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The Guide to Starting Your Pickleball Business | PodPlay

Ben Borton, Apr 24, 2024

What do I need to know to start a pickleball club?

In their 2023 State of Pickleball: Participation & Infrastructure Report, Pickleheads and SFIA estimate there are 12,081 Pickleball facilities in the U.S. with an average of 4.3 courts per facility, for a total of 51,937 courts. Over 70% of these courts are temporary. The report estimates that the U.S. will need to spend $900 million over the next 5-7 years to build 25,800 dedicated courts to reach one dedicated court per 500 participants. 

If you are one of the entrepreneurs emerging to create the supply needed to balance the overwhelming demand for courts, this blog is for you! 

Table of Contents

Create your pickleball business plan

Whether starting a new pickleball business plan or refining an existing one, you’ll want to translate your pickleball ideas into a clear vision, market understanding, informed financial strategy and operational plan, and benchmarks to track performance. This is especially true if you hope to secure financing through loans, investors, or partners. 

This guide covers essential topics, including who your target customers are, ideal pickleball club size, profitable pickleball business models, club membership types, peak and off-peak hours, pricing models, club programming, and critical sources of differentiation. Our insights on building a successful pickleball business plan come from our experience as an operator of sports clubs and provider of pickleball court reservation and club management software to the most tech-forward pickleball clubs in the world. 

What to include in pickleball business plan

If you have any questions or additional resources to include in support of entrepreneurs creating their own pickleball business plan we want to hear from you. 

Identify your target pickleball customer

The best pickleball clubs have a business model that matches the needs of the target customer profile. Aspiring club owners should start their pickleball business by asking: who is my target customer? 

Since different customer segments have very different needs, it's essential to understand the motivations of the most common types of pickleball players. The following list of characteristic customer segments is non-exhaustive and meant to illustrate differences in their needs:

Types of pickleball customers to target

Professional pickleball players: 

  • Often, play multiple times a week and engage in training. 
  • May play professionally or have aspirations to play professionally. 
  • Care deeply about court surfaces, ceiling height, and lighting. 
  • Players work with top-level pros and enhance their game with pickleball coaches. 
  • They are attracted to high-level competition and may want to limit contact with casual players and beginners. 
  • They regularly participate in tournaments and leagues.

Regular pickleball players: 

  • Play multiple times a week but take it less seriously than the pros. 
  • Some of this group will be interested in improving their game through coaching and clinics. 
  • Others are more oriented towards fun and exercise than competition. 
  • Regulars care deeply about scheduling flexibility and proximity to home and work. 
  • Given the regularity of their play, these customers tend to be value-conscious and attracted to memberships and packages that yield a volume discount. 

Social players: 

  • Play regularly with an emphasis on the social aspects of the game and building community. 
  • Oriented towards fun and light exercise rather than competition. 
  • They often prefer open plays and group clinics over court reservations. 
  • While some may have regular playing partners, others may look for people to play and have fun with. 
  • Food, beverages, and the ability to watch sporting events are essential to social players.
  • Enjoy sharing video replays of pickleball matches and other user-generated content with their friends online.

Casual or new players: 

  • Players who are new to or just getting introduced to the game. 
  • They prioritize a friendly, non-threatening environment to meet new people and learn the game. 
  • New players prioritize vibe and community over the quality of courts and lighting or the height of the ceilings. 
  • Beginner-friendly programming is essential.

Determine how big your pickleball club will need to be

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. A club with two courts is very different from a club with 24 courts, and other elements like staffing and programming will follow from club size. Factors to consider when picking the right size for your club may include:

  • Local Demand. It would be best if you had a good sense of the current and potential population of pickleball players relative to your target site. How dense is the population? How many players can you conservatively expect through the door each week once the facility is fully activated? By doing some basic math, you can return to how many players per week are required to fill up clubs of different sizes.

How to utilize a pickleball court for players

Getting 500-1000 players per week through your door is quite plausible in a city with a population of a million. Less so in a town of 10,000 residents. When building your pickleball business plan, look closely at the following market considerations to determine the ideal size of your pickleball club:

  • Local Supply. You will want to evaluate what other options local pickleball players have, their current behavior, and where the gaps in the market are. Is the population well served? What are the current options, and are they indoors or outdoors? When you think about the population of potential pickleball players in your area, you need to overlay that on the amount of existing and future supply. 
  • Staffing Considerations. Larger venues will require hiring, training, and managing a larger staff, which excites some venue operators and is challenging for others. If you don't want to manage a large staff, you should consider running a smaller facility with a labor-light business model. You may even want to consider the autonomous operating model.
  • Cost Considerations. While a large club will require more upfront investment than a smaller space, larger spaces are generally available to lease for less per square foot than a comparable smaller unit. Larger venues may allow pickleball operators to spread fixed costs over more revenue-producing courts. So, while a larger venue is likely to cost more upfront and to operate than a smaller venue, it should be cheaper per-court basis.

Select the right business model for your pickleball club

Club owners should align their business model with their target customer profile. At a high level, there are two main models (with lots of variations that fall on a spectrum):

  • Pickleball-Focused. These are venues that are focused on the sport first. Investments are made in courts, lighting, and equipment to provide a great playing experience. Pickleball-related activities like court reservations, membership, programming, coaching, and clinics almost entirely drive revenue. In general, pickleball-focused clubs seek to create an environment that attracts pros and serious regular players. 
  • Eatertainment. These are venues that offer full food and beverages alongside pickleball. Often, they are larger spaces with a higher cost structure and overhead but significantly higher overall revenue potential. Because food and beverage sales drive profitability and margins, the playing experience may be less important than the overall ambiance and social atmosphere. In general, eatertainment venues will seek to create an environment that attracts social and casual players for an outing of pickleball, food, and drink. Eatertainment venues also often derive significant revenue from private and corporate events - they need the space and amenities to attract these events.

Your pickleball club's business model will inform the membership strategy, court pricing, and programming.

Evaluate membership models for your pickleball business

Many traditional athletic clubs are membership-only. A members-only pickleball business model yields certainty of recurring revenue for the club but is generally the wrong price for many customers and does not discriminate between peak and non-peak hours. Some members will use the club a lot and get a consumer surplus. Others will use the club very little. A very profitable membership model may sometimes depend on "breakage," i.e., some members are not using the facility. Generally, membership-only models in pickleball are more common at very high-end clubs that seek to replicate an exclusive country club-like offering and can work in that context. Outside of the high-end country club style model, membership-only models need to find a way to balance the needs of the customers and the club. 

Membership models range from on-demand only (no membership) to membership only. The vast majority of clubs will involve a mix of membership, programming, and on-demand bookings. There is no one answer to membership, but the common theme of effective and sustainable programs is that they deliver value to customers and profitability to the club owner. 

Membership provides club owners with recurring revenues with a high degree of certainty. There is a strong appeal to knowing you have a minimum amount of revenue booked for the month before it even starts. Usually, a club will offer court capacity to members at discounted rates in exchange for that certainty. If you want to charge high membership dues, you must either have excess demand for your capacity, deliver a lot of value to your members, or both.

A simple framework for evaluating membership is comparing all-in savings for members versus non-member rates. The table below shows three oversimplified scenarios (discounted court bookings and no other perks) to illustrate this framework. 

Pickleball membership models

When marketing memberships, it is important to define the value to your customers clearly. In Scenario 1 above, the club could market this membership by saying, "Want to play more than six hours of pickleball per month? Save money with a membership!"

It is important for club owners to right-size the number of memberships sold. While selling a lot of memberships is great for recurring revenue, if there is little capacity for those members to use, the members will be disappointed. Capping the number of memberships and creating a waitlist can effectively incentivize membership sign-ups and retention. Members will think twice about canceling if it means they go to the back of the waitlist line. 

From a club standpoint, it is important to consider the amount of consumer surplus delivered to members and the opportunity cost of the court time members use. Club owners will generally be willing to offer a discount in exchange for more revenue certainty. Still, they will be particularly willing if the capacity used by members is not likely to be used by non-members. Creating memberships that offer discounts or free play during hours with lower utilization can be a fantastic win-win for customers and clubs alike. Consider using membership to balance demand across different hours and days of the week.

Pickleball business ideas and perks to offer club members:

  • Early Access to Bookings. Members typically have a longer booking horizon than non-members. This valuable perk should appeal to almost all pickleball club owners because members get to lock in their desired reservation times before non-members, and it doesn't involve a discount.
  • Discounted Court Reservations. Members receive a discount on court bookings. In some cases, clubs will offer members free court reservations. We would counsel clubs to think hard about the implications of free reservations. Because a booking usually involves 2-4 players, free reservations can create a free rider problem, with non-members piggybacking on member perks. In addition, if reservations are free, members may reserve many slots they do not use. If offering free reservations, clubs should limit the number of reservations a member can hold at one time. Club owners should also consider limiting the number of free court reservations per month. Offering discounts on court reservations and free open play can effectively manage free rider issues. 
  • Discounted / Free Open Play. Pickleball is an inherently social sport. If you have the court capacity to offer regular open play, discounted or even free open play can be an excellent perk that delivers value to both the customer and the club. Attending an open play means not having to identify who you will play with in advance. It can also be a great way for customers to meet other like-minded players. Clubs can also create skill-based open plays, where players are bucketed by their DUPR rating, to match players with players of similar skill. Free open play is much less problematic than free court reservations because each participant signs up individually.
  • Members Only Events. Creating events that require a membership to attend gives members an exclusive benefit and may encourage non-members to consider membership because they fear missing out. 
  • Members Only Swag. Similar to events that require membership, special member swag gives members an exclusive benefit that can be highly visible (shirts, hats, sweatshirts) and cause non-members to consider membership for fear of missing out.

We encourage club owners to think hard about membership benefits that allow free court reservations, particularly unlimited ones. In addition to the detailed free rider problem, we have seen situations where customers hoard multiple reservations to retain the opportunity to play, effectively removing the capacity that paying customers might otherwise want. If offering free court time, club owners should limit the number of reservations a single customer can hold at any given time and institute penalties for repeat no-shows.

Decide whether to offer peak and off-peak hours

Demand for pickleball courts can differ dramatically. For most clubs, filling your courts on a Saturday night is easy, while doing so on a Monday morning is not. Because demand differs by time and day of the week, offering lower prices during off-peak hours can be a good way to incentivize cost-sensitive customers to play during lower-demand periods. Most customers will default to booking during peak hours without a pricing incentive. 

The fundamental property of court time for club owners is: use it or lose it. You don't get a second chance to sell Court 1 at 3:30 pm last Friday. This quality makes optimizing the utilization of available court inventory crucial to the success of your pickleball club. Both off-peak pricing and membership can be used to help balance utilization across the week. Memberships that target off-peak hours (like a morning membership) can be a great way to create value for cost-sensitive, time-sensitive customers who want to play a lot of pickleball!

Choose the most profitable pricing model for your pickleball business

When choosing a pricing model for your pickleball club, operators often make trade-offs between the venue's and customer's needs. If everything else is held equal, a venue will favor higher prices, no free riders, and certainty of recurring revenue. Customers will favor lower prices, simplicity of use, and flexibility. 

In our experience, customers like pricing simplicity, dislike any uncertainty about charges, and will not always know in advance who they are playing with. If there is an opportunity to free ride on someone else's discounted pricing, a subset of customers will find a way to take advantage. 

All club pricing models involve trade-offs. What is good for the customer may not be good for the club and vice versa. You will want to choose a model that balances the needs of customers and the club because customer-friendly models will ultimately yield happier customers and higher utilization. The two main pricing models are:

  • Per court: pricing is per court/hour. The reservation holder pays for the court and invites other participants to the reservation (up to the maximum number of participants per reservation). If pricing is $20 / court hour, then a one-hour reservation with 2 participants and a reservation with 4 participants pay the same $20. The club will define a per-person upcharge for participants above the maximum number per reservation. If a member makes court bookings with reduced pricing, non-members invited to join the reservation will benefit from member pricing.
  • Per spot: pricing is per participant/hour. The reservation holder books a time slot and number of participants and then invites other participants to the reservation. The reservation holder can foot the bill for all participants or pay for their slot, and other participants will pay for their slot. This pickleball pricing model allows for a mix of members and non-members who may pay different rates. The reservation holder is generally responsible for no-shows if invitees do not accept invitations.

Advantages and disadvantages of per court vs per spot pickleball pricing

Choosing a pricing model for your pickleball business to increase profitability should be linked to your approach to club membership and peak versus off-peak hours. Pickleball pricing models are complex because members play for discounted or free, and there are potential free rider problems. Membership that focuses free play on open plays can be an effective way to limit free rider problems. Open play is, by definition, per spot, so member benefits are conferred to the member but not their non-member companions. 

Develop a mix of programs to offer at your pickleball club

Pickleball is widely known as one of the most social sports. It is easy to pick up for players across a wide age range, making it very approachable. The vast majority of play is doubles, involving at least four players. The combination of a healthy, approachable, inherently social game means offering the right mix of programming, which is crucial to the success of your pickleball club. 

Types of programming to offer at a pickleball club

Common types of pickleball club programming include:

  • Open Play. The single most common form of pickleball programming is open play. The format allows players to sign up to play with a group of other players. The open play may involve one or multiple courts and will allow maximum number of participants. Customers take turns playing games with other members of the group. Some clubs will segment open play by DUPR rating, ensuring that pickleball players get matched with others of similar skill levels. Open plays are a great way to meet other people and be sure to have playing partners without having to organize around the schedules of others. 
  • Clinics / Group Classes. Clinics and classes are excellent ways for players to improve their skills. They are often segmented by skill level and may focus on particular skills. For some, the group setting may be more fun, less intimidating, and more cost-effective than a private coaching lesson. Players who receive instruction tend to see their skills improve and become more active participants across all club activities. 
  • Kids Classes and Camps. Classes and camps targeting kids are a great way for clubs to increase utilization in after-school and summer hours. Parents love to find fun, healthy, social activities for their kids, particularly during after-school hours when the parents may be working. Club owners create the next generation of pickleball enthusiasts by cultivating kids to become their core customer base. 
  • Coaching. Offering private coaching is an excellent way to increase engagement. Customers who get coaching see their skills improve and, as a result, become more active customers. We have found across clubs that the lifetime value of customers who get coaching is a multiple of the lifetime value of the average customer. Coaching offerings will be distinguished by the quality of the coaches, their availability, and the ease with which customers can coordinate a lesson. 
  • Tournaments. Many players enjoy testing their skills in a competitive environment. Tournaments are single- or multi-day events that often impact player ratings. Tournament offerings can be important for attracting serious or competitive players to your club.  
  • Leagues. Leagues are another form of competitive programming, with players competing (usually on teams) over weeks. Leagues can be a fantastic way to build community and friendly rivalries between players in your club. 
  • Social Events. More social events (e.g., 80's Night) can be important offerings for clubs that emphasize casual and social players. These events emphasize a non-competitive, fun, and social environment. 
  • Private Events. Pickleball-themed events are fantastic for birthday parties and other private events. Clubs should calibrate private event offerings to the size of the club and services offered. While more operationally intensive than court bookings, private events garner much higher hourly rates. In addition to being a great source of revenue, private events introduce groups of new customers to your venue in a fun and friendly environment, which means they are more likely to become repeat customers.
  • Corporate Events. The social nature of pickleball makes it ideal for corporate team building or celebratory events. Corporate events often involve full venue buyouts, and clubs will need to be able to provide food and beverages to cater to this segment. While more operationally intensive than court bookings, corporate events may represent the highest per-hour rates a club will achieve. In addition to being a great source of revenue, corporate events introduce groups of new customers to your venue in a fun and friendly environment, which means they are more likely to become repeat customers.

Differentiate your pickleball business from competitors

While many early-mover pickleball clubs today benefit from being "the only game in town," this is not likely to be a long-term source of competitive advantage. As more supply enters the market, we will move towards a future equilibrium where players have multiple options and clubs compete in their offerings. In this future state, differentiation will become more important. 

Key sources of club differentiation include:

How to differentiate my pickleball club from other clubs

  • Facilities. Clubs can differentiate based on playing conditions. The quality of courts, lighting, ceiling height, and room around courts will all be factors that customers, particularly more serious players, will consider when evaluating the right club. 
  • Programming. Clubs can differentiate based on the quantity and quality of programming offered. Customers will look for a mix of Open Plays, Clinics, Coaching, Tournaments, Leagues, and Social Events that fit their preferences. Programming should cater to target customer segments.  
  • Technology. Clubs can differentiate based on the software and hardware. A modern, mobile-friendly booking app that seamlessly handles court reservations, programming, membership, coaching, and payments is the gateway to get customers into the club. Hardware-enabled features like digital scoreboardsvideo replays, and game analytics can enhance profit for these in-club experiences. Clubs that pursue an autonomous operating model, with self-serve door access in the app and 24/7 remote security monitoring, can offer greater scheduling flexibility to their customers. 
  • Services. Non-pickleball products and services like food and beverage, merchandise, massages, physical therapy, gyms, and pro shops can be sources of club differentiation. Food and beverage are particularly important for clubs pursuing an entertainment business model. 
  • Customer Service. Cheerful, helpful staff that make a customer's experience fun and pleasant can make a huge difference for a club. Premium clubs, in particular, will seek to differentiate through top-notch customer service. 
  • Brand. A brand is a promise to customers. It is a story about what to expect when customers enter the club, told through digital and physical mediums. All of the above sources of differentiation contribute to or reinforce a club's brand. The best brands in pickleball will have a consistent message and experience that customers can count on. 

The PodPlay Advantage

This guide to starting your pickleball business is the product of multiple conversations per day with existing and aspiring club owners. Once you get past the pure excitement of starting your own pickleball club, there are many hard questions you need to ask to manage your business successfully. We are here to help!

PodPlay gives venue operators all the tools they need to manage a physical space digitally: integrating video replays, digital scoreboards, and autonomous functionality with software to manage court reservations, programming, coaching, memberships, payments, analytics, and more. 

Originally built to power PingPod, the network of futuristic autonomous ping pong clubs, PodPlay is now used to manage venues across pickleball, padel, ping pong, and pool, with more experienced verticals to come.

If you want to learn more about PodPlay's solutions for pickleball businesses request a demo.

Additional Resources

This guide focuses on club size, business model, membership structure, pricing, programming, technology and other factors crucial to running a profitable pickleball business where PodPlay has knowledge and expertise. There are a host of other important factors to consider when starting a pickleball business plan where we have less expertise and would recommend leveraging other experts in the ecosystem. Each of the following is a valuable resource for aspiring club owners:

  • Johns Design and Consulting (JDC). A joint venture between JOOLA and the world's best pickleball players Ben and Collin Johns. For clubs looking for the reputation and recipe of a franchise without the crippling royalties, JDC provides a blueprint for facility design & enhancement, pickleball business & operations, staffing & hiring, and marketing & branding. For more information contact [email protected].
  • JOOLA. The leading global pickleball brand and maker of the Scorpeus, Magnus, Hyperion, and Perseus lines of paddles favored by Pros like Ben Johns, Tyson McGuffin, and Anna Bright, is a one stop shop for all the equipment needed to outfit your club and stock your pro shop. 
  • The Pickleball Brief. A leading provider of content on the business of pickleball that offers deeply researched content targeted at pickleball club owners and industry professionals. 
  • Pickleheads. The most comprehensive online directory of pickleball courts in the United States and the official court and game finder of USA Pickleball. For aspiring club owners who want to understand local supply and demand dynamics Pickleheads is an invaluable resource.