Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. for the third year in a row. It has taken the country by storm, thanks to its popularity among all ages. Industry experts expect to grow at an annual rate of 9 percent between 2023 and 2033.
The game was invented by three middle-aged fathers on vacation on Bainbridge Island in 1995 and named after the family dog, Pickles. Recently, my wife Barbara suggested we might find out what makes the game so popular. For those, like me, who have not played yet, the game is a cross between tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It is not difficult to learn and can be played almost anywhere. All you need is a paddle and a whiffle-like ball and someone to play with. What's more, it is a social game, usually played as doubles, with two players on each side volleying back and forth in close quarters.
Most of the game's core players (eight times a year or more) were over age 65. Retirees love it because it is easy on the body. But the demographics are changing. The fastest growing segment by age is now under 24. Players, 55 and older, are still in the majority, but that growth rate is slowing. Men are still the majority of players, but women represent 40 percent of those playing.
There are now more than 8.9 million players in the U.S. That is nearly double the number of players in 2021 and a 158 percent increase over 2020, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
As of 2023, there are two national professional tournaments. The sports organizers are now approaching corporate sponsors in earnest. They aim to grow the sport not only in this country but abroad as part of an effort to include it in future Olympics.
Pickleball is also growing in popularity in Europe, and enthusiasts believe the Asia Pacific market is ripe for the taking. The global pickleball equipment market was valued at $65.64 billion last year and is expected to grow to $155.4 billion over the next decade. Paddles account for nearly two-thirds of the equipment market, with wooden paddles running between $15 and $35. Composite varieties are more expensive ($40 and $100), while graphite paddles can cost upwards of $200.
Normally, you will want to buy six to 12 pickleballs at a time. Like paddles, some are more expensive than others. There are indoor and outdoor balls with the lifespan of outdoor balls shorter than those of indoor balls, as you might imagine. Outdoor balls, depending on the brand and price, last upward of 10 games.
The demand for places to play, however, is outstripping supply. California, Florida and Texas lead the nation in the number of courts. There are roughly 44,000 pickleball courts in the U.S. as of 2022. Cost estimates for building courts can range from $300 for a temporary net, equipment, and tape to mark lines, to $30,000 for a permanent court.
In many cities, it is already difficult to find places to play. Municipalities are only now beginning to realize the popularity of the sport, so it is left to private developers to fill the gap. Former warehouses, vacant big-box stores, and even existing tennis, handball, and basketball courts are being utilized to satisfy demand. So far, this trend has had checkered results.
One bottom-line problem is that because a court can have only two or four players active at a time, the profitability per square foot is quite low in pickleball. As a result, entrepreneurs are adding entertainment, food, and drink to new facilities in hopes of expanding the business potential of the sport.
In any case, it appears the sport is here to stay. As for me, I agreed to give it a try at 74. and so, our next date night will be centered around a ball, paddle, and some physical exercise (but no dog). Wish me luck.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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