The pickleball craze

The pickleball craze
The “poc-poc” sound of pickleball can now be heard from Caribbean resorts to European river cruises and everywhere in between, as the industry serves up ways for travelers to participate in the growing sport.
By Christina Jelski, Andrea Zelinski, Nicole Edenedo and Jamie Biesiada

To describe pickleball as merely popular these days would be an understatement.

Seemingly overnight, the racket sport, which combines elements of badminton, tennis and pingpong, has gone from niche recreational pastime to a veritable athletic empire, complete with its own professional leagues, celebrity investors and even a Stephen Colbert-hosted sports comedy special, called “Pickled,” that aired on CBS late last year. 

Connor Pardoe, CEO and founder of the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) and its PPA Tour professional and amateur pickleball competition, credits the sport’s meteoric rise to three key factors: It’s something almost anyone can do, it’s inexpensive to start playing and building a court is easy and can be done “almost anywhere.”

That last point may be why pickleball has caught on as much — and as quickly — as it has in travel.

Anywhere includes hotels and resorts, which have aggressively added pickleball courts in recent years and are now building more robust programming around the sport. Ocean and river cruise lines are also jumping in, carving out space on ships for pickleball courts. And travel advisors are discovering that some clients are clamoring for pickleball-focused trips.

“A lot of brands and companies want to be first movers in this space and have seen an awesome opportunity to jump in with this sport,” Pardoe said. “And no one really knows where the ceiling is yet.”

Pickleball checks in

Within the hospitality sector, pickleball courts are quickly becoming status quo.

Thanks to a growing number of properties adding ever more expansive pickleball facilities, several of the PPA’s largest events have been successfully hosted at resorts like the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa and La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs, Calif., in recent years. The PPA Tour tournaments typically host between 1,000 and 2,000 players per event.

“And our events have now gotten big enough that we’re at these resorts during peak season,” Pardoe said.

Even smaller properties are upping their game. The Tryall Club, a 91-villa luxury resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, debuted a pair of pickleball courts in 2019 and has since added two more in response to higher-than-expected demand. The resort has also rolled out a pickleball concierge service to help outfit guests with paddles, balls and athletic attire; organize private pickleball coaching sessions; or coordinate with an on-site chef to craft a customized post-match meal.

“As the demand continues to increase, we continue to add new elements to [our] pickleball programming,” said Arla Vernon Gordon, the Tryall Club’s director of sales, marketing and communications. “One out of three guests ask about pickleball.”

Even villa and vacation rentals are making space for the sport, reports Willie Fernandez, chief marketing officer of private villa specialist Rental Escapes.

“We have some villas [that] have modified their backyard space to add a pickleball court to meet the demands of guests,” said Fernandez, who added that he first noticed requests for homes with courts or access to pickleball beginning to spike last summer.

One of the biggest hospitality players pouring significant investment into pickleball, however, is Margaritaville, which announced late last year that it had signed on as the title sponsor of the Major League Pickleball professional league, with the organization subsequently rebranded as MLP by Margaritaville. Margaritaville has also served as the title sponsor of the USA Pickleball National Championships since 2018, and it plans to launch a branded line of pro-level pickleball paddles this summer.

“The DNA of the sport and the Margaritaville brand are so similar,” said Tamara Baldanza-Dekker, Margaritaville’s chief marketing officer. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what age you are, what color you are. Everyone just loves to play the sport; it’s fun, and it brings people together. So it’s a sport we really wanted to align ourselves with.”

Many Margaritaville properties, including its luxury RV resorts, have pickleball facilities, with plenty more in the pipeline. For example, the brand’s Margaritaville Resort Times Square in Manhattan, which opened in 2021, is planning to add an indoor pickleball court to its ground floor later this year. A glass window will face out onto 40th Street, allowing passersby to catch a glimpse of the action.

“It really doesn’t take a big footprint,” said Baldanza-Dekker. “And you can put a few where a tennis court used to be. Some of our properties have tennis courts that aren’t really being used, so we’re tearing those down and putting in pickleball — I mean, we just can’t get enough of it.”



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