For the third straight year, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America, having grown 51.8 percent in 2023, and an incredible 223.5 percent since 2020, according to SFIA’s 2024 Topline Participation Report. The research also found that pickleball, with 13.6 million participants, is now nearly the size of outdoor soccer (14.1 million participants). 

In fact, the updated 2023 Association of Pickleball Players (APP) Pickleball Participation Report states that it’s far bigger, with 48.3 million adults having played the game during the 12 months ending in March 2023. That study also reveals that the average age of pickleball players is 34.8 years, considerably younger than previously assumed, highlighting the growth of the sport among the 18-to-44 set.

Need more: Okay, in its 2023 State of Pickleball Report, the SFIA estimated that roughly 25,000 courts at a projected cost of nearly $1 billion would need to be built to meet the demand for pickleball in the U.S. Looking ahead, the pickleball paddle market alone – which was estimated at $152.8 million in 2021 – is forecasted to grow at 7.7 percent CAGR through 2028.

But, the billion-dollar question remains, where do all of those picklers (yes, that’s what they are called!) buy their paddles, balls, shoes and gear? The answer just may be — run specialty shops.

Because with numbers like these, it’s no wonder that retailers both within and outside the sporting goods industry are eager to get a piece of the pickleball pie. For running specialty stores in particular, interest in the pickleball market is growing and the early adopters are benefitting from their investment in the category. After all, in many ways it is the same customers they are already serving using the same specialty retail sales approach.

“Running and pickleball have many similarities and both require specialist assistance for people to purchase the products that are right for them, so it’s not surprising to see people who trust running retailers also trusting them for pickleball purchases,” says Tom Webb, CMO of the APP. While attending The Running Event in Austin, TX, last November, he saw that “the interest levels from running retailers in pickleball was phenomenal.” 

He adds, “It’s a new revenue possibility, so it’s not surprising that it’s growing.”

Getting Into the Game

The types of consumers apt to shop at run specialty stores for pickleball products are as broad as the range of people who run. This includes runners looking to try a new activity as well as pickleball players seeking retailers that carry pickleball products. 

“Running and pickleball share many similarities, in particular the fact that once people start, they’re hooked, but there’s not one single audience type who is more or less likely to come in and shop,” says Webb. “If a store carries a good range of products to suit all needs, they’ll attract a decent range of pickleball customers.

“That said, with the massive increase in pickleball offerings from big-box stores, perhaps the first-time pickleball player is more likely to shop there,” he adds. “But as soon as they want to improve their game, they’ll look for specialists and that’s where a trusted local run retailer can come in.” 

Leading the charge in the run specialty space is certainly Whirlaway Sports Center in Methuen, MA, which has built a solid pickleball business and the expansion is ongoing. It serves as a model – and a cautionary tale – for specialty retailers considering picking up the paddle.

“I’ve seen how the category has grown — and our business has grown even more,” enthuses owner David Kazanjian. “I stock over 400 paddles and 800 court shoes, so I’m committed to the category. We continue to learn and grow every day, and we’ve grown with pickleball for the past three years.” 

He adds, “We offer a demo program and have picked up a few new lines, but there are over 100 brands out there. We can’t carry everything, so knowledge is important.”

Whirlaway’s pickleball customers include some runners as well as some tennis players crossing over. Additionally, “there are a lot of kids out there playing pickleball and it will be a high school and collegiate sport soon and could be in the Olympics in the next eight years,” Kazanjian predicts. 

“Pickleball appeals to the person who never played sports and also to pickleball players and other athletes, both young and old — there are no limits,” he points out. “It has a strong social aspect, people can get good at the sport quickly and the success keeps people intrigued. Exercise plus fun is a winning combination.”

Meanwhile, Fort Walton Beach, FL-based Run With It is also deep into pickleball and began carrying the category way back in in 2020. In 2023, Jeff Harris, who owns the business with his wife, Dana Harris, purchased a building with room for a single indoor pickleball court. 

“This past year has been fantastic for the pickleball category,” Harris tells Running Insight, explaining that they opened the new store location in February, 2023 and the indoor pickleball court opened that April. Once the court opened, Run With It really began blowing out previous sales figures as people were so excited to have a regulation indoor court available. 

“What we found is that the court really acts like a loss leader, as it is very inexpensive to rent but it brings so many people into the store so they purchase footwear, pickleball paddles and accessories as well as apparel,” Harris explains. “It is an entirely new customer base for us.” 

Plus, “the category grew 200-plus percent last year. Again, this was driven by the indoor court that brought in new customers and for the most part it is entirely word of mouth.” 

As for his pickleball clientele, Harris says, “We do have some crossover between running and pickleball, but most of our customers are veteran pickleball players who have never had a local store to utilize and there are lots and lots of new players to the sport that need all the gear to start playing.” 

Pickling in the Desert

Newer to the pickleball scene is Glendale, AZ-based Tortoise & Hare Sports, which began carrying footwear, paddles, balls and accessories in August, 2023. “We are happy with where our pickleball business sits and don’t have any plans to expand beyond where we currently are, except for potentially adding ASICS court footwear next January and going deeper in the footwear quantities we carry,” says co-owner Nathan Hohenstein. 

His shop is adjacent to the Sun City retirement communities, where pickleball is the main sport and social activity, and they have identified and targeted those customers for years with their everyday athletic footwear and apparel offerings. “They’d been asking us for a while to carry specific footwear product, which we were happy to test and trial with our most loyal customers,” explains Hohenstein, adding that “the pickleball category has given us another way to serve our customers and community.” 

Hohenstein believes that customer service and knowledge help his store stand apart from the competition. 

“There are several tennis/pickleball stores that have popped up in our area and they also do a fine job servicing this customer. The main differentiator we’ve been able to communicate is around our product knowledge and fit process where these racket shops don’t have any expertise.” 

He adds, “Much of the pickleball footwear product from the brands we carry have unique fit attributes and material choices – from rubber overlays to outsole design – so the conversations at the fitting stool can be nuanced and give us an opportunity to explore other needs of these customers.” 

For instance, many of these people play pickleball but also have morning walking routines, so it gives the shop a chance to work across categories and present them with a complete and tailored solution to their needs.

This past January, Tim Ketron, owner of Athletic Outpost in Walnut Creek, CA, decided to bring in some pickleball shoes “because we were getting multiple daily calls requesting pickleball product.” His customers come from all over the area and many of them tend to be older. 

Similar to Tortoise & Hare, they are located near a high-end retirement community where pickleball is very popular. Athletic Outpost also sells footwear to other walkers and runners that are interested in the sport, so there’s some customer crossover. He notes that the store’s sales of pickleball shoes are about equal to those of trail shoes.

Although the pickleball footwear business is good, Ketron has no plans to expand into other categories. “Our store is only about 700-square feet, so we don’t really have the space to add more product. We carry ASICS and New Balance, so we’ll keep it to that and maybe add another model from ASICS.”

Meanwhile, Racquet and Jog, which operates three locations in Texas (Longview, Rockwall and Texarkana), added pickleball in the past year. 

“It’s been great. People are coming to us to buy paddles and we’re trying to carry higher-end product, including Selkirk and Head,” says Katin Curtis, marketing and website manager. “We also carry court shoes and it’s been worth the investment so far.” Additionally, the business is active in the local pickleball community, sponsoring a few players as well being involved in various running and pickleball events.

“Runners are our main clientele, but pickleball is on the rise. Many runners want to try something new and we also see crossover between tennis and pickleball,” says Curtis. “We’re always looking to expand.”

Pickleball Challenges

While getting involved in the pickleball category is certainly tempting, it’s not for every running specialty store. One of the main concerns is that pickleball product technology is constantly evolving, sometimes leaving retailers in a bit of a pickle as they struggle to keep up.

“Pickleball has been perceived as, ‘bring it in and it will sell,’ but it takes a lot of knowledge,” says Kazanjian. “It’s tricky to dabble, so you have to commit to it. The technology changes so fast – sometimes in less than a year – so you have to stay on top of it and also be cognizant of the competition, including online.” 

He also points out that because more pickleball complexes and venues are being built – some of which have their own pro shops – the landscape is becoming more competitive. For this reason, “Knowledge is key, and you have to have staff members that can talk pickleball.”

Harris concurs. “We are constantly changing and expanding our product selection. You have to do that as the sport as a whole is growing so quickly and the technology is changing so quickly that popular styles and brands lose favor with the customer when cutting-edge technology is released by new and upcoming companies.” 

He warns, “You find a brand or model that sells so quickly that you can’t keep it in stock, but when you increase inventory, you get stuck with the product as the customer base moves on to newer technology.” 

For Ketron at Athletic Outpost, it’s been smooth sailing. “We haven’t really had any problems. We understand how to fit a shoe and we haven’t had any returns. In terms of fit, it’s not that different from selling running shoes,” he says.

Due to the extreme summer temperatures in Arizona, Tortoise & Hare faces a different type of problem. “Thus far, pickleball appears to be a very seasonal category for us, so we are figuring out how to adjust the flow of product to match demand in the busy season, but not be too over-inventoried as it slows down in the summer,” says Hohenstein.

Tips for Success

“Just because you’re great at selling running shoes doesn’t mean you’ll be great at selling other categories,” warns Kazanjian. “You have to have a little passion for the sport — customers will ask a lot of questions. Make sure you don’t dabble — take it seriously and make the commitment.” 

“Just the same way a running retailer isn’t going to apply a generic product approach to their customers, the same is true for pickleball and that requires specialist knowledge,” says Webb. Knowing what sort of footwear to recommend, and the types of paddles that are best-suited to specific customers is going to be critical in building a reputation as truly knowledgeable and trustworthy. That will attract customers and increase revenue.” 

Webb also advises running retailers to play the sport, or at least have staff members who do. 

“The sooner you are engaged with the local pickleball community, the sooner you will start building your customer base,” he says. 

“Join Facebook groups and actively seek out the pickleball players in your area. It’s not a case of ‘build it and they will come,’ you need to go courting them — let them know you’re here, tell them you want to help them, tell them where to find you, and then they’ll come.”