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During the pandemic, Tyson Apostol, a gregarious former contestant on multiple seasons of the hit CBS show “Survivor,” made a well-timed career pivot. He took a step back from reality TV and went all in on pickleball.

“I tried it, and I fell in love with it,” said Apostol.

First invented in the 1960s, pickleball — a paddle sport often described as a hybrid of tennis, ping pong, and badminton — is soaring in popularity. Across the U.S., new pickleball courts are popping up at parks, schools, homeowner associations, condominiums, Hollywood mansions, themed restaurants and sports clubs, as communities scramble to meet the surging demand. In 2020, roughly 4.2 million people played pickleball, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) — up 21 percent from the year before.

“We think that this sport can be every bit as big or bigger than tennis,” said pickleball booster Connor Pardoe. “We’ve seen this sport grow so much faster than we anticipated it would.”

Pardoe is the commissioner of the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), a for-profit company based near Salt Lake City, which aims to be for pickleball what the PGA is for golf. This year, the PPA hosted 16 pickleball tournaments around the country, up from 8 events in 2019, the first year of its tour. Its rival, the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) is also staging tour events across the country and even expanding into Europe.

The pickleball tournaments, or “festivals” as Pardoe likes to calls them, feature a mix of gung-ho amateurs, who pay entrance fees to play against their peers, and professionals, who compete for cash prizes and tour points that determine their national rankings. Annual prize money on the PPA has grown from $500,000 in 2019 to more than $2.5 million next year.

All of this has touched off a kind of pickleball gold rush, as media companies, corporate sponsors, apparel brands, equipment makers and restaurateurs crowd into the growing industry hoping to cash in on the pickleball craze.

Apostol has quickly emerged as a leading pickleball influencer. He has paying partnerships with Fila, Gamma Sports and PicklePlay, an app that helps users find pickleball matches, and sells pickleball merchandise, organizes pickleball meet-ups, co-hosts a popular pickleball podcast and recently headlined a “Survivor” watch-party at a pickleball venue in Utah.

“There’s a big crossover: ‘Survivor’ is a middle-America, older demographic,” said Apostol. “And like ‘Survivor,’ pickleball is really trying to reach a younger audience.”

For decades after its invention in Washington State in the 1960s, pickleball remained a fringe activity. Supporters tend to credit retired baby boomers in the Sun Belt for touching off the current explosion in popularity. Players say it’s much easier to master the basics of pickleball than, say, golf or tennis. A pickleball court is approximately a third the size of a tennis court, so players can get a good workout without quite as much risk of injury.

“Pickleball is my life,” said Kathy Demetri, 59, an engineer from the Pittsburgh area, who traveled and played in roughly 20 pickleball tournaments over the past year. “Coming from tennis, where you have to be pretty prim and proper, there’s more of a social aspect with pickleball. You can cheer way more.”

TV networks have taken notice. Recently, Fox Sports signed a deal with the PPA under which the national broadcaster will air pickleball events across its cable channels and web sites. Fans can also now watch pickleball competitions on the CBS Sports Network, the Tennis Channel and ESPN3.

Meanwhile, the tournaments are increasingly packed with brand endorsements, ranging from hotels to beverages to apparel companies. In November, the PPA landed its first car deal, signing Hyundai as an official tour partner. Guaranteed Rate, the giant mortgage company — which already works with the National Hockey League, NASCAR and Major League Baseball — recently joined the PPA’s growing ranks of corporate sponsors.

“It’s a sport that has taken the country by storm,” said Steve Moffat, the chief marketing officer of Guaranteed Rate. “This felt like a really good addition to our portfolio.”

The emerging, pickleball media landscape is teeming with new entrants. There are pickleball podcasts, pickleball YouTube channels and a growing library of pickleball books. In September, InPickleball magazine, a new monthly publication, backed by private investors in Southern California, launched its first issue. InPickleball’s president Richard Porter said that while the sport is getting younger, the core demographic remains 50-years-old and up — a group, he said, that happens to still love print magazines.

Longtime sporting-goods makers are also cashing in. Adam Franklin, the president of Franklin Sports, a global equipment brand with deep ties in baseball, calls pickleball “a bit of a unicorn business.” In 2018, Franklin Sports introduced its first pickleball product, a proprietary ball, now known as the X-40.

Franklin said the company is currently selling hundreds of thousands of the balls every week, and its paddles are also moving briskly. Based on data from in-store and web sales, Franklin believes the sport is actually expanding faster than the SFIA’s frequently cited statistic of 21 percent year-over-year growth.

Skeptics point to other trendy competitions that once promised to swallow the American sporting landscape only to slink back into obscurity over time (remember paintball?) But denizens of the pickleverse tend to see a bright future.

“I see no reason why it’ll slow down anytime soon,” said Franklin. “I think we are still in the very onset of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2030 we saw 20 to 30 million active players.”

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