When Sean Bollettieri-Abdali, the owner of The Tennis Club at Newport Beach, floated the idea in 2018 of converting some of the tennis courts at the well-established Southern California club to pickleball courts, it sounded like heresy to his father, legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri.
But that’s what happened. Today, the renamed Tennis and Pickleball Club at Newport Beach has 28 dedicated pickleball courts with members paying $190 per month to play pickleball at a facility that has become a premier tournament location for the sport.
The Pickler talked with Bollettieri-Abdali about his club’s adoption of pickleball, the lessons learned, the game’s present challenges, and where he sees the sport developing in the future.
The following conversation has been condensed for length and clarity:
The Pickler: How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the growth of pickleball at your facility?
Bollettieri-Abdali: When the pandemic hit we had a great momentum of people interested in pickleball. There was suddenly this great need for the social and recreational aspect to pickleball.
So, I went to the city council and said, “You’ve got to allow private clubs to open, because if you don’t, people are going to be breaking locks and climbing fences.”
It was after the pandemic when we started real pickleball memberships. Before that, it was hard getting people to pay. They were saying, ‘We want to play this game for free,’ like it was in a public park.
I literally could not charge 20 bucks a month.
The Pickler: If the pandemic didn’t happen, what do you think your club would look like today?
Bollettieri-Abdali: If the pandemic didn’t happen, none of us would be talking about pickleball.
With the pandemic, there were all these people looking for an activity.
Well, you can’t play tennis, because it’s such a difficult sport. How are you going to learn it? You can’t play basketball. It’s too athletic.
With pickleball, anyone can play.
The Pickler: In economic terms, does it make sense to swap out tennis courts for pickleball courts in your experience?
Bollettieri-Abdali: It depends. You have to consider, “How many tennis members am I going to lose by offering pickleball?”
Tennis people don’t want to hear pickleball sounds.
And at first, there were very different cultures between tennis and pickleball. But we’re getting past the culture part.
Pickleball players are now starting to dress like tennis players and they’re understanding the etiquette of tennis. A majority of pickleball players are coming from tennis.
The problem now with pickleball is that it is becoming over-hyped.
The Pickler: What do you mean by “over-hyped”?
Bollettieri-Abdali: People who have no experience in racket sports are jumping into pickleball as investors. There’s a massive number of clubs and facilities that are being converted.
And the part that no one knows is that more than half of them aren’t making any money.
The Pickler: We’re seeing a lot of experimenting with new business models, such as combining pickleball with a restaurant concept. How do you see these ventures?
Bollettieri-Abdali: There are a lot of inexperienced people involved now in pickleball and they’re trying strange ideas.
This whole idea of pickleball and a restaurant just doesn’t pencil. You have four people on an almost 2,000-square-feet space and they’re going to be on the court for like 30 minutes. And they’re going to buy what? Two beers?
The way things are now, If anybody’s looking for money for a new startup, they tag on the name “pickleball”, and people will start throwing money at it.
The Pickler: We’re also seen an explosion of professional leagues and competing tours. How do you see this shaking out?
Bollettieri-Abdali: I’m very nervous when I see so many competing tours out there. There is a major race for a tour or a league to figure it out, and so far none of them have.
My belief is that pickleball should be played as a team sport, similar to MLP, but more like a basketball team.
I have 185,000 spectators that come to my facility every year for the pickleball tournaments. That’s a massive number.
When I watch these spectators, I can see that they enjoy the team competition much more than the other matches. Teams bring a party atmosphere, and pickleball is a big party.
The Pickler: As the popularity of the sport grows, its culture changes too. Now that pickleball appears to be gaining widespread recognition, even among non-players, what is it doing to the culture of the game?
Bollettieri-Abdali: It has become very aggressive and entitled. As you’ve seen in city council meetings around the country, there are people literally marching up and telling their elected representatives to shut down tennis courts and turn them into pickleball courts.
And I think that’s a mistake. Pickleball needs to have its own space.
The Pickler: Do you see professional pickleball carving out a spot for itself on national TV as a spectator sport with an audience at least comparable to the National Hockey League?
Bollettieri-Abdali: When you look at hockey or basketball, you’re looking at a court that’s at least six times bigger than a pickleball court. That size makes it more appealing to watch.
When you’re on a small court, it’s difficult to see the ball. No one has figured out what’s going to appeal to a TV audience. Right now, the viewership is very low.
We did a survey with our members. Pickleball has the second-worst scoring system. Tennis would be the worst.
If you turn on your TV and someone says, “The score is 2-1-2”, it sounds more like an area code than a score.
Rally scoring is definitely a good idea.
The Pickler: What about involving celebrities or athletes from other sports to play pickleball in televised matches as a way to grow a TV audience for the sport?
Bollettieri-Abdali: Getting old tennis players like John McEnroe or Andre Agassi to play pickleball exhibitions is a bad idea. They might get some Baby Boomers to watch but it’s going after the wrong audience.
The Pickler: What’s the right audience?
Bollettieri-Abdali: The crowd from the urban cities. People in cities have heard of pickleball, but for a lot of them, there isn’t a court anywhere near where they live.
Once you get city people playing the game, it will introduce an element of cool to the game. That’s an audience that has not been targeted yet.
The Pickler: So much of pickleball seems to be evolving, even the way the game is being played. Where do you see that going?
Bollettieri-Abdali: If you took the top five tennis players and put them next to the top five pickleball players, the tennis players are better athletes right now.
But I do believe that as time goes by, and the game of pickleball matures, the level of play is going to get higher, and you’ll keep getting better athletes.
The Pickler: But will it continue to be seen widely by the public as a game played primarily by people who are at or near retirement age?
Bollettieri-Abdali: In my club, the average age of people playing the game has been getting 10 years younger every year.
If we’re still talking about pickleball in 2030 as a game primarily for Baby Boomers, we have killed the game.