San Diego Businesses Net Success with Pickleball

San Diego Businesses Net Success with Pickleball

SAN DIEGO COUNTY PICKLEBALL – Three companies founded in different regions of San Diego County are collectively hitting the sweet spot in the sphere of the world’s fastest growing sport.

The Hub San Diego, an outdoors sports venue that launched in 2023 in East County, racquet sellers Rally Republic which also launched last year and is headquartered in North County, and Gearbox Sports, a racquet and accessories company founded in 2007 in South County, are all capitalizing on the popularity of pickleball.

Pickleball is a racquet sport said to have started in 1965 in Washington state but has exploded nationwide in the last five years. A combination of ping pong, badminton and tennis, pickleball is played by two or four players wielding pickleball paddles on a small court (typically 44 feet long by 20 feet wide) with a 34-inch-high net, and hitting a perforated, hollow plastic ball.

According to the 2023 Association of Pickleball Players Pickleball Participation Report, 36.5 million people played pickleball at least once in 2022.

Using different criteria for determining the number of pickleball players, the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s Topline Participation Report shows lower numbers of participants, but still tremendous growth in recent years, from 3.1 million players in 2017 to 4.2 million in 2020, jumping to 8.9 million in 2022.

Last year, national governing body USA Pickleball’s Places2Play reported that there were nearly 11,000 locations to play pickleball. California is reported to have the highest number of places to play. USA Pickleball last year said there were 800 spots but Visit California this year reports a total of 3,600 courts throughout the state.

Pickleheads, which runs, a website that tracks open courts and games, lists more than 80 courts throughout the county, from Pio Pico Thousand Trails RV Resort in Jamul to Coronado High School to Melba Bishop Park in Oceanside.
The city of San Diego Park and Recreation manages more than 40 pickleball courts, both indoor and outdoor, including some that offer equipment rentals at no charge.

Privately operated pickleball courts in the city include the Barnes Tennis Center, Cabrillo Tennis Courts, the Del Cerro Tennis Club, the Pacific Beach Tennis Club and San Diego Mission Bay Resort.

Some public local basketball courts, including ones at the La Jolla and Kearny Mesa recreation centers, and privately run spots like the tennis courts at the Barnes Tennis Center in Point Loma and the Del Cerro Tennis Club have been changing with the times and dedicating space to pickleball play.

But spots dedicated to pickleball only are coming into their own.

Capitalizing on Need for More Pickleball Courts

After several years of planning, two years ago, entrepreneur Ted Angelo and his co-founder Patrick Rolfes took over long abandoned Helix South Tennis Club on Campo Road in Casa de Oro/Spring Valley, razed the entire area and have turned it into a thriving 26-court outdoor pickleball club, now 600 members strong.

During the early part of the COVID pandemic, Angelo said he heard about the abandoned tennis facility and after more than a year of discussions with the property owner, was able to buy the 2.5-acre property for $3.5 million in 2022.

“We built this in nine months,” Angelo said. The Hub officially opened in January 2023.

Predominantly a membership-based facility, The Hub members have access to drop-in play, events and court rentals seven days a week for a monthly fee. There are opportunities for pickleball lessons and clinics as well as an on-site pro shop. Businesses have been renting out court time to let their employees play.

The Hub was named host of this year’s National Collegiate Pickleball Association Pickleball Championship from March 15-17. The Hub was also host of the World Pickleball Tour’s San Diego Challenge in February that drew more than 250 amateur players from around the globe.

Angelo, who for 30 years owned a flooring company in Orange County, discovered pickleball about just over four years ago and said he “saw a very untapped market,” so much so that he exited his job, taking the leap into a career that has quickly flourished.

On the heels of San Diego’s success, The Hub has expanded to two more sites – an indoor location in Silicon Valley last August (in a closed Fry’s Electronics building) that has 900 members, and an indoor/outdoor spot in Alameda (at an old airplane hangar) in November now 1,600 members strong.

The company this month is opening its fourth venue — across the country in Orange Park, Florida outside of Jacksonville.

Owners of the Orange Park Country Club, looking to expand its reach into the market, called Angelo and told him, “We know nothing about pickleball and we would like you to run things.”

Angelo said he flew out there a few days later and checked it out and expects to start building 32 courts this month. Angelo said he will be moving to Florida but will continue to run the Spring Valley venue.

Pickleball play is exploding, but Angelo said the company is “taking it slow to make sure these are done properly.”

“We’re doing Florida first and then figure out more as we go,” he said. “Franchises are selling. We could sell 50 of these in a month but we aren’t looking for that. We want to make sure these are being done right. We want to make an impact wherever we open.”

Hotels, Resorts, Clubs Get on Board with Pickleball

There are 22 pickleball courts at the Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle Club in Encinitas. The club is named after the tennis star who famously won six Grand Slam titles in tennis and is well known for his 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in Houston which he lost to Billie Jean King. Not so famously known is that Riggs, who died in Leucadia in 1995, was also a pickleball aficionado who was said to have started playing the sport in the 1970s.

The Riggs club, which has pickleball lessons, offers programs and holds tournaments, is open to the public and is also connected with San Diego-based ProKennex Pickleball, which sells pickleball paddles and accessories.

Even high-line hotels are getting on board with pickleball.
Last November, the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Carlsbad converted two tennis courts into pickleball courts and now has four pickleball courts with stadium seating and recently unfurled a membership program for locals, featuring exclusive access to the resort’s spa, tennis and pickleball amenities.

Among other lodging facilities that now offer dedicated pickleball courts: The Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido, the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad and the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.

Pickleball Paddles Add Profit to Racquet Manufacturer

Pickleball’s growing following has resulted in some shuffling around, shifting priorities and sharing of space from a business standpoint as well.

Founded in 2007 National City and now in Otay Mesa, Gearbox Sports started out as a racquetball racquet-focused company under the technological, creative and innovative watch of founder and CEO Rafael Filippini. Filippini was also a professional racquetball player and who learned about working with composites during his time as a U.S. Marine.

Since 2015, the company has shifted some of its focus beyond racquetball, adding pickleball paddles and related items to its manufacturing lines — and has seen 300% year over year growth due to it.

Filippini said he first got a good look at pickleball in 2009 on a racquetball playing trip to St. George, Utah. With friends, he went to a park where a group of people he said looked to be in their 60s and older were playing pickleball, and they were asked to join.

“I was probably in my 40s then and I thought, ‘We’re going to run these guys around,’ like typical ignorant kids would think,” Filippini said. “And they just went in and mopped the court with us.”

Filippini said as time went by, stopping in more cities for racquetball play, he started hearing more and more about pickleball, and seeing a lot of equipment “created in people’s garages… with a lot of room for improvement.”

By 2011, he said he began to study the sport from the equipment side and distribution side of things.

“I have a composites background and I was like, ‘I can apply some of the techniques and tooling and technologies that we use in creating a paddle,” he said.

Passionate about research and development, Filippini continues to innovate in the pickleball paddle space.

Gearbox paddles are made with a patented woven carbon fiber core, with some of its paddles made for greater power and more speed, others for better control and “dinking” ability. The company also makes paddleball grips, eyewear, gloves, bags, protective tape, cords, cleaners and both headbands and wristbands.

“We’re extremely passionate about what we do,” Filippini said.

“We’ve been able to really create over just this last year. From the last quarter to today I’ve filed for 16 new patents and I just filed two more (in late February). All just pickleball-related, with completely new things.”

Last July, the National Pickleball League, LLC, the first professional pickleball league for players considered “Champions Pros” (ages 50 and up), began a partnership with Gearbox Sports, designating it as the Official Paddle of the NPL.

Gearbox is also a sponsor of The Hub in San Diego and sells its products at The Hub’s Alameda and Silicon Valley sites as well as in Spring Valley.

Oklahoma City resident Chris Haworth, one of the world’s top pickleball singles players, uses Otay Mesa-based Gearbox Sports’ latest innovation, the Pro Power paddle. Photo courtesy Gearbox Sports

Pandemic Spurs So-Cal Pickleball Movement

Dave McCune is the director of activation at DUPR, the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating system, based in Colorado.

A global rating system for pickleball players of all levels, DUPR provides a unique and accurate measure of a player’s skill level, no matter the person’s age, gender or location.

McCune said that Southern California has been key in driving the competitive side of pickleball, particularly in the younger players. He also credited the pandemic in pushing out the sport.

“Southern California has always had that outdoor culture and lifestyle,” McCune said. “It was poised for what happened during COVID, forcing people outside and forcing people into recreation and to try and find new innovative ways to stay in shape and meet people and have fun. Southern California just embraced pickleball and it boomed in that area.

“I mean it boomed everywhere but I saw the difference of what was happening in SoCal compared to other places. And since then, I know they have continually increased their number of pickleball courts.”

Rally Republic’s specialized carbon pickleball paddles come in dozens of designs, including many major colleges and universities across the United States. Photo courtesy Rally Republic

Rallying for the Paddle, Licensing Markets

Paddles are big business to be sure, with some selling for as much as $250, in line with what some top tennis rackets cost.
Business Research estimates the pickleball paddle market size, reported to be near $150 million in 2021, is expected to grow to nearly $254 million by 2028.

A newcomer to the paddle creating world is Texas transplant and Rally Republic co-founder Lauren Stohlman.

Lauren Stohlman
Rally Republic

Stohlman and company president Chad Phillips sell Rally Republic pickleball paddles, which are made overseas with a honeycomb core interior, UV printed carbon fiber surface and a silicone band to hold the grip in place, out of the company’s Encinitas hub as well as its site in Texas.

Stohlman started the company with her husband, serial entrepreneur TK Stohlman, the founder of Dallas-based tech company and FanPrint, both acquired in 2021 by Delta Apparel (NYSE: DLA). TK Stohlman also created AI-powered energy exploration company EnergyStar.AI, officially licensed MLB player products company Ballpark MVP, online brand protection Counterfind, and Sports Founders, a business incubator for sports startups.

“We’re actually bootstrapping [Rally],” Lauren Stohlman said. “My husband and I sold another company a couple years ago and we used that to invest in this company. We started off thinking, ‘Oh, this will be fun, a little pickleball company,’ and then it kind of grew into something bigger. We’ve completely 100% fully funded it. We are at the process now of contemplating opening it up for investors, but we’re still in those beginning processes.”

Calling itself “the first California-inspired lifestyle brand for pickleball players,” Rally Republic’s paddles are licensed and approved by the USA Pickleball Association. The company also makes custom branded paddles for corporations, brands, clubs, resorts and events.

In January, Rally Republic became the first pickleball brand to score licensing deals with major U.S. colleges and universities.
In addition to locals San Diego State University and University of San Diego, Rally Republic has contracted with universities across the nation, from Alabama, Arizona State and Auburn to Washington, West Virginia and Xavier, and dozens in between.
The company’s items, $79.99 for non-collegiate paddles and $99.99 for those with university ties, are sold online at and on Amazon as well as in selected U.S. college bookstores and sporting goods retail stores, including Rally House and Gameday Spirit.

Stohlman said Rally Republic is expanding its lineup and plans to unveil apparel, equipment and accessory lines as it looks to become more of a “lifestyle brand.”

Her career and working background make that plan very do-able, she said.

“I love being creative,” Stohlman said.

Stohlman spent 12 years as a professional photographer and for nearly a decade worked in the apparel industry with international brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Tommy Bahama and GUESS Jeans.

Anyone’s Guess Where Pickleball Will Go Next

“It’s hard to say where pickleball is going to stop growing,” said McCune of DUPR, who recently returned from a pickleball tournament in Mumbai, India. “I don’t know what’s going to stop it. It’s fun and people are laughing and smiling while they play. And I can’t think of any other sport with a lower barrier to entry.

“I also don’t know another sport that levels the playing field between age and gender so well, not until the upper levels of the sport where some separation starts to develop.”
McCune also noted that talk has been getting louder for pickleball to become an Olympic sport.

“I was pretty entrenched in the snowboard industry when it went from big backyard to the half-pipe in the Olympics,” McCune said. “I think we’re going to see pickleball go from that back yard court into the Olympics… probably in 2032.”
Another rather unexpected place where pickleball is being played is across oceans on cruise ships.

Holland America’s fleet paired up with the Professional Pickleball Association to become the company’s official cruise line. All ships in the Holland America Line fleet have pickleball courts on their decks with beginner lessons offered.

Other cruise lines that have added pickleball play to their amenities include Regent, Carnival, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line.

CO-FOUNDERS: Ted Angelo and Patrick Rolfes
BUSINESS: Recreational sports
EMPLOYEES: 50 (20 in Spring Valley)
SOCIAL IMPACT: CEO Angelo donates funds to San Diego Youth Authority
NOTABLE: Club has spots in Silicon Valley, Alameda, with newest one coming to Florida this month

Rally Republic
CO-FOUNDER: Lauren Stohlman
BUSINESS: Sporting goods
SOCIAL IMPACT: Company has given away dozens of paddles to local auctions
NOTABLE: Co-founder Lauren Stohlman worked for Tommy Bahama, Guess? Jeans and Tommy Hilfiger in the past.

FOUNDER & CEO: Rafael Filippini
BUSINESS: Sporting goods
EMPLOYEES: 100 (12 in San Diego)
CONTACT: 877-443-2726
SOCIAL IMPACT: Company supports military organizations and veterans and cancer-fighting causes
NOTABLE: Founder and CEO Filippini is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was first ex-posed to composites work, engineering and racquetball




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