Shopping malls are seeing quite a sad state of affairs these days. What were once great retail meccas anchored by now-defunct department stores, indoor malls have been largely abandoned in favor of online shopping and outlet-style town centers.
So, what better place for America’s fastest growing sport? That’s right, a pickleball court may soon be coming to your local mall.
In an effort to keep tenants in increasingly empty stores, a new report from commercial real estate investment firm JLL says that malls are turning to “experiential” tenants, such as virtual golf, skydiving, breweries, and yes, pickelball.
The sport, which originated in the Pacific Northwest in 1965, is sort of a mash-up of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong in that players hit a perforated hollow plastic ball over a 36-inch-high net using solid paddles. Since 2020, however, pickleball has exploded in popularity. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation has skyrocketed by 159 percent over the last three years, to a whopping 8.9 million people playing in 2022.
And with that kind of rapid growth, infrastructure has barely been able to keep up. Not only is there limited room to set up pickleball courts in places like recreation centers, country clubs, and retirement communities—but the “pop-pop-pop” noise can be irritating to neighbors and tennis players.
In other words, it’s win-win for pickleball establishments to set up shop in malls, which clearly have no shortage of unused space. Not to mention, players can pop by the food court for a bite to eat or do some shopping while they’re there.
And the great mall expansion has already begun. Pickleball establishments have already taken over shuttered retail spaces such as a Saks Off 5th in a Connecticut mall, a Bed Bath & Beyond in Missouri, a Burlington store in New Jersey, and a New Hampshire Old Navy.
Likewise, a new chain called Camp Pickle—which pairs a nostalgic 1940s summer camp setting with food and beverage options—has plans to open 10 locations in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, and Texas starting in 2024.
It seems safe to say that pickleball is indeed here to stay.