Katie Owens, Account Manager
“Stay out of the kitchen!,” “let’s just dink,” and “zero-zero-two,” are some phrases you might hear if you pass a pickleball court. Pickleball’s explosion, with over 14% of Americans playing the sport in 2023, was no accident. Behind the scenes, a flexible, adept team was hard at work embracing cultural changes, leveraging multi-market crossover opportunities, and capitalizing on celebrity fans. There are a few lessons to learn from the sport’s success.
One reason for pickleball’s ascent is the way it embraced the cultural moment, leaned into change, and adapted. The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for a burst of pickleball popularity as people looked for socially distanced ways to exercise outside. Marketing professionals saw the opportunity and completely rebranded the game to welcome these new players in 2020. Historically, pickleball had a reputation as a sport for the retired community. The 2020 refresh not only capitalized on the pandemic, but also targeted a younger audience. Now, a third of pickleball players are under the age of 25.
Another key to pickleball’s success is that pickleball opportunistically embraced collaborations. Pickleball gained even more followers when the business joined with other brands, partners, and sponsors. “Pickleball is the social media influencer of the sports world,” Kelly Ripa said on Live With Kelly and Ryan. “I’d never heard about it. And then I only hear about it.” Now, there is a pickleball restaurant-entertainment model (check out Chicken N Pickle and Camp Pickle), and partners include Sketchers. Indeed, businesses big and small are strategically latching on to get a slice of the pickle pie. Selkirk Sport, one of the top paddle makers in pickleball, has grown from a family-owned business in Idaho to selling gear across the country.
A third factor is how the business leveraged celebrity influencers. In the beginning of the pickle-boom, USA Pickleball reached out to micro-influencers with some equipment and support in the hopes of putting a face to the game. Today, those players still have relatively small followings. But huge celebrities have become the sport’s main advocates. Initially, this was no strategic marketing move—the hype around pickleball independently reached star athletes like LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, and Patrick Mahomes. These celebrities then spread the word on their platforms, and the sport exploded even further. Pickleball quickly stepped in to amplify those voices. Laura Gainor, USA Pickleball’s Director of Media Relations, says that “rather than handing a racket to someone who isn’t interested in the sport…USA Pickleball keeps their eyes peeled for large personalities already playing the game.” While good luck is certainly a factor, pickleball is ready to strike as soon as celebrities pick up a paddle. By promoting celebrity engagement (through articles, retweets, charity tournaments, and encouraging star players to invest in the sport), pickleball continues to gain traction.
“If pickleball, in its own humble way, can continue to grow its participation and find ways to make the sport a compelling fan product,” said Ben Shields, lecturer at MIT, “who knows, 10, 20 years, it could be a very viable competitor in the global sports industry.” By taking advantage of relevant cultural moments, embracing unexpected partnerships, and encouraging high-profile support, pickleball is rising on the top of the sports food chain—and it can relish in its success. Summer Olympics 2032?