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Pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the country, is moving indoors

Will and Denise Richards are the owners of Dill Dinkers, an indoor pickleball court chain.
Erin Kenney/NPR
Will and Denise Richards are the owners of Dill Dinkers, an indoor pickleball court chain.

If you head to the mall, you might expect to find the usual suspects: Macy's, Foot Locker, Claire's, Bath & Body Works, and maybe Sbarro for lunch. What you might not expect? Indoor pickleball courts.

Pickleball is the fastest growing – andperhaps the noisiest – sport in the country. As the sport grows, so does demand for places to play. Indoor pickleball courts are popping up all over the country.

But these aren't your standard, parks and recreation-managed, courts. They're privately-owned and generating lots of foot traffic, while also solving some of the sport's problems.

From casual players to business owners

Denise and Will Richards of Maryland opened their first indoor pickleball court last November, and the demand has been insatiable. They've gone on to open two more for a total of three courts in less than a year. And now two more are on the way.

Not that they had been planning to get into the pickleball business, really. Denise worked in sales, and Will managed Domino's franchises.

They started playing pickleball a few years ago, and loved the sport so much they wanted to keep playing once it got cold outside. On a winter trip to Pennsylvania, friends suggested they try out some nearby indoor courts.

It turned out indoor was a loose term – the courts were inside of a poorly-insulated barn and freezing cold. The only heat came from a small heater on the wall, and the only bathrooms were porta potties out front. It was below freezing inside the building, Will Richards said.

"It wasn't the best experience, but when you're truly addicted to pickleball, you will play anywhere," Will Richards said.

The couple knew they could create something better, so they took a risk and started their own indoor pickleball court business and called it Dill Dinkers, a name suggested by their daughter. The name plays off the name of the game and a type of shot in the sport called a dink.

"There's no handbook on how to run a pickleball place. It's pretty much like the wild, wild west right now where people are trying to figure it out," Denise Richards said.

In their first week, they did a soft opening and offered free admission so they could iron out any kinks. They were full every day. Now they offer per session prices as well as memberships, which start at $33 per month at their North Bethesda location.

Pickleball moves into the shopping mall

The Richards have made use of existing buildings, like a former trampoline park and a warehouse, to build their indoor courts. There are strict requirements for the buildings they consider, Will said. Building support columns need to be wide enough apart to fit a full-sized pickleball court, and each location needs ample parking. Zoning requirements can also pose challenges for the business, turning the location search into a big ordeal.

Pickleballs hang on a fence at the North Bethesda location of Dill Dinkers on August 7, 2023. The location is one of three open Dill Dinkers.
/ Erin Kenney/NPR
Erin Kenney/NPR
Pickleballs hang on a fence at the North Bethesda location of Dill Dinkers on August 7, 2023. The location is one of three open Dill Dinkers.

There was one location, however, they didn't have to seek out. The Dill Dinkers at Manassas Mall in Virginia is slated to open in early 2024. That time, it was the mall owner who reached out to the couple.

Carmen Spinoso, the CEO of Spinoso Real Estate Group, thought it would be a "really cool use" and "a great addition" to one of his malls.

"We started looking at multiple pickleball operators," he said.

The addition of pickleball courts in malls is one way malls are keeping customers coming back, Spinoso said. He's been in the mall business for over 30 years. Every few years, people declare the end of the shopping mall, he said. He doesn't see malls going anywhere, just adapting to what customers want.

Since the pandemic, many shoppers have prioritized experiences over things like new tech products or home goods, said James Cook, Director of Real Estate Research at JLL, a real estate company. He's been tracking the growth of entertainment and recreational spaces in malls – places like selfie museums or "eatertainment" venues like Dave & Buster's. Over the last few months, indoor pickleball courts have exploded in the retail scene, he said.

"It's like every day, there's a new pickleball concept that's looking to expand, so much so that I feel like I could write a whole separate pickleball report," Cook said.

The noise problem... and then there's those pesky tennis players

At the mall in Manassas, other mall tenants were excited to hear about the incoming pickleball courts, Spinoso said.

"The tenants at the mall realize they're going to benefit from all the people that are coming to the mall to play pickleball and then can come into the restaurants before, or after or shop in the stores," he said.

Shopping malls have a lot to gain from indoor pickleball courts, like increased foot traffic. But the indoor courts also benefit the game itself. For starters, pickleball has a noise problem.

"For whatever reason, people are really annoyed by the sound of pickleball. So having that in an enclosed shopping center that's not immediately next to residential, that makes a lot of sense too," Cook said.

LeBron James and Tom Brady are getting into pickleball

As if the noise wasn't enough, pickleball players have to confront another problem – angry tennis players. Lots of public pickleball courts are in tennis courts, leaving players to duke it out over shared playing space. Riley Newman is a professional pickleball player who played tennis in college, and he said more indoor courts might ease tension between players.

"(More indoor courts) would help some of that divide where pickleball players ... can go to designated pickleball facilities instead of taking over tennis courts, which I know ruffles some feathers," Newman said.

Newman plays for the D.C. Pickleball Team. The D.C. team is part of Major League Pickleball, the sport's professional league. The league is growing rapidly, even attracting celebrity owners like LeBron James and Tom Brady. Adam Behnke, the chief operating officer for the D.C. team, has big dreams for the league, including a different kind of indoor court.

"I just daydream about this sometimes, imagine like you would go to any professional indoor sports arena, whether it's basketball or hockey or whatever it may be, and then you have a pickleball indoor arena," Behnke said.

As for the Richards, they have plans to expand Dill Dinkers nationally by opening franchises in other states. Even as their business grows, however, their favorite part is seeing the sport's impact on the community. Denise is the facility manager at the Dill Dinkers location in Columbia, Maryland, and she's had customers confide in her about fighting cancer, recovering from traumatic injuries and grieving spouses.

"So many people come up and say 'This has changed my life,' ... Pickleball is bringing them joy, and it's just day after day," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erin Kenney