Sports Destination Management: Pickleball has been called ‘the fastest-growing sport in America’ by a number of sources. What kind of numbers are you seeing?
Justin Maloof: Participation is great. In 2015, the sport made it onto the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s report for the first time. As of 2016, there were 2.53 million participants in the U.S. alone. About 1.57 million characterized themselves as casual participants, playing one to seven times a year, but more than 903,000 played eight or more times a year, making them what we call our core participants.
SDM: What is the gender split?
Maloof: Among casual players, it was 63 percent male and 37 percent female; core participants were 73 percent male and 27 percent female.
SDM: Another really big thing happened this year: the publication of the first technical manual on how to build pickleball courts.
Maloof: Yes! It’s called Pickleball Courts: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, and we did it in conjunction with the American Sports Builders Association. It was much-needed for sure; every week, we were getting calls from people asking really specific questions about how to build courts, and we didn’t have information. The contractors were also always coming to us and asking, but all we had were the rules showing how big the courts should be and so on. Everyone else was just basically a recommendation. This book now addresses everything – the fence heights and whatnot. It was great working with ASBA because everyone is familiar with them and their books are regarded as the Bibles in the industry. It’s just great to have a publication with that much credibility.
SDM: Is the still most popular among the over-50 age group?
Maloof: Yes, predominantly, but we are starting to trend younger. About a year and a half ago, we surveyed our membership and maybe 69 percent was 60-plus. Now it’s 62 percent. The needle is trending lower.
SDM: Where is your annual championship held?
Maloof: The USAPA National Championships are held in November at the Palm Creek Golf & RV Resort in Casa Grande, Arizona. The 2017 USAPA National Championships are scheduled for November 4-12. We have a two-year agreement with them. We love the facility. It has 32 dedicated courts, with lights and a speaker system for each court. We had 858 paid players, and just under 800 people actually played a total of 2,088 matches.
SDM: You sanction tournaments nationwide. What do you look for when it comes to booking events?
Maloof: When we’re looking, we have to ensure not only a venue with the right number of courts but enough local support to run the tournament, so you really need local clubs. Our nationals uses over 500 volunteers. We also look for parking, and enough room for sponsors and vendors.
SDM: A lot has been said about this being a sport for the Baby Boomer crowd, but what is the youth interest like?
Maloof: We are very close to launching a USAPA juniors website with stories, features and a social media component. Our Juniors Committee is going through the website right now to make suggestions. At the nationals last year, we had a juniors meeting, or party, to share the vision The website is the building block. Our hope is to begin to generate more youth oriented content, not just for us but for Pickleball Magazine. We want the perception of the sport to be more than senior wellness.
SDM: What goals does USAPA have for the future?
Maloof: We have two areas of need: referee certification and coaching certification. We’re concentrating on referee certification first and foremost. The International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association, IPTPA, is currently offering pickleball coaching certification. We are certifying referees. At our nationals last year, we had a total of 157 referees. Of those, 23 were certified. We did have certified referees for all of the medal matches.
SDM: One ref per match?
Maloof: For each match at a sanctioned tournament, you need one ref at a medal match, plus four linesmen.
SDM: USAPA grows the game through what is known as its Ambassador program.
Maloof: Yes, that has been very successful. Our Ambassadors are listed on their website. Their job is to hold clinics and demos and help get people introduced to and interested in the sport. We look for people who really are enthusiastic and interested in pickleball.
SDM: What has membership been like?
Maloof: We closed the year at 16,793 members, and the growth was an increase of 541 new members per month or an increase of 325 percent. It was a really big year for us.
SDM: Why did you get so much growth?
Maloof: We had a couple things going on. We had a huge number of sanctioned tournaments and the launch of Pickleball Magazine. We think 2017 is going to be big too; yesterday, we passed 19,000 members.
We also spent last year converting and updating our database and software which completely automated our registration process. Up until we launched it, we were doing everything manually – even the online registration for tournaments. But we had reached capacity – overreached it, really, from a staff standpoint. This new system has fully automated the process. It’s great for players and members.
We have also been able to add membership upgrades – people can buy pullovers, hats, visors, hard copy subscriptions to the magazine – and they can do it all as they renew. We’re also offering what I think of as an AAA-style rewards program. There are discounts for rental cars, dining options and hotels all over the U.S. I actually used the test version recently when I was in Tucson and I saved $86 booking a hotel. I equate it to AAA, which I use because of the discounts. It really pays for itself. Also, it’s the nature of competitive players to be on the road for this or that; we want membership, and its benefits, to be a no-brainer with them.
We’re also having independent testing for paddles and balls, and that’s being carried out by an independent lab. That’s another advance we’ve made.