Pickleball is gaining popularity as a less rigorous alternative to tennis and a more athletic alternative to ping-pong. Around 36.5 million Americans reportedly played the sport last year, and professional teams have been purchased by the likes of Mark Cuban, Kevin Durant, and Patrick Mahomes.
But the “hot” and “new” nature of this phenomenon poses a bit of a pickle for non-pros. Most of America’s parks don’t have a designated space for pickleball players to set up shop. And competition for the courts that do exist is only increasing as the sport’s popularity grows.
Luckily for pickleball fans, plenty of real estate is becoming available, albeit in an unlikely location: shopping malls.
America’s New Pastime?
Pickleball may be another sport where players with paddles hit a ball over a net, but it has set itself aside from the pack. The courts are smaller, allowing more social interaction. And the game offers players a less demanding (and arguably more fun) way to get some fresh air and exercise.
Pickleball isn’t actually a new sport. It has existed since 1965. But as lockdown-laden Americans sought an outdoors outlet during the pandemic, it became America’s fastest growing pastime. The number of pickleball players in America rose by 159% from 2019 to 2022.
To meet this demand, courts have already sprung up in some surprising places, including hotels and retirement communities. The expansion to malls may be unexpected. It also makes sense.
Back to the Mall
The timing of the rise of pickleball corresponds with the fall of mall culture, as more and more Americans embrace online shopping and turn their backs on brick-and-mortar retailers. Landlords hope the sport will bring more people through the door — and leave them craving a soda or soft pretzel after the match is over.
Among the changes, a Saint Louis pickleball club will take over the space vacated by bankrupt retailer Bed Bath & Beyond, a store doomed by the shift to ecommerce. Courts will also open at a shuttered Old Navy (GPS) in New Hampshire, a Burlington (BURL) in New Jersey, and an anchor-sized Saks Off 5th in Connecticut.
With today’s consumers eager to get out of the house to shop, spend, and play, malls are pivoting to include breweries, virtual golf, and even indoor skydiving. But, if you’d prefer to trade the parachute for a pickleball racket — and who could blame you? — you may soon be able to.
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