Steve Kennedy heard it before he saw it. Was it a “dink”? A “plink”? Or maybe a “thwok”?
The longtime tennis instructor and South Florida native had dropped off his son at soccer practice and meandered to neighboring courts, where a group of players were hitting a plastic ball with what looked like oversized ping pong paddles.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Steve says. “These people were playing this silly game. I fell in love with the game that night, and I probably played every night for the next nine months.”
That was nearly a decade ago, and it was the beginning of an unlikely journey for Steve, who quit his job teaching tennis to start the South Florida Pickleball Academy in Davie.
“I remember my wife saying, ‘You’re not quitting your tennis job,’” Steve recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ and she asked how would we pay our bills. I told her that we’d be OK, and it’s worked out better than OK for me.”
As a player, Steve won a 2017 National Championship, and Tournament of Champions and Texas Open championships in 2018. He is among the top-ranked seniors in the country and a member of Team Engage, sponsored by Engage Sporting, a paddle and equipment maker.
The sport traces its beginnings to 1965 on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington when three dads—Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum—devised a new way to entertain their families.
Initially, the sport attracted an older group of players with both time and disposable income to dedicate to the game. But the mix of players is changing, and the most passionate travel for clinics, lessons, tournaments and all things pickleball. It’s big business.
In the past few years, pickleball has exploded in popularity across the United States at every level—from grassroots weekend players to professionals with ever-increasing exposure and paychecks.
According to a report published by the Association of Pickleball Professionals, the once-niche sport attracted 36.5 million players in 2022.
The report states pickleball has grown an average of 11.5% annually the past five years, and that brisk growth is expected to continue. While the sport initially attracted seniors and tapped into a market of 40-somethings and older, the association found people between the ages of 18 and 34 are the largest demographic, comprising nearly 29% of all players.
Rival professional tours—the Professional Pickleball Association and the Association of Pickleball Professionals—are involved in a bidding war for the game’s top pros.
Major League Pickleball is the sport’s take on professional team tennis. It has two dozen teams, including the Orlando Squeeze, Atlanta Bouncers, Miami Pickleball Club and the Brooklyn Aces. Ownership groups include the likes of NBA star Kevin Durant, musician Joe Bonamassa, Super Bowl quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and actress and model Kate Upton. Major League Pickleball’s total 2023 purse has expanded to $5 million.
The number of dedicated pickleball courts has also grown dramatically. There are now more than 10,300 in the United States, as the demand for courts and court time continues to increase. A growing number of pickleball clubs are working with local governments to build public courts.
Entrepreneurs have created private clubs with indoor-outdoor facilities, such as Pickleball Zone in Bend, Oregon.
Private clubs sell memberships and lease court time. The Villages, a large retirement community of more than 80,000 people about 50 miles from Orlando and the self-proclaimed “pickleball mecca,” boasts more than 220 pickleball courts.
Nationally, there still aren’t enough courts to keep up with demand for what the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has identified as the “fastest-growing sport in America.”
Big Dills, er, Deals
At 68, Denny Honer has embarked on a second career as the owner of Performance Pickleball Emerald Coast in Destin, Florida. He teaches the game to the growing membership of the nearby Tallahassee Pickleball Association and a bevy of other players along the Florida-Alabama Gulf Coast.
Performance Pickleball offers an indoor court and lessons taught by Denny, a one-time racquetball player who transitioned to pickleball. He taught friends and his wife, Sandi, how to play for free. All those teaching hours and free clinics evolved into a business that now uses technology and training techniques to teach the game and improve hand-eye coordination and other skills pickleball players need.
“We just started incorporating more and more into the business and really looking into teaching,” Denny says. “We went and got our certifications and things of that sort, so it just became a business for us. Then, we started doing some tournaments and learned how to run the tournament software.”
The tournaments include May’s Hub City Pickleball Derby in Crestview, Florida, which benefits Healing Hoof Steps Equine Assisted Programs and the Crestview High School tennis team. It offers a prize for the top derby-styled hat, as competition meets whimsy.
Denny says players travel and stay in town overnight.
“They will enjoy the town, and then come play in the pickleball tournament,” he says. “A lot of the tournaments have become regional as much as they’re local.”
In South Florida, Steve welcomed 48 paying pickleball campers to town for 15 hours of lessons, sport and camaraderie at his South Florida Pickleball Academy.
“Typically, at my camps, the demographics are going to be ages 55-plus,” he says. “A lot of them will fly in, and with their hotel, it ends up being $1,500 for the weekend.”
Across the country in the Pacific Northwest, Werner Zehnder, like Denny, put off retirement to dive into the pickleball business.
After working with Bend Pickleball Club and local governments to create more pickleball courts, Werner and business partner Butch Roberts opened Pickleball Zone in Bend, Oregon. The facility features eight indoor courts, a pro shop and a players’ lounge big enough for 75 people. There is a wait list for memberships.
Pickleball Zone offers weekly clinics for new players. They usually are filled with a dozen players each.
“If six of those continue to play, after a year that’s 300 new players,” Werner says. “And they tell their friends about this fun game they’re playing.”
Werner’s passion for the sport is shared by members of the nearby La Pine Pickleball Club. The club had to get permission from the local government to convert part of a recreation center parking area into pickleball courts and then find a way to pay for it. Members took out a loan to pay for the construction of eight outdoor courts.
That private-public partnership is a model La Pine club member Mike Patzer says pickleball clubs across the country should seek.
“It’s something local clubs can explore because there just aren’t enough places to play,” he says.
Like tennis, pickleball has a rating system with 2.0 players ranked as beginners and 5.0 and higher deemed professional level. Most players are between 3.0 and 4.0, but Mike says the social aspect of the game and its easy learning curve have helped it grow exponentially.
“Tennis and racquetball have longer learning curves and they cause much more stress on your body,” he says. “Pickleball is easier on the body, and the rules are simple. You can really be playing in one day.”
The Right Pickleball Stuff
PickleballCentral.com bills itself as the “pickleball superstore,” but Werner calls it the “Amazon of pickleball” that sells equipment for the game internationally.
John Cowley, the category merchandising manager for paddles at PickleballCentral.com, attests to the growth of the business side of the sport.
“As the game matures and as our audience grows, people are demanding more from their equipment than they did before,” he says.
At the crux of it all are the people who are involved in the sport and worked to grow it from the grassroots level as USA Pickleball ambassadors and members of their local clubs.
“There’s just story after story about how pickleball brought them out, taught them how to laugh again, allowed them to be amongst people again, and really be social and enjoy it,” John says. “When I go out with a pickleball shirt on, somebody’s going to tell me a story about how pickleball has affected and helped them or someone they know. That’s the real beauty of what this game has done.”
Pickleball creates social ties
When Cheryl and Mike Patzer moved to Oregon, they chose La Pine as a place to settle into retirement. They picked the central Oregon area for its stunning beauty and abundance of outdoor activities. But for all the advantages, Cheryl had a few concerns.
“I wondered, ‘Who am I going to meet? Where am I going to make any friends?’” Cheryl says. “Then, we started playing pickleball. Now, almost all of my friends are pickleball players.”
Cheryl is the membership coordinator of La Pine Pickleball Club, which doubled in size—from 100 to 200 members—in the past year. Some come for the sport and find new friends. Others come for friends and join in on the sport. Either way, it works.
“It’s just fun,” Cheryl says. “With a smaller court, you can talk to your partner and across the net with your opponents. We’ve made so many nice friends. As a retiree, the socialization of it is just wonderful.”
Across the country, Laurie Sherrod handles communications for Death Valley Pickleball Gang in Clemson, South Carolina. The group is named after the nickname for Clemson University’s football stadium.
Like Cheryl, Laurie says most of her friends are pickleball players. The pandemic slowed the club’s social activities, but some members started to go out dancing. A portion of the group had a Christmas luncheon.
“In between games we sit and talk, and we talk on the court,” Laurie says. “Everybody knows everyone’s children and grandchildren. We share our problems and successes. Maybe it’s the smaller court, but I played tennis for 50 years, and in pickleball we seem to talk and joke more and get to know each other better.”
She says the gang, which has around 300 on the email list she manages, has become an interesting mix of people who might otherwise not cross paths. The number of pickleball players at the university has also grown. Laurie says about 500 students regularly play and share courts with the older players.
“Sometimes the students and some of our retirees end up meeting at the courts,” Laurie says. “We meet and get to know them that way.”
Like La Pine Pickleball Club, Death Valley Pickleball Gang includes families and younger players.
“It’s almost like the tennis mentality was when I was younger,” Laurie says. “We want to share with people the wonderful sport that we love so much.”