GG’s Eli Judge examines pickleball’s meteoric rise and the role that smart external communications played in making it happen.
Whether you love it, hate it, or are still a little bit confused by it, pickleball is without a doubt one of the hottest sports in the country. It’s popular with everyone from college students to retirees – chances are, you have someone in your life who likes to play. But how did this sport, which exploded over the past few years, go from virtually unheard of to something that is apparently causing $400 million in injuries every year? (Don’t worry, it’s not actually that dangerous!)
The key was good external communications. By knowing their audience and leveraging the news cycle, pickleball organizations across the country took the game from a niche hobby to one of the most popular pastimes in the country.
Before pickleball really started to take off in the past few years, the game was primarily geared toward older people due to its ease of play. But a game that was easy enough for retirees to play had a potential market far outside just the 65+ crowd, and pickleball companies leveraged this to greatly expand the reach of their sport.
In 2020, USA Pickleball, the sport’s de facto governing body, revamped their website and logo to make it more modern and attractive to an all-ages audience, and leveraged social media influencers to bring the game to a new generation of players. This understanding of their intended audience was key to the sport’s growth and is key to any successful communications campaign – if you want to succeed, you have to know how and where to reach your targets. Modern channels like Instagram and TikTok are essential external communications platforms for reaching a younger audience who may not be as engaged with traditional media sources; using them helped pickleball establish itself with a new generation. And they did so at the perfect time.
Just as critical to pickleball’s success was knowing how to capitalize on a cultural shift. In 2020, millions of Americans were stuck at home and desperately in search of something they could do that was active but also socially distanced. Pickleball was already rebranding itself to be an all-ages game, but what really helped it take off was leveraging the gap in fun outdoor activities left by the pandemic. Just as social media was used to great effect to bring in new audiences, pickleball’s communications team leveraged traditional media to demonstrate how the sport was perfect for the pandemic, helping it grow its base of players even more.
Just a few months after lockdown began, The New York Times ran a story that called the sport “the perfect pandemic pastime” – a succinct encapsulation of the zeitgeist. A member of Pickleball USA’s marketing team also said that her inbox was full for inbound requests from major news outlets that wanted to cover the sport, and the external communications team took full advantage. Pickleball’s communications team obviously didn’t invent the pandemic, but they sure knew how to leverage it to promote their sport and increase its participation by more than 20% in just one year. You may not always have a world-changing pandemic, but looking for ripe opportunities to insert yourself into the media, and taking advantage of them, is key to making a successful external communications campaign.
As we get further and further from the dark early days of COVID, it sure seems like pickleball isn’t just going to be a blip on the radar. The sport is still growing, and fans across the country are encouraging cities to open more courts. Would the sport have grown organically during the past few years even without a smart communications push? Probably. But by meeting key new audiences where they are and taking full advantage of an opportune moment for expansion, pickleball transformed itself from a backyard game you play with grandma to one of the most popular sports in the country.