Why Technology Is Key to the Growth of Pickleball & Fan Engagement | Pickler Pickleball

Why Technology Is Key to the Growth of Pickleball & Fan Engagement

Pickler The Podcast is just shy of its one-year anniversary. Over the course of the last year, there have been some interesting conversations and amazing opportunities to learn more about the people in and around the sport of pickleball. Looking back on the podcasts so far, one conversation keeps circling around in my mind, especially given the rise of the pickleball tours and competition between them (notably, the PPA Tour, the APP Tour, and Major League Pickleball). And, this conversation revolved around what the sport of pickleball can do to grow its fan base and improve its fan engagement, in order to really legitimize the pickleball as a “pro” sport.

Why Technology Is Key to the Growth of Pickleball & Fan Engagement | Pickler Pickleball

In particular, MIT senior lecturer and sports expert, Ben Shields, who focuses on digital transformation and innovation in the sports, media, and entertainment industries, had the following to say:

We have to rethink how pickleball is presented as a fan experience. It is not going to cut it just to have the one camera on the match and then stream it to YouTube. There is going to have to be more elements to the fan experience—fantasy or betting is one example, social interactions with fans or with players are other opportunities to explore. But, the sport needs to become a more compelling fan product….
 
Look back at sports history and media history. Oftentimes, sports that have adapted well to new technologies have benefited greatly. To go way back, Major League Baseball was perfect for the radio. Just turned on the radio and it was background, and the announcers had a great way of dramatizing the game even though you couldn’t see it. Turns out, that the NFL was perfect for television – just absolutely the perfect sport for television—the way the sport was set up, the field, Sunday night/afternoon, it was a perfect use case for television. Fast forward a little bit later, you look at technologies like social media, and the NBA has been perfect for social media with the emphasis on short clips, highlight dunks, and the fact that all of the stars in the NBA can connect directly with fans via their social media accounts.
 
We are in the very, very early stages of the Web3 era, which is an umbrella term for a number of different technologies that are enabled by blockchain. These technologies could include NFTs or non-fungible tokens, could include a vehicle of decentralized autonomous organizations or DAOs, cryptocurrency, etc. This is a newer era of technologies and it is interesting to think about how pickleball can start to innovate and take advantage of these technologies because we are so early….
 
What is fascinating about the ethos of Web3 is it is largely about the decentralized internet. It is decentralized and community controlled. And, in pickleball it is a very community driven ethos. We are all as a community involved in the growth of this sport. So, it brings up some interesting questions about how pickleball going forward might use technologies like NFTs or might engage in structures like DAOs in order to bring the community together via technology to invest in the growth of the sport and perhaps move it forward in a constructive way where everyone gets a piece of the success.
 
When it comes to the commercialization of pickleball, priority #1 is to innovate around how pickleball is presented live as a media fan product, and the second priority for anyone that is in the pickleball business is to get very detailed about the possibilities within Web3 and what the applications could be for pickleball going forward. This is because taken advantage of new technology has been a proven strategy for other sports to engage fans and grow as a business.
 
Why Technology Is Key to the Growth of Pickleball & Fan Engagement | Pickler Pickleball

The concept of a growing fan base and fan engagement is an interesting problem for the tours at this time, as, on average, only a few thousand people will watch pro pickleball live and maybe a few tens of thousands of people will watch the pro pickleball event overall (live or on-demand later). By comparison, 1.4 million viewers watched each Formula 1 race to-date in 2022, and 17.1 million people watched each NFL game in 2021. Further, for the UK public service broadcast (BBC) alone, the 2022 Wimbledon tennis Grand Slam set a new streaming record of 53.8 million across digital platforms. In summaryalthough not completely fair comparisons given the size and history of these other sportsthe fan base and fan engagement have a long way to go.

Further, unlike some of the more traditional mainstream sports—like football—pickleball is a sport that can be played for a lifetime. Football or some of the other mainstream sports are less likely to be played by the fan base. This is both a positive and a negative for the sport of pickleball, as the fan base can, on the positive side, relate to the pros as the fans play themselves, and, on the negative side, maybe be less inclined to engage with the pros because the fans have limited time and would rather be playing pickleball than watching pickleball.

Nevertheless, it seems that innovation, technology, and personalized experiences are critical to the growth of pickleball as a professional sports enterprise, as they are critical to growing a loyal fan base. This may come in the form of:

  • Gambling, fantasy pickleball, or other gamification (e.g., earning points for quizzes based on how closely a fan was following the match or how many comments the fan made on social media);
  • Digital assets that have value in the form of exclusive access, experiences, merchandise, and more (for instance, the 5’s (an MLP team) created an NFT that gave owners exclusive access to the team at an MLP event);

Why Technology Is Key to the Growth of Pickleball & Fan Engagement | Pickler Pickleball

  • Unique use of data to compare your skills to pro players in order to be able to better relate to and connect with the pros (which may already be starting with the creation of DUPR and its data tables);
  • Varying camera angles, so that the fans can pick and choose their own courts to watch, camera angles, and overall viewing experience;
  • Better production technology (for instance, microphones on players to capture banter, emotion, strategy, and more);
  • In the future, maybe extended reality where you could use your phone to view action or engage with your favorite players or teams on any pickleball court (think of this like a Pokemon Go augmented reality concept); and/or
  • More access and interaction with players, owners, and other stakeholders via social media or other events.

These concepts of innovation, technology, and personalization can be expensive enterprises—particularly, for a sport as niche as pickleball. However, with two billionaires in the sport (Tom Dundon with the PPA Tour and Steve Kuhn with Major League Pickleball), and investors like LeBron James (a new MLP owner), Drew Brees, Gary Vaynerchuk, Brene Brown, and so on, pickleball could be poised to tackle one of its most complicated issues yet—how to grow a loyal and engaged fan base for pickleball to be a sustainable professional sport.

However, as Ben Shields noted on Pickler The Podcast, every new technology has both positives and negatives. The new technology could disrupt the world for the better or for the worse. Let’s make sure all new technology in pickleball is for the better.

For the full episode of Pickler The Podcast with Ben Shields, see below: