The sport that’s taking over the South

Words by Michael Woods

“It’s unbelievable, really.”

In 2020, like everyone else, Brandon Mackie was getting restless.

“During the start of the pandemic, that’s when I discovered pickleball,” he remembers. “That was a time where everyone was stuck inside, and the gyms were closed. Myself and a lot of others were really looking for an outlet, a way to socialize responsibly with others, to get some activity, get some exercise, and that's really where I started playing a lot.”

Starting to play the new sport came very organically to Mackie. Growing up in Savannah, Georgia, he had played tennis his whole life, and racket sports came naturally to him. It also helped that the game was growing rapidly.

“When we first started, I think the official number—the estimate was about four million pickleball players in the country. You compare that to tennis, 20 million. New data came out a few months ago that pegs the number, in the last 12 months, at 36.5 million people.”

That’s tenfold growth, a number that would place pickleball as one of the most popular sports in the country for casual players: bigger than tennis, golf, and basketball, falling just behind running and cycling.

“I don't know that the sports industry has ever really seen a growth story quite like it.”

It’s not hard to see why.

A unique cross between ping-pong, badminton, and tennis, pickleball is played with a plastic paddle and a ball that resembles a wiffle ball. Unlike tennis, it is usually played in doubles, and unlike golf or cycling, it doesn’t require large expenses before anyone can actually start; the paddle and ball can be bought for less than $50, and even then, most courts will have players who can share their equipment.

That ease, and that sense of community, are ultimately what might be fueling the rapid expansion of the sport. Requiring four people to play on a small court, there is much more of a team-oriented atmosphere when in action, more opportunity for conversation, camaraderie. Anyone can come to any court and find as many as 50 other players participating, cycling through matches, rotating partners, creating a culture and a new set of friends. This type of person-to-person communication was in short supply three years ago, and as time has gone on, the lockdowns running their course, the popularity hasn’t plateaued but skyrocketed.

The demand is outpacing the supply.

“Actually, almost every city in the country, especially in the South, is growing,” Mackie explains.

“More people want to play on courts than can accommodate them, so there’s long wait times. Cities are rushing as fast as they can to build courts. And every day, we see a new facility open somewhere in the country.”

During the initial boom of his newfound obsession, though, he became frustrated with the limited areas to play, the lack of information about any new parks or facilities. He wanted to create something to help players like him and any potential new players who wanted to try their hand at a new game.

"I remember one day, on Google Images, looking at a park for 20 minutes, trying to figure out if there's actually pickleball there,” he reminisces. “This idea, like, it shouldn't be this hard to find a court. And that's really where we started.”

And thus, Pickleheads was born.

The brainchild of Mackie, Max Ade, and Ian Langworth, the company has designed a website and app for pickleball players to find courts, find times, and find as many ways as possible to play and connect with others as possible. Based in Atlanta, the focus is mostly on the South, with plans to expand to the whole country. 

Initially a start-up, the company is making a push in growing, even snagging NBA star Kevin Durant as one of its initial investors.

The goal was to help anybody discover the sport, and to make it easy and accessible for anyone to play. The plan is still the same now.

“Somebody wants to hit the court, organize a game, connect with other players, they do it on our site,” Mackie explains. “You can imagine anything from, you know, finding a neighborhood court to play at, to even joining a flex league where they're gonna play in a competitive tournament.”

For a sport expanding as rapidly as this one, flexibility and accessibility are key. In the professional space, Major League Pickleball is already being broadcast on ESPN, with even NBA legend Lebron James and NFL star Tom Brady investing in its future. The statistics aren’t slowing down. But even though it’s making a global, professional stride forward, Mackie ultimately predicts that the future lies in recreation, in everyday people.

“Thousands more people will play it than watch it on TV, and I think it will become the largest sport in the country by participation. I think more people will play pickleball than go jogging in a given year. That’s my big, bold prediction.”

Pickleheads has a free virtual clinic on their website at pickleheads.com/learn, where potentially curious players can learn the basics and hit the courts.