TicketManager | Partners Pick from Pack of Pickleball Prospects

Online used car buyer and seller Carvana announced last week that it would become the title sponsor of the Professional Pickleball Association beginning in 2023. That agreement was followed the next day by news that Molson Coors had signed a deal making its Vizzy, Miller Lite and Simply Spiked Lemonade brands—among others in the company’s portfolio—the exclusive beer, hard seltzer and flavored malt beverage partner of the PPA Tour.

It is no surprise that corporate partners across multiple industries have their eyes on the fast-growing sport. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Assn., 4.8 million people in the U.S. picked up a paddle in 2021, a 39 percent increase from 2019. Many insiders believe that number to be significantly higher based on equipment sales and other indicators.

Sponsors are attracted to both the sport’s increased popularity among younger people beyond the original age 55-plus crowd that first adopted it as a recreational activity, as well as the development of professional events and tours. The sport’s upscale, educated player demographic, while lacking in diversity, also is attractive to many brands.

The biggest challenge facing interested companies is where to put their marketing dollars, as there is no lack of rights holders seeking their support. A short list includes:

PPA. Launched in 2018 and now owned by billionaire Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, the PPA Tour held 20 events this year offering a total of $3 million in prize money. An additional five events are planned for 2023. In addition to Carvana and Miller Coors, the organization boasts Baird Wealth Management, Hertz, Casamigos, Chase, DraftKings, Guaranteed Rate, Hyperice and Hyundai as major sponsors.

MLP. While the PPA Tour focuses on individual competition, the year-old Major League Pickleball circuit is team based. It will hold its third event of the year this weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Featuring high-profile investors including Drew Brees, James Blake and Gary Vaynerchuk, its corporate support has come from endemic sponsors such as equipment-maker Franklin and Skechers.

APP. The Association of Pickleball Professionals, which has an alliance with MLP, has offered individual competition since its founding in 2019. This year has seen 32 events, sanctioned by the USA Pickleball governing body, offering $2 million in prize money. The APP’s sponsor list is also almost exclusively endemic brands. It received an undisclosed investment from sports marketing agency Intersport in January 2022.

US Open. The Minto US Open Pickleball Championships powered by Margaritaville has been held in Naples, Florida annually since 2017. Founded by two former Wilson Sporting Goods execs, the event is one of the largest in the sport, attracting nearly 3,000 amateurs and professionals competing for $100,000 in prize money in front of 25,00 spectators. The finals in April aired on CBS Sports Network.

USA Pickleball. The sport’s NGB offers grassroots reach, with 40,000 members and a registry of 10,000 pickleball facilities. Sponsors include Consumer Cellular, Day One CBD water, Penguin by Munsingwear and others.

Life Time. The 160-location chain of health clubs plans to spend $50 million to $75 million and offer between 600 and 700 dedicated pickleball courts by the end of 2023. The company has forged a partnership with the PPA Tour to hold tournaments at its clubs.

Brands can also sign endorsement and brand ambassador deals with the sport’s top professional players.

Determining which partnership path to take will of course depend on individual marketing objectives. While some brands may choose to align with a single entity, others may look to “take ownership” of the sport by establishing relationships across the pro and recreational levels with events, venues and other properties.

An opportunity certainly exists for partners to help diversify participation behind pickleball’s mostly white player base by establishing facilities and programs in underserved communities.

Regardless of the strategy, prospective potential partners should do their due diligence to determine which rights holders are well positioned to be good partners. Especially with such young organizations in the mix, it is important to peek behind the curtain and examine how properties are structured and staffed to not just sell and secure sponsors, but properly service those relationships.