Interest in pickleball has been spreading like wildfire, and a growing number of brands is jumping in to fan the flames. As the nation’s fastest-rising sport, pickleball is attracting sponsors from a host of categories as tournaments, tours and festivals dedicated to the sport continue to crop up. The appeal is evident: “Picklers” represent a broad demographic for brands to connect with, and as more dollars are being poured into the sport every day, it’s likely that sponsorship—and engagement—opportunities will only get better from here. So if pickleball is on your brand’s radar, take a look at the following four tips for adding some backspin to your strategy. (And if you haven’t already, check out our pickleball primer here.)
Fans want to be part of the action.
While competitive pickleball is growing, the majority of picklers are laidback players that like to have fun while working up a little sweat. But that doesn’t mean they’re passive. According to Carvana, title sponsor of the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) tour, fans are often on the hunt for interactive brand experiences and engaging content.
“People want to be part of the action,” says Makena Berchem, brand manager-partnerships at Carvana. “They don’t just want to watch anymore. They want to play, they want to give their opinion, talk about it, engage with it. The PPA is involved with amateur games, so they’re making the sport super accessible. They’re encouraging people to sign up to play with the pros. They’re on sports betting sites, they’ve got a social media presence that’s very engaging. So there are ways that fans can feel like their voice is being heard and that they’re a part of this conversation.”
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Avoid the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
There are benefits and challenges for brands interested in connecting with pickleball fans. On one hand, with such a wide range of demographics making up the fandom, companies are bound to find consumers who are interested in what they have to offer. On the other hand, a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to resonate. As the saying goes, “If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll be nothing to no one.”
That’s exactly how non-alcoholic beer brand Best Day, an official PPA sponsor, approaches fan engagement along the tour as it works to expand brand and category awareness—a strategy it recommends that other sponsors embrace.
“What we’ve found is you’ve got such individualized choices in terms of how [consumers] are approaching their health and wellness and the category,” says Jim Gunning, cmo at Best Day Brewing. “You have people that don’t drink at all or just recently stopped. You have people that are looking for that more moderate approach to drinking alcohol. And then you have that sober-curious crowd that’s like, ‘I don’t know much about it. I haven’t really tried any of these products yet, but I’m open.’ And within that broad range, it’s everyone from 20-year-olds to 65-year-olds. So you need to approach each group in a different, more customized way.”
Pickle with a purpose.
Carvana attributes some of the success of its pickleball sponsorship programming to its development of an engagement strategy that has a purpose beyond garnering consumer attention. The brand is dedicated to making the sport more accessible to players of all stripes—the same way its business model aims to make purchasing a vehicle more accessible. And to bring that messaging to life at PPA events, the company invites attendees onto its “Carvana Court,” a 30-foot by 30-foot outdoor activation footprint.
When fans step onto the “court,” they’re met with a life-sized pickleball practice target and a mini version of Carvana’s famous vehicle vending machines. After inserting a token into the machine, it dispenses a pickleball. Then, equipped with custom paddles, participants get three to five attempts at hitting the marks on the target. To make it approachable to fans of all playing abilities, Carvana ensures that participants can choose how challenging to make the game. At the end of the activity, each fan gets a mini car, and if each target is hit, also scores brand swag, like pickleball court bags and paddles.
“Pickle ball is already accessible,” says Berchem. “There’s this underlying theme of accessibility with our company, too. We want to make car buying for everyone. So we see the similarity and really lean into that. What we want to do in the pickleball space is continue to amplify. Let’s make this sport more accessible. Let’s listen to the fans and to the pros and figure out how we can elevate their experience and do just that.”
Think beyond the tournaments.
To maintain momentum with pickleball fans beyond league tours and tournaments, Best Day is analyzing the most impactful ways to extend its stake in the space from an experiential marketing and brand partrnership perspective. To that end, the brand is considering hosting standalone events featuring portable, roll-up pickleball courts that can be planted just about anywhere.
“We thought it would be cool to do a ‘Best Day experience’ where we could build one of those courts on, who knows where—the top of a mountain or a beach—just get as creative as we want to get,” says Gunning. “You could bring in your friends and have this really cool pickleball experience where you would never expect to play… And the PPA said they would jump all over that, in terms of helping to support and promote it. Maybe even bring in a couple of those endemic brands to help validate it, get it a bit more visibility and credibility, and make that experience a little more special.”
Photo credit: Carvana; Best Day Brewing