Forbes Magazine: 12/30/21
Erik Matuszewski – Contributor – SportsMoney
While golf’s popularity soared across the country over the past year and a half, it was actually the No. 2 participation sport in terms of growth at many country clubs, resorts and golf course communities.
Tennis has long been a natural complement to golf, but it’s pickleball that’s seen an explosion of adopters in recent years – both in terms of participants and facilities adding courts. While the numbers for 2021 haven’t been released, consider that in 2020 pickleball saw a growth rate in excess of 21%, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s participation report, jumping from about 3.5 million players in the U.S. to over 4.2 million. That’s still a fraction of the approximately 25 million U.S. on-course golfers, but the growth is substantial and it’s definitely not just a sport for the senior set, with an average participant age of 38.1 years old in addition to an almost a 60-40 split between men and women.
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It was notable that Troon, the world’s largest golf management company, earlier this year partnered with one of pickleball’s leading equipment brands, Selkirk Sport. In golf terms, Selkirk is akin to a PING, a popular, family-owned brand known for their quality products (in this case pickleball paddles) and growing legion of loyal customers. The number of devoted pickleball courts at Troon clubs continues to grow and Selkirk became Troon’s first “preferred pickleball partner” and an official part of the company’s Cliff Drysdale Tennis Division.
“Pickleball has certainly caught people’s attention,” said Troon President and CEO Tim Schantz. “There are clubs with multiple tennis courts that are converting some of that space into pickleball courts and, given the demand for those pickleball courts, they’re thinking about more. There’s something in the game that combines competitiveness for people that like racquet sports, but also the ability to play at a competitive level for a long period of time. That’s kind of the magic of golf too.”
Count Sherri Steinhauer, who played on the LPGA Tour for 26 years and won two major championships, among those who have embraced the golf-pickleball crossover. Steinhauer, now 59, turned to pickleball in 2016 after her golf career was waylaid by hip injuries and today competes professionally in a 50-and-over division while playing almost daily as a resident of Phoenix, Arizona. Visit any golf-centric residential community in states like Arizona, California, North Carolina or Florida and it’s a good bet you’ll hear the sound of a plastic pickleball, which looks a bit like an oversized Wiffle ball, being struck by a paddle.
“I just fell in love with the sport,” said Steinhauer, who today is a brand ambassador for Selkirk and tried to qualify for nationals earlier this year. “It actually replaced the competitiveness that I felt in golf. But I wasn’t enjoying that in golf anymore. When I played pickleball, I suddenly had that feeling back like when I was a kid and starting out in golf. It’s just gone on from there.”
Steinhauer says there are quite a few LPGA players who play pickleball, among them 29-year-old Amy Olson, who was the runner-up at the 2020 U.S. Open. “We’ve played quite a bit together,” said Steinhauer. “She’s really, really good and fun to play with. And she’s got a group of gals she plays with out on tour.”
Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar are among those on the PGA TOUR who play pickleball, a sport that combines elements of tennis with badminton and ping pong. It’s played on courts that are a good bit smaller than tennis courts, which is why a number of clubs, resorts and communities have transformed some existing tennis areas into multiple pickleball courts. Others, like BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, have sought to expand their pickleball presence in a meaningful way that complements its outdoor activities.
In addition to its three 18-hole championship golf courses, BallenIsles has been rated as the No. 2 tennis facility in the country and the posh South Florida club has been the home training ground for Venus and Serena Williams for almost two decades. But while the tennis program continues to thrive, BallenIsles added an entire complex of pickleball courts this year to keep up with the growing craze; in just two years since introducing options as part of a strategic plan, the club saw its number of active and interested pickleball participants almost quadruple.
“It’s been on our radar for so long, but this last year has been a real eye-opener on how much our program has grown,” said Gary Henderson, the Director of Tennis at BallenIsles and former world-ranked player who competed at Wimbledon and as a member of Great Britain’s 1995 Davis Cup team. “People can take to the sport with maybe not an advanced skill level in racquet sports and can immediately play again. You can elevate your game very quickly, to a point where you can compete or enjoy a game of social pickleball with people who have played for many years. And the pickleball community, they fit in with each other very well straight away. You’re seeing such growth because of nature of the sport.”
Schantz talked about visiting with the Drysdale team during a Troon teambuilding event earlier in 2021 and getting to play a five-set match against the now 80-year-old Drysdale, the well-known tennis announcer who was once ranked as high as fourth in the world and reached the final of the 1965 U.S. Open tennis championships. While tennis is his central to his lifestyle, Drysdale today plays a good bit of pickleball.
“I was pretty wiped out,” said Schantz. “It was really fun and, much like golf, pickleball has a handicap system in place that lets Cliff and I play against each other and be evenly matched. Although he did beat me.”
Having a golf-focused company like Troon get involved with pickleball is a huge legitimizer for the sport, said Selkirk co-founders Mike and Rob Barnes. When they first got into pickleball in 2014, focusing on research and development as well as marketing efforts, the sport was just starting to take off.
“The amount of people in the sport now is probably one thousand-fold. It’s been crazy to see the adoption,” said Rob Barnes. “Overall, the sport has been growing 10% a year, they estimate, but we think it’s more. Last year during Covid, it doubled. Our company has grown a minimum of 50% to 100% a year since our founding.
Now, with a company like Troon having that foresight for where the sport is going and showing other resorts and management companies the future, that’s huge for the sport. Having them enter is a big legitimizer for the sport and where it’s going.”
The synergies between golf and pickleball are significant – from the demographics to the facilities – and are really helping grow the sport, especially at properties like resorts, country clubs and residential communities.
“The momentum it has right now, we wake up everyday and are blown away where the sport is going and where we think it’s going to be,” said Selkirk’s Mike Barnes. “We don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”