as online outlets. “This is an additional revenue stream for a tennis pro shop,” he notes. "We just started shipping paddles this July. It’s growing at a really rapid pace.”
And when it comes to event directors, the potential for economic impact is almost limitless.
In a 2014 interview, Maloof stated that USAPA measured the growth of the sport according to the addition of what it called ‘places to play,’ which included not only designated pickleball facilities (which are growing in number) but tennis, badminton or other courts that were being used for pickleball – in addition to lines painted on playgrounds or gymnasium floors, as well as rec centers nationwide. At the time, the USAPA was recording upwards of 44 new places to play per month. (Let that sink in for a minute: only a few less than 50 new places to play per month, something no other sport can boast.) That number has only increased since then; in fact, the US Open of Pickleball bears that out. Over one thousand athletes will compete for top prize money, while thousands of spectators fill the hospitality village.
The premier six-day tournament will feature a unique Zing Zang Championship Court, special Gold Box seating, event parties, live entertainment, charitable fundraising activities and more. In fact, the US Open Staff will transform East Naples Community Park into the ultimate pickleball experience, with 46 courts surrounding the Zing Zang Championship Court. That court is designed to seat over 700 spectators, with exclusive Gold Boxes around its perimeter, with Patron seating on one side of the court and general admission bleachers on the other. There is also a Kids Day on Tuesday, April 26, in which 200-plus school children will learn to play pickleball. Those who want information on the event can go to the US Open website.
Of course, that isn’t to say there haven’t been obstacles to growth. According to an article in Athletic Business, despite the easy startup and the readily apparent fan base, pickleball programming is not without its obstacles. The Rockford, Illinois, Park District's plan to install pickleball courts was met with resistance from the very beginning. Dubbed the "Great Pickleball War of 2010," recreational tennis players rallied against the park district's plan to convert two tennis courts at two of its parks into pickleball courts, ultimately convincing the district to install the new courts in a third, bipartisan park.
So where does it all end up – the over-50- sport with the exponential growth? Probably where it starts: with sports planners who are ready and willing to harness that energy. Want to? Here are key points to remember:
The over-50 market (the one driving pickleball’s growth) has the most disposable income: Remember this, since they are making some key decisions regarding spending on sports events.
That market (the one we just mentioned) loves to travel: In fact, they regard travel as a necessity, rather than a luxury, and they’re willing to drop dollars in exchange for getting the best experience, which might include a nice hotel room, a good meal or a great viewing suite during a sports event.
Nobody wants to tell this market to slow down: They won’t do it. In fact, USTA has 55 and over, and 65 and over divisions. So does USA Racquetball. So do many other sports.
“We’re just at the beginning stages of developing a pro tour,” says Graham. “I feel like saying, ‘If you blink, you’re going to miss a lot of stuff. In the next 12 months, you’re going to see huge changes in the sport. It’s going to change the game itself, and the economy around it.”