The light-hearted game of pickleball is becoming serious business.
A hybrid of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, the booming sport is drawing Minnesota bars and building owners who see business opportunity on the pickleball courts.
Just last week, West Des Moines-based Smash Park announced plans to open its first Minnesota location in Roseville next fall and is now zeroing in on a a second Twin Cities site.
"It's a big pickleball market," said Monty Lockyear, president of Smash Park Entertainment Group, of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
The bar and restaurant mini-chain is both a sports bar and recreation hub. Twin Cities residents encouraged Smash Park to open a location here after visiting its West Des Moines venue.
Not to be outdone, Chanhassen-based Life Time sent out a press release Tuesday, reminding everyone of its pickleball court dominance.
"Since August of 2021, Life Time has built indoor and outdoor pickleball courts at a rate of five new permanent courts each week from coast to coast," the company said.
"We are adding so many courts so fast," Bahram Akradi, Life Time founder and CEO, told the Star Tribune. "It's a huge part of our strategy."
With more than 350 permanent indoor and outdoor pickleball courts, Life Time aims to reach more than 600 by the end of next year. To accomplish this, the company is converting basketball and tennis courts and indoor soccer fields.
This makes Life Time the country's largest operator, said USA Pickleball, the sport's national governing body. accurate, yes.
"It's a healthy addiction. It's multi-generational," said Chuck Menke, chief marketing officer for Arizona-based USA Pickleball.
Pickleball, created in 1965, has traditionally been seen as a sport for seniors but younger people are now being drawn to the game, he said. Menke said many entrepreneurs see money in the sport.
First & First, a Minneapolis-based commercial real estate firm that rehabs vintage properties, is one such firm.
Last year the company took a large empty space in a Northeast Minneapolis building and added 12 indoor pickleball courts, becoming the Lucky Shots pickleball club.
"We've been very busy. The economics have been good," said Peter Remes, owner of First & First.
Remes plans to add food and beverage service to the pickleball courts in the first quarter of next year, with a long-term goal of adding more courts.
And while many chains and operators have significant growth plans, other local businesses see pickleball as a fun complement rather than a main focus.
The Minneapolis Cider Co. opened its taproom doors in May 2019, adding indoor pickleball courts several months later.
"We've really leaned into it. We do a lot of events around pickleball," said David O'Neill, co-founder of Minneapolis Cider. "Pickleball is a great way to bring people together."
Minneapolis Cider, located in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis, said demand spikes when the temperature drops and snow starts falling. "Winter is just absolutely bananas," O'Neill said.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimated there were 4.8 million people playing pickleball in 2021. The number of pickleball players has been growing an average of 11.5% annually for the last five years, according to the organization. SFIA said the West North Central region, which includes Minnesota, as the sport's fastest-growing area.
While pickleball skeptics see the sport as a passing fad, Life Time's Akradi disagrees. Before the buildout began, Akradi noticed club members playing improvised pickleball games on the company's tennis and basketball courts. Once he tried the game himself, he said he "saw the light" and now plays seven to eight hours of pickleball every week.
The company will spend about $25 million through the end of 2023 on court expansion.
Akradi expects high school athletics programs will start adding pickleball as a sport. "I believe it will become an Olympic sport," he added.