Why pickleball is at the heart of fitness giant Life Time’s growth plan

Bahram Akradi loves pickleball.

In fact, the CEO of the fitness club chain Life Time is so fond of the booming racket sport that he’s making it the centerpiece of his growth strategy. Life Time, which fancies itself as more country club than gym, with amenities like tennis and basketball courts and even water slides, plans to have 600 pickleball courts across its clubs by the end of 2023, up from 250 now.

“It’s my belief that pickleball will be the largest participant sport in the US eventually,” says the 61-year-old CEO. According to Pickleball USA, some 4.8 million Americans played the game last year, up 15% from the previous year.

But pickleball can only take the company so far. Akradi, who founded Life Time in 1992, is also doubling down on the chain’s nascent efforts to build conjoined luxury clubs and coworking spaces, as it tries to stave off rivals like Equinox, among other efforts.

Life Time’s 160 centers are heavily concentrated in Minnesota, Texas, and Illinois, but it plans to increase its presence nationwide. In New York City alone, Life Time plans to expand from four centers to 10 in the next year.

That stands in sharp contrast to the company’s position in 2020 when, like many fitness club chains, Life Time shuttered many locations for months on end due to the pandemic.

Life Time’s revenue that year fell by about half from 2019 levels to $948 million. In 2021, it rebounded to $1.32 billion and Wall Street expects revenue to hit $1.88 billion this year, according to Bloomberg data compiling analyst estimates.

Akradi, a lifelong athlete who regularly leads spin classes for Life Time patrons, thinks the workout-from-home trend will be short-lived, and predicts a robust return to in-person fitness classes. “Humans are social creatures. They need social interaction,” he says.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How has the fitness club industry rebounded from the pandemic and how are you doing?

Akradi: If all you’re interested in is pure exercise, then fitness is now a commodity. You can do it everywhere. You can do it in a hotel room, and office buildings and apartment buildings. But if you’re looking at an athletic country club environment, the social aspect of the beach clubs, the value of our business has not changed at all. Our revenues in our caf├ęs and bistros are above what they were before the pandemic.

What makes you stand apart from rivals like Equinox or even Planet Fitness?

Country club culture is not a gym culture. If you go to Garden City [Long Island] or if you go to Westchester, New York, you will see there is no comparison between Life Time and Equinox. They’re not in our space. They’re not our competitor. They are competing with 25% to 30% of the breadth of what we offer. For instance, our club in Brooklyn is 88,000 square feet, with a basketball court and a full-size swimming pool.

Do you position your higher-end gyms as a solution for mall developers who want to shift their tenant makeup away from department stores?

We’ve been doing that for the last six years, negotiating and working as partners with some of the largest mall developers like Simon Properties and GGP (now part of Brookfield), and we’ve brought in large-format clubs. We bring in people with a median household income that is 150% of the median household income of the general surrounding area.

Life Time is expanding its presence in the shared-workspace sector, with nine locations and four more to come soon. Won’t that bring you in direct competition with WeWork, led by a former collaborator of yours, Sandeep Mathrani?

I want you to understand that Sandeep, the CEO of WeWork, is a great friend of mine. I am going to be bold enough and say that the only reason that company is still standing is because Sandeep went to it. He knows what he’s doing. He is also the pro. We are doing something different when we attach shared workspaces to our athletic club or country clubs. We really don’t have a head-on competitor in that category. But we are not intending to take on Sandeep and WeWork. That’s never been the intention.

What is behind the pickleball gold rush you want to ride?

I’m an old man, and I’ve played almost every sport you can imagine. It’s my belief that pickleball will be the largest participatory sport in the US eventually. I think it will be one of the most highly followed spectator sports. I play tennis, but if I play with somebody who’s just started, I can’t play with them. With pickleball, I can take you to a court, I can take five minutes to teach you, then I can play with you. It’s uniting America, kids to 88-year-olds, white, Black, Indian, Persian; it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. Pickleball has everything it takes to be one of the biggest participatory sports in our country for a long time.

You own and produce some iconic endurance events like the Miami Marathon, the Leadville ultramarathons, and the New York City Triathlon. Those are pretty labor-intensive. Why are they worth it to you, and do you foresee Life Time operating more events?

These events are simply a rounding error for a $2 billion company. I can’t help it when there’s too much poop in the Hudson River and you can’t swim. [In 2021, the swim portion of the New York City triathlon was canceled because a heavy rain storm had sent too much effluent into the river.] But what we can control, we run in a first-class way only. Our job is branding these events and creating athletic outlets for our members.

In 2011, you took part in the 110-mile Leadville road race and ended up in the hospital from exertion after the race. What was the takeaway from that episode?

I’m not a runner. I run maybe one 5K a year, ceremonially. But I jumped into doing the ultramarathon in Leadville, Colo. After about 20 miles, my knees were hurting so bad. It never crossed my mind to stop, so I kept taking Advil, which you’re never supposed to do, and it ended up becoming a bigger ordeal than it needed to be. But you know what? I’m still proud. There were 800 ultrarunners who showed up; 353 finished and 450 didn’t. I was the last finisher. Once I put my mind to getting something done, it’s going to get done. For those ultradistance events, it’s just a personal challenge for me. Whereas if I play pickleball, I need to win.

You still periodically lead group rides on stationary bikes at Life Time. Why?

If I am not equal to my frontline people, I don’t deserve to be here. We have over 1.5 million people using our facilities. We have over 30,000 team members who deliver that experience. So in order for me to be relevant, I need to feel what my customers feel, what my associates feel.

You immigrated to the US from Iran as a youngster and have spoken in favor of more immigration. In this hyperpoliticized climate, where do you draw the line on speaking about issues that could be controversial?

First of all, my philosophy is, everybody in this country is lucky to be here. I am neither Republican nor Democrat, so I am not ever labeling myself, nor allowing anyone to take Life Time down a political path. My strongest request to all Americans is to be an American, to be one, to be united. We need to be the United States of America.

United around pickleball, at least?
Whatever cause unites us. Sports always unites people.

Get to know Akradi:

  • Akradi was born in Tehran, and immigrated to the US when he was 17. To pay his way through college at the University of Colorado, he worked at the US Swim & Fitness chain, where he caught the fitness bug.
  • He was part of a group of buyers in 2015 who took Life Time private in a deal that valued it at $4 billion. The company returned to the stock market in 2021 and its current market cap is $2.4 billion.
  • Akradi has competed in several extreme endurance events, including the Leadman triathlon in Colorado, consisting of a 3.1-mile swim, a 140-mile bike ride, and a 13.6-mile run.

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