Is the Next Great Pastime … Pickleball?

Connor Pardoe wants to turn the racquet sport, once a game for retirees, into a primetime event.

Photo: Kim Raff
Photo: Kim Raff

In the summer of 2019, Connor Pardoe was trying to persuade Life Time, Inc., a health-club chain and the largest private operator of tennis courts in the U.S., to embrace a different game. Pardoe, then 26, was peddling pickleball: a racquet sport similar to tennis but played on a much smaller surface, over a slightly lower net, with a squarish paddle and a perforated plastic ball. The year before, Pardoe had left his family’s real-estate business to build the Professional Pickleball Association. As he hunted for tournament venues, he went straight for the flashiest sites in pro tennis. “We started big, reaching out to the Miami Open, the Lindner Family Tennis Center, where they play Western & Southern. A lot of those guys weren’t too interested,” he says. After all, for most of its 60-year history, pickleball was the domain of senior citizens too achy in the joints to scramble around full-size tennis courts. “We were on our hands and knees, begging these people to give pickleball a chance,” Pardoe says.

After months of negotiation, Life Time agreed to host one event on a trial basis. On tournament weekend, thousands of pickleballers descended on one of the health club’s Atlanta locations, where each tennis court had been painted into four standard pickleball courts. “They brought their executives out and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the real deal. Can we add another one?’”

Since then, Pardoe’s case has only gotten stronger. Pickleball was a curious beneficiary of pandemic conditions, which left people searching for low-stakes, outdoor ways to socialize at a distance. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates that 4.2 million people played pickleball in 2020, up 21 percent from the year before. Unsuspecting parkgoers may now be familiar with the distinct plonk of ball against paddle. (Last winter, after a rash of noise complaints, the mayor of Ridgewood, New Jersey, put a padlock on the town’s pickleball courts for three months.) Interest seems to be trickling down from the boomer set to my millennial peers: Four days into the New Year, one otherwise sports-agnostic group chat lit up with a bold resolution: “Have any of you played pickleball / I’m thinking this is my year.”

“2021 was huge for us,” Pardoe, now 28, tells me in December, video-chatting from PPA’s offices just outside his native Salt Lake City. The group’s tournaments did record ticket sales. TV and streaming deals started moving. “Today, I get a call every day from at least three to five people saying, ‘How can I bring a pickleball event to my city or to my club?’”

Pardoe’s ambition is to funnel the burgeoning enthusiasm for playing pickleball into enthusiasm for watching it, to win (and monetize) eyeballs on the scale of pro tennis or golf. The 2022 PPA season will span 20 events in North America and dispense $2.5 million in prize money. That money comes in large part from sponsors like Hyundai, Margaritaville, and Guaranteed Rate, which might pay anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 a year to have their names tied to events and their logos splashed over courts. Some PPA events will be broadcast on ESPN3 and Fox Sports, a prospect that once would have been as surreal as tuning in to world-class four square. The organization also seeks out and locks down the top pickleball talent. Its stars, such as Ben Johns, who has earned $146,325 over his 40 PPA titles, sign exclusivity contracts so they can’t play on rival tours, such as the mirror-named Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP).

Pardoe grew up in a family of tennis purists, and his dad played Division I. But a rogue pickleball-obsessed aunt (“We gave her a hard time because of the name and whatnot,” he says) encouraged him to pick up a paddle after her partner got sick before a tournament. Pardoe subbed in and was hooked by the game’s learning curve: Competence felt immediate, and mastery felt distant. While managing the family firm’s senior-living facilities, Pardoe played and watched as much pickleball as he could. Soon, he was sold on its potential as a spectator sport. A handful of skilled players were already calling themselves pros, but the existing patchwork of small-time events couldn’t do the term justice. As he built a tour of his own, he picked up mentors like the Utah Jazz’s head of sales and sponsorships and the former commissioner of the Women’s Tennis Association.

Pardoe is an apt pitchman for a game intent on shaving a few decades off its average enthusiast’s age. Unlike the typical commissioner of a professional sports league — sexagenarian, clean-shaven, encased in a suit at all times — he shows up to our interview in a hoodie and a black cap bearing the electric-blue initials CP (I first assume it’s bespoke commissioner swag, but it’s actually the logo of pickleball pro Catherine Parenteau, who finished the 2021 season as the No. 1 women’s-singles player). He speaks with the polish of a newly minted M.B.A. and the self-assurance of an affable jock. (Pardoe played high-level youth basketball and, in the eighth grade, was dunked on by current New York Knicks star Julius Randle, then “an absolute man-child.”)

“I don’t think there’s a sport out there that has as much potential as pickleball,” Pardoe says, veering into pitch mode and running through the influx of new athletes, the telegenic play, and, most important, the low barrier to entry in terms of both athleticism and cost. A rudimentary paddle could be as cheap as $20, while a solid beginner one will start at around $60. Plus “it’s so easy to build a court — you need a fourth of the size of a tennis court,” Pardoe says. He has one in his backyard, where he plays pickleball weekly.

Pardoe intends to win over young fans with a less buttoned-up viewing experience than the old-guard countryclub sports. “If you walked into one of our events, it’s going to look like you’re at the PGA or a professional tennis event. But the feel is a party. We have a live DJ between timeouts; the fans are rowdy. Not so much Flushing Meadows,” he says. “It’s more of a millennial-type, drink-a-beer, watch–Tyson McGuffin approach.” (McGuffin is a player he describes as “a crowd favorite — more edgy, tattoos, growling, yelling.”)

To tennis players, the rise of pickleball may feel like an encroachment, but Pardoe is himself a reformed purist who hopes for harmony, or at least the kind of workable détente now seen between skiers and boarders. In the past, “snowboarding wasn’t allowed in a lot of ski resorts,” he says. “But now it’s hard to find anywhere in the country where you’re not seeing both. They both enjoy the same mountain, the same amenities, the same place.” For now, tennis sits higher on the cultural totem pole, but at an institutional level, tennis and pickleball are already cozying up. Tennis clubs the world over are repainting their lines for pickleball. Tennis Channel will broadcast four big PPA events in 2022, and the official tennis organs of the U.S. and Canada are hosting and co-owning PPA events this year, respectively. In the spirit of toppling the racquet-sport hierarchy, Pardoe has invited American tennis pros like John Isner and Jack Sock to take on the pickleball elite. “They come in like, ‘Oh, we can beat these pickleball professionals’ and then they get smoked,” he says.

At first, tennis players try to play what Pardoe calls a “bang-bang” style of pickleball, smashing the ball clean past their opponent, only to realize it’s much easier to retrieve shots in these narrower confines. So power gives way to careful shot placement and wars of attrition. In time, Pardoe believes the PPA can lure athletes from the lower rungs of pro tennis, where the competition is knife sharp, the travel is ceaseless, and the money is thin. “I’d be a fool to say that we’re not going to see more tennis transition, especially as our prize money is growing,” he says. “For these guys that are ranked No. 500, No. 400, No. 300 in tennis, they can make more money in our sport if they think they can be a top player.”

When I catch up with Pardoe again, in early January, he’s driving around Dallas, where he plans to move the PPA headquarters later this year. He now has around 25 full-time employees, up from the skeleton crew of three at the PPA’s inception. The last three hires were all media types brought in to help the league’s top players build their brands online (“Content is king,” he intoned more than once). This year, pickleball will get in on the biggest consumer trend in sports when the PPA brings in a gambling partner. “New eyeballs, new audience, more clicks, more views,” he says in the nimble patter of the millennial marketer. While the current goal is for the PPA to get settled in North America, Pardoe notes the sport is booming in India, Europe, and the Philippines. With global spread, another objective looms: Get pickleball into the Olympics as a demo sport for the 2028 L.A. Games.

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Is the Next Great Pastime … Pickleball?