Vandalism, allegations of torture and pressure campaigns are just some of the brutal tactics enthusiasts have encountered in their quest to find decent ground to practice their favorite sport: pickleball.
A combination of badminton, tennis, and ping-pong, pickleball was invented in 1965 as an easy-to-play pastime. After years of quiet popularity, it surged in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, and enthusiasts now cite it as one of the fastest growing games in the United States. Sponsors and TV networks are showing some interest in the sport, as are celebrities like Jamie Foxx, Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres.
Pickleball has divided some communities over noise complaints and turf wars, but not all experiences resemble storylines worthy of a mob trial. Some cities are embracing the sport. Recently, Redondo Beach, California budgeted $65,000 for new courts and a feasibility study on the potential addition of new courts. Lincoln, Neb., has already spent $200,000 on new courts and is creating a master plan for future expansion.
Without dedicated municipal interest, however, it becomes more difficult to find acceptable places to play in many cities, and private developers are jumping at the chance.
But investors are divided on whether stand-alone pickleball facilities can become successful businesses. The lack of consensus has led to different concepts intended to appeal to a wider audience, ranging from installations with artisanal food and karaoke rooms to courts in old warehouses accented in a nightclub setting.
“Doing a project the traditional way doesn’t interest me,” said Peter Remes, who founded Lucky Shots in Minneapolis. Mr. Remes, who has started several art projects in the Twin Cities, added that he modeled his pickleball building after a “1950s country club”, splashed with a pink and green pattern that combines “a vintage style with a contemporary twist”.
Lucky Shots opened in October in a 40,000 square foot space that once housed the Foley Manufacturing Company, a cookware maker. The Minneapolis Cider Company installed four indoor courts. Life Time, which operates a national chain of fitness clubs, opened its first dedicated pickleball facility at one of its former gymnasiums in Bloomington, just south of Minneapolis.
“I’ve been in the health and fitness industry for nearly 40 years and I’ve never seen such organic growth,” said Jeff Zwiefel, chief operating officer of Life Time.
Smash Park is planning two pickleball venues in the Twin Cities. To distinguish itself from its competitors, Smash Park relies heavily on additional forms of entertainment to attract customers. Besides pickleball, its facilities include ax throwing, karaoke, and private event spaces for up to 500 people. They also offer weekly events like quiz nights, Sunday brunch, bingo, and murder mystery nights.
“The pickleball is fantastic but the profit per square foot is pretty low,” said Monty Lockyear, general manager of Smash Park.
Since a court can only have two or four active players at a time, a pickleball-only venue is unlikely to have “enough clientele to keep it afloat, even with multiple courts,” said Ronald Naples, assistant associate professor in New York. University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Visitor Center.
Food and drink is another way pickleball facilities try to attract regular users.
The Pickle Bar in Summerville, SC will span more than 40,000 square feet and feature nine outdoor courts with space for backyard games like cornhole, but it will focus on a bar and a restaurant featuring Southern cuisine, said Alisa Tolliver, a co-founder.
Throughout the Southwest, Eureka Restaurant Group is opening Electric Pickle locations influenced by the “entertainment” model popularized by franchises like Topgolf and Chicken N Pickle, where food and drink complement a variety of recreational activities.
Electric Pickle will offer items such as craft cocktails and Korean protein bowls in a setting with “a speakeasy, rustic feel,” said Eureka co-founder Paul Frederick, who added that the dining experience “must be the main attraction”.
“If I have nine courts and the capacity is four per court but the project capacity is 600 people, we have to give them good food, a good stage,” he said. “We call it hitting all the sensory.”
Dining is particularly attractive now as guest wishes have changed during the pandemic, with families seeking large gathering spaces for recreation, said Seunghyun Park, assistant professor of hospitality management at St. John’s University.
However, catering facilities might not be the most appealing places for dedicated players. Pickleball’s demographics are heavily tilted towards retirees, and the players have earned a reputation as a dodgy and territorial bunch.
Much like tennis, the sport can also feel exclusive – some paddles cost upwards of $200. New York City is trying to meet demand for more land but won’t renovate heavily used recreational spaces like basketball or handball courts, said Margaret Nelson, assistant commissioner for the Department of Urban Parks and Public Programs. at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“We always try to balance,” she said. “People want to do a lot of things, and we have a limited amount of space.”
Some places, like Rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, are hoping to challenge the belief that pickleball alone cannot anchor a business. Although the rally will include a food and beverage element, additional entertainment options are not on the menu.
“That term entertainment makes me cringe,” said Rally co-founder Barrett Worthington. “So many breweries and concepts bring together so many activities, but we want to have a little more focused approach.”
With or without food and entertainment supplements, finding affordable space is a universal concern among startup pickleball facilities.
Electric Pickle’s first sites are being built from scratch, but Mr Frederick said he was exploring repurposed buildings for future premises due to rising supply chain costs and the length of land rights allocation processes.
Repurposed spaces that once housed big box or department stores are popular choices. Volli, a Washington-based franchise, is planning its first Texas location in a 62,000 square foot former Hobby Lobby. (Volli’s first two locations were built in furniture warehouses over 20,000 square feet.)
Allan Jones, founder and CEO of Volli, previously built family adventure parks in abandoned grocery stores. Building an entertainment site in a redeveloped space is likely to go twice as fast as building from scratch, as necessities such as parking lots and water and sewer systems are already in place, a- he declared.
Repurposing a big-box store can also present challenges. For example, low ceilings are not conducive to lob shots. Too many pillars can encroach on the space of the land, which ideally measures 30 feet by 60 feet.
Picklr co-founder Jorge Barragan opened a location in Logan, Utah that once housed a Bed Bath & Beyond and ran into other hurdles.
He said there were high costs to remove drop ceilings and nearly 25,000 square feet of flooring that contained asbestos. Some landlords would not approve a lease on other potential sites due to their unfamiliarity with pickleball.
With pickleball still largely considered a niche sport, some are selling the idea of a pickleball facility by not seeing it as one at all.
Inside Lucky Shots in Minneapolis, installations of large emoticons or phrases like “Sup?” exude a Pop Art feel. Since opening last fall, the club has signed up 9,000 members, many of whom have been thrilled with the vibe, Remes said.
“What I’m doing has nothing to do with pickleball,” he said. “It’s an immersion in arts and culture that creates space in a physiological way, so when they walk in, they feel something.”