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Pickleball Serves Up Licensing image

Pickleball Serves Up Licensing

By: Mark Seavy

Deep-pocketed investors and equipment suppliers are making a play for pickleball, bringing with them the trappings of long-established professional sports leagues.

While league-sanctioned licensing deals may be a few years away—Major League Pickleball (MLP) and the Professional Pickleball Association are weighing a merger backed by $50 million in equity investments—equipment suppliers are landing deals with pickleball players and other pro sports leagues.

Franklin Sports (National Basketball Association), Parrot Paddle (National Football League), and Baddle (National Hockey League) have all joined the ranks of licensed paddle suppliers. That is in addition to the collegiate ranks, where 700 club teams have been targeted by companies like Blue84 (apparel) and Boundless (paddles).

And like other sports in their formative years, private equity is serving to consolidate an equipment base that includes about 950 paddle suppliers.

Thirty-5 Capital, a private equity firm focused on sports technology, formed United Pickleball Paddles through the acquisition of Paddletek. The company already owns ProXR (professional paddles) and Boundless, with the latter serving as its licensing arm.

“We are trying to consolidate as many brands as possible and we will continue to do so in this category and capture market share,” said Jonathan Arenas, an Associate in Business Development at Thirty-5 Capital. “There are hundreds of paddle suppliers right now, but that is not going to be the case three to five years from now.”

Until that consolidation becomes a reality, many companies are turning to celebrities to stand out. LeBron James, Tom Brady, rapper Drake, and actor Michael B. Jordan have all invested in MLP teams. And Parrot Paddle set up a small pickleball court alongside its booth at the Sports Licensing and Tailgate Show in Las Vegas, staffing it with professional player Connor Garnett to demonstrate the sport.

As those long-term strategies begin to take shape, more immediate plans appear to be focused on colleges and universities.

Boundless has signed licensing deals with a handful of schools but expects to have as many as 25 agreements in place by year-end, Arenas said. And, according to Arenas, licensing agreements for the collegiate clubs carry a 10-15% royalty. Some institutions are weighing offering scholarships for club pickleball and the U.S. Collegiate Pickleball Association was formed in 2019 with a goal of gaining the sport NCAA status.

“Right now, the interest is really growing at the collegiate club level, either through the schools or the clubs themselves, but a few years from now this could be a major market,” said James McCollough, Director of Licensed Sales at Blue84, which has seen strong sales for pickleball apparel at schools in Arizona and California.

Pickleball is also likely to grow as the number of courts expands and related bars, restaurants, clubs, and residential communities invest in the sport. Kansas City Chiefs stars Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce have invested in Chicken N Pickle, which operates eight restaurants/pickleball facilities in the U.S. with plans for adding another eight locations this year. Additionally, the Eureka Restaurant Group is targeting the Electric Pickle for Tempe, AZ and Las Vegas, NV this year, while The Pickle Bar is setting up shop in Charleston, SC.

“The sport is fairly new in terms of interest, but it is resonating and that’s likely to continue to develop,” said Brad Wallin, a Sales Manager at Parrot Paddles.

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