Beware the Pickleball Industrial Complex

Pickleball has enjoyed a public image as the people's sport. It's also considered “a venture capitalist’s dream.” I suggest you run.

Beware the Pickleball Industrial Complex
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It’s summertime in New York City, and the infestation that was prophesied has arrived in full force. As it rapidly encroaches on sacred public spaces, Tennis Lite has dug its claws into every terrain imaginable: dirt, asphalt, playgrounds. The year of pickleball is upon us—nay, trampling us—and I suggest you run.

By nearly every major publication, pickleball has been deemed the “fastest-growing sport in America” and, according to a 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report, the number of players has increased nearly 40% over the last two years alone. Outside of its turf wars with the tennis elite, pickleball has enjoyed a relatively squeaky-clean image. It’s been positioned as the Bernie Sanders of recreational sports, intended for players of all ages, abilities, and economic backgrounds—a beautiful phenomenon to behold given that sports are for everyone.

As for me, I don’t really give a damn about pickleball, and I’m not mad at the people who play it. But the fact that the sport’s stealthy growth has been largely credited to its democratic accessibility, and not the sheer power of the big bucks funding its spread, grinds my gears ad nauseum.

When Fortune referred to the pickleball boom as a “gold rush,” that gold isn’t so much intended for the sport’s budding roster of all-ages players as it is for its lengthy list of wealthy investors like LeBron James, Eva Longoria, and Tom Brady. Pickleball has also been called “a venture capitalist’s dream.” It was invented as a pastime for the rich and the bored. And despite the clear need for public spaces to play, private pickleball courts are popping up as a regular feature of luxury residences, instead.

“Big Pickleball” is feeling less like a mom-and-pop, community-grown campaign and more like a well-oiled machine of parasitic proportions: less socialist, and more late-stage hyper-capitalist. The hype cycle isn’t just attracting more bodies: It’s actively changing urban and public space planning. New York City is planning 14 courts in Central Park alone, and that’s just the beginning. And I guarantee the growth won’t stop once a general public need is fulfilled: that’s how growth for growth’s sake works, after all.

“A lot of the [schmoozing activities] that used to be in vogue I probably wouldn’t do anymore, like golf outings or whiskey nights or cigar tastings,” Bain Capital Ventures principal and pickleball lover Rak Garg told Insider. “It’s not very inclusive. That’s why I think that pickleball and all these other things are better. It just makes everybody feel more at home.” Venture capital: notably a very “inclusive” profession that makes everybody feel at home.

In Florida, real estate developers are spending $180 million on 15 private pickleball clubs, according to the New York Times, including a 33,000-square-foot facility in Sarasota. Matthew Gordon, a partner involved in the Florida venture, said, “We plan on being the market leader during this all-important land-grab phase of the industry.” Personally, I don’t believe Mr. Gordon has Grandma Cecilia up at the local old folks’ home in mind when he speaks of this “land grab.” Besides, celebrities like Heidi Klum, Kate Upton, and Dierks Bentley aren’t coming into the space to invest in court space or gear for the public, but as owners of teams in Major League Pickleball. Again, Grandma Cecilia, not for you!

In non-sporting terms, the cheery embrace of pickleball—the juicy slab of meat investors continue to sink their fangs into—feels not dissimilar to the spread of the Big Mac. One could argue (emphasis on could) that McDonald’s is a food of the people: affordable enough, happy-lookin’, accessible. But at the end of the day, those Big Macs exist because an international fast food conglomerate determined that feeding us chemicals and salt packaged as “nutrition” would line their pockets.

Now, VC firms and all-American bozos like Tom Brady who do not need more capital are lining their pockets with Big Pickleball money, too. Only time will tell if the craze is as briny as the pickles that were promised, or as sad as a sack of wilting cucumbers.

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