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How pickleball became America’s new favorite pastime

Austin-based startup Recess grew out of its founders’ pandemic pickleball phase. It’s now helping fuel interest in America’s fastest-growing sport.

How pickleball became America’s new favorite pastime
[Photo: courtesy Recess Pickleball]

It might have a silly name, but pickleball is a serious sport.

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The paddleball game—similar to badminton but played with a perforated plastic ball—saw a surge in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a lingering demand for court access and sporting recognition. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported some 4.8 million people are now playing pickleball globally, and it’s the fastest-growing sport in America.

Regional pickleball headlines are almost as delightful as the sport’s name: “81-year-old duo wins pickleball national championship” and “Greenwich pickleball fans ‘crying’ for more space: ‘We don’t have enough courts.'” But the spike in interest is more than just a passing fad or a headline-writer’s dream. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee declared pickleball the official state sport this week. (While making the announcement, he expanded the “certain unalienable rights” of the Declaration of Independence to include “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of pickleball.”) Resorts and developers, meanwhile, are scrambling to convert old courts to meet demand. And top players and organizers are said to be aiming for a demonstration sports inclusion in the 2028 Olympics.

Something of a love child between tennis and ping-pong, the game is played with lowered nets across a 20-x-44-foot court—the same size as a doubles court for badminton—and requires special lightweight wooden or composite paddles to tap the plastic ball in singles or doubles matches. These guidelines all became somewhat flexible during the pandemic when at-home players strung up nets in their driveways and dug out Wiffle balls and old paddles to get their game on. 

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Recess cofounders Maggie Brown (left) and Grace Moore [Photo: courtesy Recess]
The joy of playing a casual (but competitive) game outdoors—in the fresh air and at a safe distance during the pandemic—sparked the idea for Recess Pickleball, according to cofounder and CEO Maggie Brown. “We set up a pickleball court at my mom’s [house], and it changed our family dynamic in the best way,” she says. “When we went online to find paddles, there was nothing. You could get paddles that looked like they were from 2002, so we saw an opportunity to approach the top-of-funnel player.”

Brown and cofounder and CMO Grace Moore started their brand of well-designed pickleball paddles as what Brown calls a “quarantine business.” And it’s grown alongside the sport. Their $74 composite paddles come in retro shades and look straight out of a Wes Anderson prop box. They named their first collection after locations in their home city of Austin, bootstrapping the product launch in May 2021. Fellow Austinites at athleisure brand Outdoor Voices took notice and partnered for a paddle collab within the first two months. “It helped validate the brand and get us on the map,” Brown says.

[Photo: courtesy Recess]
The company now carries two collections of paddles—Out West, launched last week, features designs inspired by the desert (the original Austin collection delivers more of the Royal Tenenbaums vibe)—along with white and green pickleballs, $48 kid-size paddles, and grip tape that retains the handle’s appearance of being wrapped in patina-ed leather. Artist collaborations for limited-edition paddles are readying for launch, with “pickleball fashion” potentially coming down the pike. “Two or three years down the line, we want to be the next premier pickleball lifestyle brand,” Brown says.

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And while the idea of pickleball being a lifestyle may seem farfetched, Brown says she’s seeing the benefits of surging interest in her sport. “We’re fascinated by the commercial development happening. I think it’s because people at clubs and tennis courts are starting to see the economics of [the sport],” she said. “You can have four people on a court. Or you can have 16.” In other words, if you’re a real-estate developer, you can get more (perforated-ball) bang for your buck out of a pickleball court.  

[Photo: courtesy Recess]
Alongside more established names like Paddletek and Franklin, Recess is also an official sponsor of Major League Pickleball, the Austin-based players’ league that brought the sport to CBS Sports Network last November. While Paddletek and Franklin’s paddles focus on performance—boasting features like UV-coated fiberglass that’s said to improve spin control and durability—Brown anticipates her brand’s product roadmap as “growing with the player” while also being the default for the novices who are just picking up the sport. 

 “We want to be everyone’s first pickleball paddle,” she says.

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