Life Time is betting big on Pickleball

Five years ago, getting Life Time to open its tennis courts to a regional pickleball tournament wasn’t an 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 gave up 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 from 2017. And Chanhassen-based Life Time, already one of North America’s largest indoor tennis suppliers, aims to become the largest operator of indoor pickleball courts in the country.

In early 2022, Life Time will open its first pickleball-focused club, a refurbishment of the old Bloomington North fitness center on 84th Street. This 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’s athletics clubs currently have nearly 200 pickleball courts, and that number will soon double, said Dan DeBaun, Life Time’s senior public relations specialist.

Pickleball combines elements of squash, table tennis, and regular tennis. It is played with a solid paddle and a hard plastic ball similar to a Wiffle ball. The court is about one-third the size of a tennis court, which tends to make pickleball feel more accessible to older participants. But it is also growing rapidly among teenagers and young adults.

“It’s easy to learn and progress and improve,” said Liam Halloran, a 14-year-old pickleball enthusiast at Excelsior. “You don’t have to spend so much time on pickleball to have a lot of fun and feel good enough.”

Twin Cities Pickleball has seen its numbers get younger. “In the beginning, the average player was between 60 and 70 years old,” said Stucki. “And now we are reaching young executives, in their 20s and 30s, and hopefully we are taking him to the Junior Olympics.”

Given its wide appeal – the average pickleball player is 43.5 – Life Time began promoting the sport over the summer. “He is attractive to all ages,” DeBaun said.

Club Life Time Bloomington North Pickleball

Scheduled to open in early 2022, Life Time’s Bloomington pickleball club will feature five competition-level courts, a dedicated observation area, bar and lounge space.

The pickleball drive won’t diminish Life Time’s focus on indoor tennis. “Pickleball makes perfect sense as an addition to our list of existing racquet sports,” said DeBaun. “As an introductory racquet sport, Pickleball will only benefit tennis by bringing more players.”

Life Time has competition from boutique pickleball clubs.

The Lucky Shots Pickleball Club of Minneapolis is “all pickleball, all the time”, the slogan goes. With 12 pickleball courts, avid gamers can participate in open play and reserve playing time. The Picklebarn, which opens next year in Mankato, is a 27,000-square-foot pickleball tournament facility with eight courts.

The Picklebarn plans to offer leagues, lectures, drills, drop-in plays, lectures, private events and host regional tournaments to “shed light on this fantastic 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 seasoned veterans or taking 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 open in the Midwest,” said USA Pickleball spokeswoman Laura Gainor. “It’s actually a hot market right now for all of these entertainment venues that want to set up indoor courts with a bar or restaurant attached, giving more people opportunities to play.”

The growing enthusiasm for the sport creates a secondary market for pickleball accessories. You will now find a pickleball section in the sports department at most Target stores. “They’re coming out with more clothing, paddles, gear,” Gainor said. “Brands like Franklin partner with professional players and sponsor tournaments, so just a wide variety of growth opportunities.”

During the summer, Life Time hosted the Pro Pickleball Association Orange County Cup at its Rancho San Clemente club in California. It attracted thousands of viewers and television coverage, DeBaun said.

This isn’t a fad, pickleball enthusiasts and entrepreneurs say.

“I absolutely believe it will be an Olympic sport. Besides being a fun sport to play, it’s a great spectator sport, ”said Stucki. “It’s a real social game, but now it’s moving from social to competitive to commercial business.”

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