The sport is exploding at clubs and in communities across the country for good reasons — its fun and easy to play
ORLANDO, Florida — Connor Hance and Drew Baird are co-owners of the California-based Enhance Pickleball, a company the former star tennis players at UCLA started in 2022.
Being an upstart business, the college roommates did not quite know what to think when the PGA of America began calling to gauge interest in attending the 2024 PGA Show, a massive showcase of the latest and greatest in golf with more than 1,000 exhibitors at the Orange County Convention Center.
"We’re still getting our feet wet … and this is actually our first trade show," says Baird of the two’s cross-country trip from Los Angeles to Florida to exhibit its DinkMaster training aid. "The PGA sort of explained the opportunity. Obviously a lot of golf clubs have tennis and now they have pickleball, so I think it made a lot of sense for us. It certainly has turned into a country club sport."
The two were not alone, as the growing sport sort of crashed the golf show with its largest footprint to date. Only three pickleball companies attended the 2023 PGA Show, and this year more than a dozen were on hand displaying various rackets, balls, clothing and training aids.
There were even two courts constructed for some celebrity and professional play to showcase the sport that can best be described as a larger outdoor version of racquetball.
Among those playing matches was NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry and former LPGA major champion and four-time U.S. Solheim Cup member Sherri Steinhauer. Eight-time major golf champion Tom Watson was in the building for another function, but he too says he plays pickleball on a regular basis as the crossover appeal of the sport is hard to ignore.
"What don't I like about it?" says the 6-foot-7 Barry, who will turn 80 in March and began playing pickleball six years ago. "You get great exercise, but you don't have to beat yourself up. Tennis was way harder on my body.
"The explosion of the sport has been phenomenal. I was told three years ago they expected 30 million people by 2030. It's 2024 and there's over 45 million. It's the fastest growing sport I've ever seen. I love it. I would play four or five times a week if I could get the games."
According to USA Pickleball, the sport was invented by three fathers in 1965 on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington. As of Jan. 4, 2024, the association totaled 78,766 members — an increase of 15% over 2023. And Places2Play.org's database lists11,885 known locations totaling 50,003 courts.
Many golf courses or country clubs have converted tennis courts to pickleball courts or embarked on new construction in order to meet the intense member demand.
Tait Engebretsen, a spokesman for Selkirk Sport, whose company motto is “We Are Pickleball,” has been to the PGA Show the last three years and has seen firsthand the co-mingling of golf and pickleball.
"If you go join a golf club you walk in and you can golf with anyone — you join a foursome, you meet new people," he says. "There's a community involved in golf, and it’s the same thing with pickleball. You can go to any random city, find a court, and there's going to be 80 people playing and 40 of them are waiting. You show up by yourself and you are welcomed, just like going to the golf course.
“And no one cares how good you are, how bad you are, if you're a pro, if you're not, they just want to play. And that's why the golf community and the pickleball community have so much in common."
Hance and Baird agree that pickleball translates better to the masses more so than tennis.
"As two high-level tennis players, tennis is really fun for us, but most people who play tennis don't get to experience tennis at that level,” says the 25-year-old Hance, who played for a PAC-12 championship team while at UCLA. "And tennis at the lower levels isn't very fun. It's really confusing on how to learn how to play. With pickleball you walk out and if you're a semi-decent athlete, you’re going to start enjoying it immediately. So, I think there is this big pool of people who probably would've liked tennis but they just weren't willing to buy into it, or maybe they used to play tennis and now they just physically can't keep up anymore."
Hance and Baird Dink Master invention helps pickleball players hone their short game while at home. They have also customized noise-blocker panels for golf clubs to place over fences to cut down on the pickleball paddle-to-ball sound.
"This is honestly exciting for us," Hance says. "We had no idea what to expect but it’s great to see all these other pickleball brands here. It’s amazing to me. We weren’t expecting this at all. I thought that it owuld be a good test too, because this isn’t necessarily our most core audience."
Over the past couple of years, the Enhance Pickleball duo has totaled more than 200 million views on its various social media platforms, including weekly YouTube content on the sport and it’s development.
"A lot of people are learning right now, so our YouTube content essentially is the No. 1 way that they're learning pickleball," Hance says. "And I don't think it's like golf or tennis, where they're paying for lessons as much because pickleball is a lot easier to learn. So they can just watch a few YouTube videos and they’re ready to roll."
Hance said it’s a misnomer that pickleball is played by mostly senior citizens.
"Just like with golf, there is an emerging younger audience," he says.