Pickleball brands and organizations are using modern marketing moves to expand the sport beyond boomers

Pickleball took off during the pandemic, thanks in part to marketing efforts from brands and the sport’s governing body, which was recently given a facelift.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: RichLegg/Getty Images

9 min read

Pickleball is not only your parents’ sport anymore. The game, a paddle sport similar to tennis, is often associated with retirement homes or country clubs. After a spike in popularity during the pandemic, however, pickleball has gone mainstream.

Networks like CBS are broadcasting games. The New York Times declared pickleball “ready for prime time.” Major sports brands like Franklin Sports are selling pickleball gear and sponsoring pickleball players. And the kids have caught on, with emerging pickleball influencers as young as Gen Alpha.

The growth is, in part, thanks to the pandemic—pickleball is easy to learn and play in socially distanced settings with family, friends, and neighbors—but also by the design of marketers and brands.

In October 2019, USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body, hired a new marketing consultant, Laura Gainor, who went on to become director of media relations for the organization, and even picked up a paddle as a result of this work. A now-avid pickleball athlete with a marketing background, Gainor had started her own agency around that time, and eventually transitioned it to focus solely on marketing for pickleball brands and organizations.

During the summer of 2020, USA Pickleball unveiled a brand refresh, the work of Gainor and Milwaukee-based ad agency Boelter + Lincoln. Part of the refresh involved positioning the sport as more youthful, said Andy Larsen, partner at Boelter + Lincoln and its VP and director of public relations.

“We wanted to grow the game and reposition it to make it not just something that was perceived as an old-person sport, but something that appealed to everyone,” Larsen told Marketing Brew.

Pickleball, but make it “not 1998”

The refresh included a new name, logo, and website, all based on Boelter + Lincoln’s qualitative and quantitative research, according to its creative director Garth Cramer.

To start, the site was made more mobile-friendly and easier to navigate for those flocking to the sport for the first time. At the end of 2019, USA Pickleball had 33,000 members, according to Gainor. Now, that number is up to more than 56,000, she said, and it’s expected to pass 70,000 by the end of the year.

Those changes are “pretty typical in any website overhaul,” Larsen said. “But I think they’re even more significant for pickleball and USA Pickleball, because there was a little bit of a stigma that we’re working against, that this is a sport you do when you’re too old to play tennis.”

Visuals for the website and social media were also updated to include more age and racial diversity, an attempt at “making everything look more like it was 2021 and not 1998,” Larsen said.

The logo, too, was given a more modern look, Larsen said, although it still has its original red, white, and blue color palette to keep it looking official and on par with other national athletic organizations in the US.

Pickleball logos

Boelter + Lincoln

As for the name, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) became USA Pickleball.

“The word ‘pickleball’ itself is admittedly kind of a goofy name,” Cramer said. “But the community collectively decided that we should really lean into that.”

With its visual assets modernized, USA Pickleball started reaching out to influencers, mostly on the microscale to start, according to Larsen. “We didn’t have tons of money to throw at them, but we sent them some new equipment, we sent them some of our USA Pickleball swag,” he told us.

Meanwhile, Gainor said her inbox is “full every day” with inbound requests from major media outlets like The New York Times and TODAY, while celebrities like the Kardashians and Friends’ Matthew Perry organically tout the sport on TV and in the press.

Last year, most of those requests were to discuss the growth of the sport, Gainor told us. But in 2022, there’s more interest in exploring the business potential for pickleball, she said, like how brands can target pickleball players, who range in age, income, and other key demographics.

Here come the brands

As pickleball has gained traction with consumers, sports brands have caught on to the trend, selling paddles, balls, and even socks designed specifically for the game.

Take OS1st, a brand known for its compression braces and socks. It became the “official sock and compression bracing brand of USA Pickleball” in August, and the “official sock brand” of the Professional Pickleball Association this year, OS1st’s marketing director Stephanie Lee told us.

Franklin Sports is also making its mark on pickleball. The brand was an early entrant to the pickleball space, having first gotten involved six years ago, according to Aaron Stahl, the company’s brand partnerships specialist for pickleball.

Prior to 2017, when Stahl joined, pickleball fell within Franklin’s outdoor sports category. But “it just became rapidly apparent to the leadership team that [pickleball] was growing at such a rapid rate that is really justified having its own category, own catalog—its own team,” Stahl said.

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The company was concerned that growth would stagnate during the pandemic, according to Stahl, but that wasn’t the case. “We saw the growth, which we were afraid might have been stunted, do the exact opposite,” he said.

After spinning out of Franklin’s outdoor games category, there’s now a team of seven Franklin employees working on product development and marketing for pickleball alone, Stahl told us. The sport even has its own social media channels, like an Instagram account with more than 11,000 followers.

Franklin also started building a roster of sponsored pickleballers in 2017, all under the age of 30, with the majority between the ages of 18 and 25, Stahl said. Last year, the company signed a deal with pickleball athlete and influencer Leo Chun, who Stahl said was eight years old at the time.

“I think we’ve really tried to build a team of brand ambassadors that are not just ambassadors for Franklin and the products that they use, but really are ambassadors for the sport as well, and good ambassadors for themselves,” Stahl said.

Pickleball influencers still have relatively small followings, not large enough to drive significant sales for the companies they rep, but “we’re moving in that direction,” Stahl said. Franklin’s goal, he said, is to build up the personal brands of its athletes so that they’re easy to find and connect with as the audience for the sport grows.

Franklin has also partnered with USA Pickleball for a “youth development program” that it’s hoping to debut late this year or early next. Plus, its X-40 ball became the “official ball of USA Pickleball” last year.

Between 2020 and 2021, Stahl said Franklin’s pickleball category grew 52%. The company expects to see growth of more than 200% between last year and 2022.

In addition to socks and balls, USA Pickleball even has an “official CBD partner” in Day One, a sparkling CBD water brand. USA Pickleball was vetting about a dozen different companies for the deal, according to Day One founder and CEO Chris Clifford, but ultimately chose Day One because of its youth appeal.

While most companies under consideration make topical products that skew more toward older athletes, Day One pitched its ready-to-drink CBD product as “a social beverage” that the younger pickleball crowd would love, Clifford said.

As part of the January deal with USA Pickleball, Day One hands out samples at pickleball tournaments and reaps the benefits of ESPN’s coverage of the sport with logo placements in their content.

“It’s a very traditional sports marketing arrangement; again, it’s just a little bit different in terms of the eyeballs,” Clifford said. “You’re not seeing millions of people watching this on YouTube, or streaming, but you are getting an audience, and the more we can be in front of this community as the sport evolves, the better position we’re going to be for the long term.”

Catering to Pickleball’s youth

Jack Loughridge, a seven-year-old pickleball athlete from Las Vegas, said he doesn’t know many other kids his age who play, so he competes alongside his dad. But, according to Jack and his mom, Courtney Loughridge, sports brands are on the hunt for young pickleball ambassadors. Jack’s been sent gear from companies including Head and PKLBLR, although he’s not committing to any official sponsorships at his age, he and his mom told us.

Brenda Walton, co-owner of PKLBLR, said she and her husband created the pickleball apparel brand around October 2020, specifically with the intention of serving junior athletes.

“There wasn’t much youth [apparel] out there, and there’s a lot more younger kids playing pickleball,” Walton told us. “That’s one thing that we love, and that we can offer: getting some kids into some pickleball gear.”

Like Franklin, PKLBLR is also putting together a lineup of brand ambassadors, who get discounts on PKLBLR gear in exchange for sharing promo codes and generally serving as influencers for the company and the sport, Walton said. That roster is only about eight deep, Walton said, but PKLBLR is “looking to add more.”

Separately, PKLBLR sponsors four players, like Keith Ferger, by giving them free gear to wear while they compete. Brand ambassadors and sponsored players range in age, Walton said, with the oldest of them in the 70-plus range.

“We like to focus on that younger player to get away from that stigma,” Gainor said. “It’s more than just your grandpa’s sport, but at the same time, I can go to my grandparents’ retirement community, bring my kids, and you’re playing four generations on a pickleball court. It’s a multi-generational sport, which is one of the reasons why it's so popular.”

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