Five years ago, convincing Life Time to open its tennis courts to a regional pickleball tournament was no easy task.
“We begged Life Time in Lakeville to use the tennis courts to sponsor a regional pickleball tournament,” recalled Frank Stucki, president of the Twin Cities Pickleball Club. Life Time retired, and the tournament was a huge success. “We had people from all over the country, we had 500 participants.”
Since then, the sport has exploded. The USA Pickleball Association estimates there are more than 5 million players—a 34% increase since 2017. And Chanhassen-based Life Time, already one of the largest indoor tennis providers in North America, is setting its sights on becoming the largest operator of indoor pickleball courts in the country.
In early 2022, Life Time will open its first pickleball-focused club—a revamp of the old Bloomington North fitness center on 84th Street. That will follow the recent opening of new pickleball courts at Life Time clubs in Eden Prairie, Lakeville, White Bear Lake, and St. Louis Park. Across the country, Life Time athletic clubs currently feature nearly 200 pickleball courts, and that number will soon double, said Dan DeBaun, Life Time’s senior public relations specialist.
Pickleball combines elements of racquetball, table tennis, and regular tennis. It’s played with a solid paddle and hard plastic ball similar to a Wiffle ball. The court is about a third the size of a tennis court, which tends to make pickleball feel more approachable to older participants. But it’s also growing fast among teenagers and younger adults.
“It’s easy to learn and easy to progress and improve at,” said Liam Halloran, a 14-year-old pickleball enthusiast from Excelsior. “You don’t have to put that much time into pickleball to have a lot of fun and feel like you’re pretty good at it.”
Twin Cities Pickleball has seen its numbers trending younger. “In the very beginning, the average player was in their 60s and 70s,” Stucki said. “And now we’re reaching down into young executives, the 20s and 30-year-olds, and hopefully, we’re getting it into the Junior Olympics.”
Given its broad appeal—the average pickleball player is 43.5—Life Time started promoting the sport over the summer. “It’s appealing to all ages,” DeBaun said.
Scheduled to open in early 2022, Life Time’s Bloomington pickleball club will be equipped with five competition-level courts, a dedicated viewing area, bar, and lounge space.
The push into pickleball won’t diminish Life Time’s focus on indoor tennis. “Pickleball makes perfect sense as an addition to our roster of existing racquet sports,” DeBaun said. “As an introductory racquet sport, Pickleball will only benefit tennis by bringing in more players.”
Life Time does have competition from boutique pickleball clubs.
Lucky Shots Pickleball Club in Minneapolis is “all pickleball, all the time,” the slogan goes. With 12 pickleball courts, avid players can participate in open play and reserve game time. The Picklebarn, set to open next year in Mankato, is a 27,000-square-foot tournament pickleball facility with eight courts.
The Picklebarn plans to offer leagues, classes, drills, drop-in play, lessons, private events, and host regional tournaments to “shed more light on this awesome sport,” said Mitchell Elofson, co-founder with his wife Sidney. “We want to make everyone feel welcome when they come in to play, whether they are a seasoned veteran or picking up the paddle for the first time. We will offer something for any type of player.”
Are pickleball centers the new bowling alleys? “There are a lot more courts being opened up in the Midwest,” said USA Pickleball spokeswoman Laura Gainor. “It’s actually a hot market right now for all these entertainment venues that want to put in indoor courts with a bar or restaurant attached to them, giving opportunities for more people to play.”
Growing enthusiasm for the sport creates a secondary market for pickleball accessories. You’ll now find a pickleball section in the sports department at most Target stores. “They’re coming out with more apparel, paddles, equipment,” Gainor said. “Brands such as Franklin are partnering with pro players and sponsoring tournaments, so just a wide variety of opportunities for growth.”
Over the summer, Life Time hosted the Pro Pickleball Association Orange County Cup at its Rancho San Clemente club in California. It drew thousands of spectators and TV coverage, DeBaun said.
This is no fad, pickleball enthusiasts and business owners say.
“I absolutely believe that it’s going to be an Olympic sport. Besides it being a fun sport to play, it’s a great spectator sport,” Stucki said. “It’s a real social game, but now it’s going from social to competitive to a commercial business.”