As pickleball continues to grow as the fastest-growing sport in America, the pickleball paddle market has also naturally boomed. Scrolling through your favorite online paddle retailer will reveal several dozen brands and hundreds of models to choose from.
How did these paddle brands get their start, and what does it take to break into the market? We sat down with the CEO of PCKL, Mike Gottfried, and talked about the origins of PCKL, what the paddle creation process is like, and the importance of building and trusting your community as a paddle company.
Mike was first introduced to pickleball about a decade ago while visiting his parents in South Florida, one of the known meccas of the sport. They described it as “mini tennis” and then went to their local courts to play a round-robin with a handful of senior players.
After that first experience, Gottfried didn’t really see or hear about pickleball courts again until 2018, when his local sports club in Atlanta installed two dedicated pickleball courts. When the courts were first installed, pickleball still hadn’t taken off in popularity, and it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that pickleball started to take off within the community.
“COVID presented this new and unique time and space, where all of a sudden you had nothing to do, and you were searching for things to do. Pickleball was available, seemingly safe and socially distant, and accessible. So we had these courts, and I started playing a little bit again. I got in the habit of playing once or twice a week – seeing a small, closely-knit community play pickleball.”
At the end of 2020, Gottfried and his team sold KontrolFreek, a company specializing in gaming accessories, leaving them open to starting a new enterprise. They knew they had to move on from the videogame/e-sports market and eventually saw the potential within the newly popular sport of pickleball.
“Pickleball presented this unique opportunity. It was this fast-growing sport; you heard about it popping up, and it was in late 2020/early 2021, which was at the beginning of this major inflection curve for pickleball. We had the ability to build a brand, build an online presence, advertise, create social media content and community, and operationally function as an e-commerce entity with what it takes to store, ship and fulfill product. That’s where PCKL was really born: Identifying what we thought was a trend and a growing industry, and ultimately finding something we could enjoy and build a great brand around that would thrive on community interaction, vibrancy, fun, and enjoyment as a compliment to what we had done in the videogame space.”
Once the idea on PCKL was set, it was time to put things in motion. Now that they knew they wanted to create pickleball products, where did they start? Of course, by asking a pro. Gottfried got in contact with a senior pro player, Dan Granot, to ask where they needed to start if they wanted to create products that would resonate with pro pickleball players.
“The very first thing I did was to call a friend of a friend, who also happened to be a top 10 senior pickleball player, to say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this; tell us what you know and what you’ve seen.’ He’d been playing pro and senior-pro pickleball for nearly ten years. We went out to lunch and had a number of follow-up meetings, talking broadly about the pickleball industry but also then narrowly about equipment in pickleball and what the expectations were for how pros engaged with brands, and what you’d want to see out of a paddle, ball, or backpack and make it viable. We basically tried to download as much information from what we thought was an insider as we possibly could to understand from their perspective what they were seeing.”
At the time, there were only a handful of top, pickleball-centric brands, and PCKL began to take stock of what they liked and disliked about how they approached their business. Gottfried said they looked at Selkirk, Paddletek, Onix, and a few other brands that had been in the pickleball space for a long time and weren’t part of a sports conglomerate that makes a wide variety of sporting goods. They looked at the specialists to ensure that they were doing everything they could to also become pickleball specialists.
Once they gained their footing within the realm of pickleball and built an understanding of where they could fit into the market, PCKL moved forward to launch their first pickleball products. They started with three paddle models, the Launch, Power, and Pro Series paddles, and a line of optic balls for indoor and outdoor play.
From there, they developed their Elite 40 ball about six months after launch, and they just released their newest Pro Series 13/16 paddle, with which they added raw carbon fiber face technology to ensure a pro-level playing experience. Gottfried explains that as a paddle company, you always want to continue developing paddles that feature the best and newest technology, but you also want to take the time to consider exactly what players are looking for.
“We want to move fast and address the market quickly, but we also want to take the time to learn from the feedback from our customers and communities in order to take the time and develop products to be as good and viable as they can be. There doesn’t need to be something new every other month when it comes to paddles because at that point, for lack of a better term, it’s bullshit.”
Gottfried explained that one of the most important factors they’ve come to realize within the paddle market is that consumer understanding of the product varies drastically, which makes a lot of sense for where pickleball is at in its development as a sport.
With so many new players picking up a paddle for the first time, it can be difficult to grasp what each part of a paddle does fully. On the other hand, you have your classic pickleball online forum warrior who can tell you the exact differences in grit micrometers between two paddle models. Gottfried believes it’s essential to balance the technical jargon of a paddle’s specs with what the technology actually offers on the court.
He used the example of paddle thickness. Each paddle has a specific thickness measured in millimeters, and while a long-time pro might be able to tell the exact difference between a 13 mm and 14 mm paddle, players first need to have the baseline understanding that the thicker the paddle is, the more it will absorb the shot, and you will then have more control over the shot. The numbers of a paddle matter, but they matter less than any player’s actual experience with that paddle for the first time.
“There’s seemingly this broad gap between people who know very little and the people who know everything. Navigating that has been interesting – I found myself playing in an ALTA league match here in Atlanta and sharing the new paddles with people. These are good 4.0+ players, and they were asking me what I consider the most basic questions about paddle technology. It’s just interesting; I think there’s a long way to go in terms of consumer education for those who don’t necessarily live online in the pickleball world.”
Gottfried went on to explain that this concept of a player’s innate experience with the paddle is at the root of what it takes to create a great paddle. During the development of the new Pro Series 13/16, PCKL leaned into real-user feedback as one of the leading tools for creating something that players would genuinely embrace.
“Player feedback was everything; I mean, it was everything. We needed real feedback and validation from other people, not from ourselves. Yes, we play pickleball, but that’s not good enough. We want people who are representative of the groups, the players, and the communities out there. Not only to be able to have feedback and input but also be excited about and be advocates for what we were putting out there.”
PCKL enlisted the help of players in a time-intensive process, where each participant was given a prototype of the Pro Series 13/16 and asked to play for at least ten hours with it. For some, that might represent a couple of play sessions, but for others, it was three or four weeks.
After spending a significant time with the prototype, the players took a survey about their experience where they gave long-form answers about what they liked and disliked about the paddle. PCKL then validated the survey results by then incorporating changes to represent the consumer’s needs in the final product.
Gottfried explained that the community is what PCKL is trying to serve by creating the best possible paddles for players to enjoy.
“If you’re not serving your customers, ultimately, you’re not really building something, you’re just hawking product.”
PCKL is devoted to building up the pickleball community as a whole, donating 1% of its profits to charity organizations around the country dedicated to improving fitness education and accessibility for those in need.
“There’s this philosophical layer to starting a company: ‘Why are you doing it?’ Ultimately, it’s a commitment that we wanted to make to ourselves that the community and those who were unable to enjoy this game in the way that we did that we could help grant access to it. The benefits of pickleball are things like community, fitness, socialization, and competitive spirit. If we could help bring that to communities and to people that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, then we think we would be delivering some good to those communities.”
Gottfried’s final advice to individuals who want to break into the paddle market is to understand that it takes a lot of time, money, and experience to really get a footing within the industry. Because of how popular pickleball has become, the newly flooded paddle market can make it difficult for your voice to be heard or stand out.
“It is not a get-rich-quick business; we are in this business ourselves for what we see as a long haul, and building it the right way over a period of time and not trying to maximize profits on day one. If you’ve got a story to tell, the story is as important as anything. In order to make connections with people, a really good story goes a long way; so, take the time to investigate what is your story, what is your brand, who are you as an individual, and who are you as a company.”
Be sure to check out our review of PCKL’s latest paddle, the Pro Series 13. It’s quickly become one of our favorites to use at open play, as it’s a well-rounded paddle for both big drives and precision at the kitchen-line. If you decide to pick one up, use code: UNION at the checkout for 15% off!
We had a chance to test drive this latest release from PCKL, and we believe that it's an excellent paddle for players of all backgrounds looking for a new paddle that could take their game to the next level.
Use code UNION at checkout for 15% off.
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