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    Pickleball's Head Honcho

    Honcho Pickleball League On Building A Nationwide Community

    In a quest to elevate pickleball communities nationwide, Honcho Pickleball League is making waves across the United States with its high-quality pickleball leagues. Honcho sets out to redefine the amateur pickleball league play space by helping develop robust communities around a sport that already focuses on fitness, fun, and friendly competition. 

    Currently, Honcho offers seasonal leagues in cities across the country, each consisting of six weeks of regular season play, two weeks of playoff matches, and a grand finale Championship match week!

    In our exclusive interview with Aaron Sunstrum, Founder and CEO of Honcho, we delve into the logistics of connecting with local pickleball communities, the intricacies of operating leagues on a national scale, and their ambitious plans for future expansion. Discover how Honcho Pickleball League is setting new standards in community sports and why they’re just getting started!

    leland orfield

    By Leland Orfield – 04/30/2024

    Can you tell us about the origins of the Honcho Pickleball League and what inspired you to start organizing national leagues?

    Sunstrum: I originally started with 20 of  my best and closest pickleball friends here in the Houston area. We had participated in other pickleball leagues and weren’t overly impressed with the experience – the technology was clunky, the  administrative piece was pretty lacking, and just the overall player experience was not great. 

    So then I decided to create a league in-house and built out a small friends and family league, if you will, in one of our friend’s backyard court, and it was 20 people. Tt was all operated on a Google sheet, and that inaugural season in Houston ended up stretching pretty aggressively into a subsequent round of seasons, then a third season in Houston. 

    It grew pretty tremendously and garnered a lot of attraction and excitement towards our target demographic. That then caught some further wind under its sails, which helped us stretch into a lot of different cities as a part of multiple rounds of expansion efforts. 

    Here we are now in nine different states and 14 different cities, hosting amateur league play, not at backyards any longer. We have graduated since then, and have partnered with a lot of great pickleball venues to be the host of our weekly league matches, and only continuing to grow further and further for additional rounds of seasons on the near-term horizon. So we’re really excited.

    How do you manage the logistics of organizing pickleball leagues across various states? What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

    Sunstrum: We saw that it wasn’t being done well on a local level, let alone city, state, or nationwide. We saw a massive gap in the market and wanted to pursue it, continue to plant new flags in new cities, and then in each season in those cities just grow season over season. 

    So in order to do that successfully, your logistics and your operations have to be clean. We’ve built a really strong team of six full-time employees, as well as three part-time fractional employees, and we plan to continue to scale that up as we continue to grow and stretch. 

    But you know, those team members are crucial to just really making sure that the player experience is strong, is enjoyable, and is something that leads to where we really want to go, which is more than just leagues. It is about experiencing a nationwide community with a local feel and local presence. So yeah, our team is impressive to say the least.

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    Sunstrum (left) at a Honcho Pickleball League activation

    What strategies do you employ to attract and retain players in your leagues? How do you cater to different skill levels within the league?

    Sunstrum: As you can imagine, when planting a new flag in a new city, it does require an initial lift. So we layer in all the marketing and advertising budgets, social media activations, as well as getting creative and collaborative with the venues that we partner with in those cities. 

    We also are fortunate to be an upper tier club of DUPR, one of four across the nation, which is really exciting. That relationship has allowed us just to continue to move quicker, faster, and stronger, and get our brand into these different markets, pockets, and cities across the nation. 

    I’d say that’s been very valuable for us when launching a new city. But once you launch that city, it’s also about how you grow in that city season over season. it’s not only a really strong player experience, but it’s layering in the appropriate referral programs, retention strategies, and ambassador programs, just to see that market flourish season over season. So, there are a lot of different creative things that we layer in to successfully launch a city and then grow that city.

    Could you share some ways in which your leagues have positively impacted local communities?

    Sunstrum: You know, we definitely feel that the alleviation of what I would argue is one of the biggest barriers to entry of this sport being played on a more consistent basis is removing the headache that is coordinating day, time, location and finding a similar skill set foursome that people have to coordinate in order to play. So knowing that we are alleviating that for them on their behalf, where they can come to this experience or event on a week-to-week basis, tap into the community tap into the Honcho culture and get to play pickleball more consistently, has been huge for us.

    To your point about varying skill set divisions, we think that’s a massive piece – making people feel comfortable wherever they are in their walk with pickleball by providing a home for all through varying skill set divisions. And so whenever we stretch into a new market, we launch five different skill set divisions for people to affiliate with, and join and be a part of.

    When we are active in these communities, we go above and beyond just the weekly commitments. In every single season and every single one of our cities, we have a social hour or a happy hour, you know, where we kind of disconnect from the competitive spirit and more lean into the social and networking aspect. 

    We layer in raffles, drawings, and giveaways. Layer in food, beverage, snacks. Layer in open courts for paddle stacking and leisure play, if you will. So that’s a big piece, and then for the semifinal and championship events that we host, we like to make those fun, inclusive, big energy. 

    So that’s another big piece just to make people feel that they’re not just there to step on the court, play, and then they’re off, right? We want relationships to be established. We want community to be built. And more than anything, we want people playing pickleball more consistently.

    "We want relationships to be established. We want community to be built. And more than anything, we want people playing pickleball more consistently."
    FIXED New Pickleball Union 95
    Aaron Sunstrum
    Founder and CEO - Honcho Pickleball League

    Tell me about the process of how you’re able to start a league/event in a city across the map from you, like Chicago for instance.

    Sunstrum: When we stretch into these new markets, it is not at random by any means. Our team does a heavy level of due diligence and research about specific cities across the nation, specifically the demand for pickleball in those cities. 

    To take it a step further, whenever we identify a city that we’re interested in exploring, we then go do research on the venues that are in that city to really understand what are the amenities? What is the player experience? The quality of courts? Is there food, beverage, eatertainments, televisions, and turfed areas? You know, how much court inventory? What’s the travel like, around that specific venue? You know, is it Central? 

    Then, whenever we engage with these venues, or sometimes the opposite when some venues reach out to us to explore relations, we more or less have those discussions about value exchange, and why being a host for our weekly leagues are beneficial and valuable for them, and hat we receive in return for partnering with them relative to a different venue.

    So, in order to really launch that specific city, as we talked about earlier, there’s a lot of time, energy, effort, and collaboration that is required. But we’ve seemed to figured out what that entails and have now been able to lean into getting to a place to launch more cities, more venue partners, phase over phase with greater speed and polish.

    What have been some significant challenges the league has faced, and how have you adapted to these challenges?

    Sunstrum: One of the more significant issues is scaring people into the proper skill set division. What I mean by scaring is that our registration process includes a very detailed summary of if you are this type of player, then you need to be in this league. “If you are not this type of player, you need to not consider this league,” just to protect the integrity of the skillset divisions and ensure that there are no scenarios where one team is blowing out another team 11-0, 11-0. 

    However, amidst our greater efforts to scare people into the right direction, we do have a team every once in a while that slips through the cracks and joins a league that they may be underqualified for, or overqualified for. Whether they’re sandbagging or whether they were a D1 athlete back in the day and have held the paddle three times and they think that they’re the next Ben Johns. Then they get humbled.

    Those scenarios do happen; so I would say just really trying to continue to refine the registration process to ensure that league integrity and skill set divisions are properly protected. That’s still something that we’re trying to go above and beyond with even though we’ve already done a really good job at it. We’ve already seen leagues that have a really, really high quality of play, but you can always do more, you can always be better, you can always protect a little, a little higher, if you will.

    What are your future goals for the league? Are there plans for expansion or new tournament formats in the pipeline?

    Sunstrum: We do plan to open up our service offering into things like pickleball tournaments, pickleball culture and corporate events, subscription and loyalty programs, ecommerce, merchandise, clinics and training. But in order to do that, you have to continue to stretch the brand. 

    So our goal by the end of 2025 is to be in about 100 to 125 different cities with a Honcho flag planted confidently. The way that we approach stretching to new cities is in phases. It’s no coincidence that in each of those phases, it is a 10-week time period in which our 8-week seasons are plugged into that 10-week time period. That way, we are keeping every single city on the same 10-week timeframe, where when one 10-week timeframe ends, all of the seasons across all of the cities, across all the skill set divisions, across all of the league nights in those cities come to a close. 

    Then, we roll right into the next 10-week time period or phase where we have a subsequent round of seasons for those established cities, and then new inaugural seasons for those new cities. So we continue to stretch and we continue to grow, and we’re excited for what’s on the horizon.

    Honcho Primary Round Logo grey back
    Honcho Monkey Mascot

    Regarding your branding, I think my final my final question here is: Why the monkey? How did you come up with your logo, and why is that part of the Honcho branding and culture you’re trying to curate?

    Sunstrum: You know, you would think that question would come up more often. We actually have two logos. 

    We have the circular, round logo that has a little bit more aggressive font, capital letters, really angled and narrow, and it’s supposed to be a meaner, more competitive look. But then we also realized that we’re not just tailoring towards the ultra-competitive, the upper-intermediate or advanced league players, right? We want this to be a community, we want this to be fun, high energy, very active on socials and in environments where you’re meant to eat, drink, socialize, network, and enjoy.

    So we’ve layered in a mascot. We thought the monkey was something that kind of stood for our brand, which was very charismatic, very energetic, very in your face. Big energy. And so, we layered in the monkey with some softer fonts and a little bit more rounder-edged just to provide some comic relief. 

    It also has some pretty cool swagger in my opinion, which is another piece of our league that I think we’re really pursuing. You know, he’s got the Celsius sleeve. He’s got the Joola paddle. He’s got some pretty cool kicks on, a headband, and a championship belt. So that’s how I would answer, “Why the monkey?”