Sports Sponsorship Update, Part 3: What Brands Need to Know About Pickleball

From the benefits of early adoption to opportunities for growth, consider this your pickleball primer

Chances are, you’ve heard pickleball brought up in conversation more than once over the last couple of years. The quirky game, often described as a blend of tennis, Ping-Pong and badminton, is America’s fastest-growing sport. It expanded by nearly 40 percent between 2019 and 2021 and now boasts 4.8 million active “picklers” in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Consumers’ interest in the sport is booming—and that translates to big-time sponsorship opportunities for brands who take the time to understand who the fans are and how to speak to them authentically. So we tapped two brands that jumped on sponsorships early to find out what they’ve learned.

iStock-942206186_Sports_equipment_field_teaserMORE FROM OUR 2023 SPORTS SPONSORSHIP UPDATE:


Carvana was quick to the draw when it came to inking a title sponsorship deal with the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) ahead of the 2023 season, and will be activating during the tour’s roughly 25 events. The brand recognized several advantages to getting in early.

“There are a lot of opportunities and a lot of benefits to joining a sport early on,” says Makena Berchem, brand manager-partnerships at Carvana. “What’s unique about pickleball is it’s growing at an enormously fast rate, but because there still aren’t a ton of sponsors activating, we’re really able to learn from and listen and communicate with the pros, the community, the fans. It’s a tightknit community, and we’re able to listen to them and deliver whatever it is that’s going to amplify the sport and amplify their experience.”

For non-alcoholic beer brand Best Day, which has been in business less than two years, jumping on an official PPA sponsorship early was an impactful way to generate awareness of its products among an audience that aligns well with the brand.

“When you have that first-mover advantage, when you can tell that story around that [non-alcoholic beverage] usage occasion and added value proposition of why we belong here, and you support the scene and the space in the right way, I firmly believe consumers begin to think of you in an endemic way,” says Jim Gunning, cmo at Best Day Brewing. “They start to think, ‘here are the key paddle companies, ball companies, shoe companies or clothing companies. Oh, and here are the supporting brands that align with the sport.’”



Carvana_pickleball sponsorship_ppa tour_activation footprint

As an early sponsor of the Professional Pickleball Association tour, Carvana has tapped into a tightknit community.

Forget the image you have of pickleball players as a bunch of Florida retirees. The pickler population is composed of all ages, abilities, backgrounds and interest levels. While the sport is steadily becoming more competitive, the majority of players and fans still appreciate pickleball for its laid-back, casual vibe. And sponsors should engage accordingly.

“As you move away from a competitive setting and go more toward the club level, it really starts to come back to that original idea of, hey, we’re just out here to have fun,” says Gunning. “It’s active, we work up a little sweat, hang out with our friends, have a drink and go about our day. And that’s where the sport really lives.”

Based on consumer research conducted before diving into the pickleball space, Carvana has identified two core pickleball audiences: casual picklers and pickleball enthusiasts. The casual picklers play once or twice a month with friends or are part of a tightknit group within their community. The pickleball enthusiast is a player, a pro, a person attending matches. They’re following meme accounts and live-streaming tournaments. And they are locked in at a certain time and date once a week at their local court.

“It’s been cool to see, and finding ways to communicate and resonate with both audiences and bring both audiences what they want has been a really fun challenge for Carvana,” says Berchem.



As pickleball finds its groove, there are opportunities for sponsors to solve common pain points. Like finding a compelling way to engage amateur players between matches at tournaments, which often last the entire day.

“Particularly with the amateurs, when they win a match, it might be two or three hours before they play again, and there’s nothing for them to do,” Gunning says. “They’ll go walk up and down sponsor row, sample some products—and that’s fine. But it’s a four-day event.”

There are also ample opportunities to partner with athletes and help amplify the sport, something Carvana is currently taking advantage of through a partnership with 16-year-old phenom Anna Leigh Waters.

“A lot of the brands that I’m seeing activate with athletes are pickleball-specific,” Berchem says. “But as they continue to learn about the sport, continue to invest, there’s room for a lot of these mainstream brands to start working with these athletes. There are some phenomenal personalities in the pickleball space.”

As the saying goes: First come, first served.

Pickleball_Carvana-PPA-Tour 2022

One of Carvana’s top tips for brands interested in the pickleball space is to forge athlete partnerships. (Photo: Carvana)

Featured photo credit: Best Day Brewing

This story appeared in the Spring 2023 issue
Kait Shea
Posted by Kait Shea

Kait joined EM in 2015 and today enjoys her role as senior editor, digital content. When she’s not in reporter mode, rocking mermaid pants at Comic-Con or running laps at MWC Barcelona, you can find her at home listening to music.
View all articles by Kait Shea →

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