Image of Ben Johns, PPA Tour star, hits a backhand volley.
Pickleball Central has a sponsorship agreement with the Professional Pickleball Association Tour, which includes setting up retail venues at every tour stop. — Professional Pickleball Association

Why it matters:

  • An estimated 48.3 million Americans have played pickleball, a cross between ping-pong and tennis, at least once in the last 12 months, representing an increase of 35% in the last six months alone.
  • There are more than 10,000 places to play pickleball in the U.S., including both dedicated courts and other places to play, such as tennis courts with pickleball lines drawn.
  • Against that backdrop, brands from Subway to Walmart are monetizing the popularity of the game via sponsorships, promotional events, and merchandise, just as restaurant concepts like Chicken N Pickle commit to the sport.

Pickleball — often described as a cross between ping-pong and tennis — continues to grow in popularity among consumers, creating varied opportunities for businesses to leverage its growth.

These opportunities range from tie-ins such as recent promotions and sponsorships from Walmart, Subway, and online car-buying site Carvana, to long-term commitments to the sport from companies such as restaurant/activity venue Chicken N Pickle and online retailer Pickleball Central.

The Association of Pickleball Professionals recently estimated that 48.3 million adult Americans — nearly 19% of the total adult population — have played pickleball at least once in the past 12 months. This represents an increase of 35% in the last six months alone, according to the APP.

Although originally considered a sport favored by older players, the APP report shows that the game is growing in popularity among younger players. It found the average age of pickleball players is 34.8 years, “considerably younger than previously assumed,” the association said.

“The APP’s latest research proves that the rapid growth of pickleball continues unabated,” said Tom Webb, Chief Marketing Officer of APP. “Over the past few years, we have seen this sport spread at an unprecedented rate — from recreational play in driveways, schools, and clubs, to competitive leagues and tournaments, to the elite players at the professional level. That growth has brought a remarkable influx of players nationwide — they are younger, more diverse, and can be found in more places than anyone ever thought.”

Restaurant/event space combines food and pickleball fun

Kelli Alldredge, President of the pickleball-themed restaurant chain Chicken N Pickle, agreed that interest in the sport spans across demographics. She noted that the pandemic appeared to spur the interest of children and families in the sport.

“We had not sold out our junior camps until COVID hit,” said Alldredge, who said demand for the junior camps has remained strong ever since.

Founded in 2016, North Kansas City, Missouri-based Chicken N Pickle now has seven locations, with two more planned this year and at least four next year. The massive spaces, which average about 1.2 acres for the largest models, include up to 12 pickleball courts along with a scratch menu featuring grilled chicken and other entrees, sandwiches, salads and sides, and a full bar. In addition to pickleball, the restaurants offer a range of free games such as cornhole, life-sized Jenga and others.

“People are physically active, instead of just having food and drink,” said Alldredge, who noted that the company takes pride in minimizing people’s use of cell phones while on site. “We want people to come in, put the phone down, disconnect, and engage with the people they came with.”

Although many customers come just to eat or drink, or to watch sports on TV, pickleball is the main attraction, with court reservations filling up as quickly as they become available, Alldredge said.

The venues attract a diverse range of players, from regulars to first-time players, families, and corporate events.

“We truly have built a community,” said Alldredge.

In addition to Chicken N Pickle, another pickleball-themed restaurant/event concept called Camp Pickle is slated to open its first locations next year in in Alabama and Colorado.

[Read: 3 Quick-Service Restaurant Execs Share Top Trends to Drive Growth in 2023]

 Aerial view of the Overland Park location of Chicken N Pickle.
Pickleball-themed restaurant chain Chicken N Pickle has seven locations, offering pickleball courts, a full food and drink menu, and a range of free games. — Chicken N Pickle

From selling T-shirts to becoming a pickleball e-commerce giant

Another company that has tied its fortunes to the popularity of pickleball is online retailer Pickleball Central, based in Kent, Washington, not far from where pickleball was invented on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, in 1965.

Pickleball Central was founded in 2006 by an entrepreneurial husband-and-wife team who saw a need for pickleball products and started a small company initially selling pickleball T-shirts, said Karen Thomas, Director of Marketing and Communications. The company quickly expanded into offering pickleball paddles and other pickleball equipment, and eventually grew into what she said has become one of the world’s largest e-commerce pickleball company.

“The company has continued to grow by expanding the types of products we sell, manufacturing some of our own pickleball products, and [acquiring] other pickleball companies,” she said.

The market for pickleball clothing and apparel alone is forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 11.8% from 2022 to 2026, according to research firm Technavio, representing incremental growth of $680.3 million. The market for pickleball paddles, meanwhile, is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 7.7% from 2022 to 2028, reaching $256.1 million, according to Market Reports World.

Pickleball Central has a wholesale division that sells products to other pickleball retailers, but garners most of its sales through its direct-to-consumer website, Amazon, and other third-party marketplaces, Thomas said.

As pickleball has continued to grow in popularity, more companies that manufacture pickleball equipment have emerged, she said.

The company stays on top of the latest trends in pickleball product demands by remaining active in the worldwide pickleball community, following developments in professional and recreational pickleball, staying informed on industry developments, and leveraging relationships with pickleball product manufacturers, Thomas said.

[Read: 4 Smart Strategies That Are Driving Sales in a Slow-Growth Year]

The APP’s latest research proves that the rapid growth of pickleball continues unabated. That growth has brought a remarkable influx of players nationwide — they are younger, more diverse, and can be found in more places than anyone ever thought.

Tom Webb, Chief Marketing Officer, Association of Pickleball Professionals

 Food image of Subway's pickleball club footlong sandwich.
In connection with its recent sponsorship of Pickleball Slam, sandwich restaurant giant Subway is rolling out a new menu item, the Pickleball Club, to its restaurants on April 27. — Subway

Subway partners with tennis star Andy Roddick on a new pickleball-themed sandwich

Sponsorship of both professional pickleball players and pickleball events is another emerging area that businesses can capitalize on. Chicken N Pickle, for example, sponsors 14 professional players, up from seven last year and just one two years ago, while Pickleball Central has a sponsorship agreement with the Professional Pickleball Association Tour, which includes setting up retail venues at every tour stop. Carvana recently became the title sponsor for the 2023 PPA Tour.

Other companies, from equipment makers to banks, car rental agencies, and even restaurants are getting in on the pickleball sponsorship opportunity. Sandwich restaurant giant Subway, for example, was a sponsor of the recent Pickleball Slam, a nationally televised contest that pitted tennis legends Andy Roddick, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, and Michael Chang against each other in a pickleball competition for a $1 million purse.

In connection with the sponsorship, Subway is rolling out a new menu item — the Pickleball Club — to its restaurants on April 27, in partnership with Andy Roddick.

The sandwich includes two of Subway’s newest ingredients: a more flavorful honey mustard and thicker, crunchier dill pickles. The Pickleball Club also includes Black Forest ham, American cheese, hickory-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on Subway’s artisan Italian bread.

“Whether you're a regular in the kitchen or have never even seen a pickleball court, the all-new Pickleball Club has the perfect mix of Subway signature crave and delicious ingredients to keep things fresh,” said Roddick.

Racquet-court reservations platforms expand to include pickleball

Digitally based racquet-court reservations systems such as CourtReserve and Break the Love have expanded from other racquet sports, including tennis, into pickleball. Their moves come as many club operators around the country have transitioned some of their tennis courts into pickleball courts, and as new pickleball venues have opened.

According to Pickelheads.com, which collects data about pickleball, there are about 10,320 places to play pickleball in the U.S., including both dedicated courts and other places, such as tennis courts with pickleball lines drawn.

CourtReserve recently published a guide on creating a business plan for opening a pickleball club, which it said was based on its experience working with clubs such as Pickleball Zone and House of Pickleball.

Break the Love, meanwhile, recently unveiled a partnership with Walmart in which the companies are collaborating to drive both Break the Love pickleball court reservations and sales of pickleball merchandise through Walmart. The companies said they will offer 125,000 free reservations for Walmart customers and employees, among other services, including access to instructional videos, exclusive products, and social events.

“We’re so proud to have built a footprint large enough to be able to partner with a brand as prolific and iconic as Walmart,” said Trisha Goyal, Founder of Break the Love.

Walmart created a dedicated website where players can both reserve court times and purchase merchandise, such as paddles, balls, clothing, and accessories, such as gear bags.

“We are always looking for ways to create meaningful experiences that encourage our customers to interact with Walmart in new ways,” said Casey Schlaybaugh, VP, Brand Marketing and Strategy for Walmart U.S.

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