Last week, the 2020 Racquet and Paddle Sports Show was held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. The four-day expo brought together industry leaders in equipment, apparel, facility management, grassroots coaching as well as a wide range of merchandise manufacturers. If the sport has players swinging a round object with a handle at a ball, it was there. I was asked to host the Demo Day in Lake Nona and emcee the main stage presentations throughout the show. Here are some impressions from the event.
Most of the key racquet companies were in attendance. They brought along their recent releases, such as Dunlop’s SX series and Yonex’s EZONE line, and soon-to-market offerings like Babolat’s Pure Aero VS. Head was the only major player without a booth at the show, but brought their entire lineup to the demo day. Besides their tennis wares, many also had paddles and equipment for other racquet sports.
In fact, much of the oxygen in the room was consumed with discussion of increased incorporation of these sports into the established tennis landscape. It’s that old adage of a rising tide lifting all boats; if more people want to play paddle sports, that will ultimately be good for tennis. The elephant in the room was the rising popularity of pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in America. Once the refuge of aging tennis players who could no longer handle the rigors of the game, pickleball has started to infiltrate all demographics.
The enthusiasm and passion of the pickleball ambassadors was unmistakable. They (not so) jokingly referred to themselves as a cult. Dan Santorum, CEO of the Professional Tennis Registry, likened the current fervor engulfing the pickleball community to the tennis boom of the 1970s and 80s. As a lifelong, tennis die-hard, I’ve been reluctant to try pickleball, but gave in during the show’s demo day at Lake Nona. It was as advertised: lots of fun. Almost like ping pong with volleying and more ground to cover.
Also obvious was the much shorter learning curve when compared to tennis. The metaphor Santorum likes to use is if the amount of people in the world that can successfully play tennis fits on a yard stick, then those who can play pickleball will take up the entire football field.
A similar case could be made for POP Tennis. A rebranding of the 100-year-old paddle tennis, POP is much more akin to tennis than pickleball. The fundamentals are essentially the same except the court has smaller dimensions and the equipment consists of green dot (lower compression) balls and shorter, string-less, sometimes perforated paddles. The biggest rule change is only one underhand serve is permitted. All of these nuances—slower ball speeds, less area to cover—promote faster acclimation and gratification. Like pickleball, spirited rallies are common—especially in doubles—punctuated with lots of net play.
Although the award for most compelling points could go to padel. (Seriously, check it out on YouTube). Unfortunately absent from the show this year, and a somewhat unknown quantity in America, padel has become a monster sport in Spain and is spreading rapidly through Europe. Unlike pickleball and POP, which can be played on a tennis court, the biggest barrier to padel is it requires a unique enclosed court. That makes it significantly costlier than the other alternatives.
However, the manufacturers I spoke with think padel is the paddle sport with the longest legs, citing its fast-paced, appealing style of play. Like squash, the ball can be played off the walls and players are seemingly never out of a point. This arguably requires more skill and athleticism, but the consensus was anyone who has tried it has become a fan.
Besides the easier entry, one of the other big reasons given for the attraction of these paddle sports is that they’re highly social. Doubles is the preferred format and with the shorter courts, there’s more interaction between participants. You’re not 78 feet from your opponent and only speaking on changeovers. And since they’re not as challenging, matching ability levels isn’t as difficult or important. A teenager can pair up with his grandparent and take on his parents for some wholesome, evenly-matched family fun.
The greater novelty of these sports—at least for now—imparts a casualness that people embrace. Practitioners and patrons like getting together with friends for a few games, some food and adult beverages and lots of laughs. Winning and losing are part of the evening, but secondary to having a good time.
Which was a common theme. Recent tennis participation numbers have been positive, but the overall trend for the past several years has been flat. The Tennis Industry Association have labeled it the leaky bucket syndrome: A healthy number of players are trying tennis each year, but just as many are leaving the game. The stickiness is not there. Avid players remain the lifeblood of tennis and they are aging out.
Millennials are now the largest demographic in the country, and they have very different wants and interests than the boomers who brought tennis to the height of its popularity. Research suggests that millennials are renters, not buyers; they aren’t actively looking to join clubs or become immersed in a sport, preferring to have “experiences” that entertain.
For instance, one of the more popular displays on the showroom floor was MultiBall. It’s a sports and gaming console that can make a wall interactive. You can work on your groundstrokes with target practice or engage in a competition with another player. My favorite was dueling dart boards: Each player starts with 150 points, and works his way down to zero by subtracting the number the ball lands on the dart board. You must get exactly zero, so the last hit becomes particularly challenging.
The rather unprofessional picture (I took) above is of Hall of Famer, Gigi Fernandez, giving the wall a try. She didn't miss many targets. Recently, Fernandez had been affiliated with the tennis program at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, CT. It’s an enormous, multi-sport health and fitness oasis which would be a perfect home for a MultiBall system. Just a few months ago, the complex had 10 indoor golf simulators installed. I happened to run into the General Manager of the facility—ZSTRICT—at the massive PGA show in the accompanying showroom and asked if the bays were available for lessons. They are, but the primary purpose is to grab some friends, play a world-famous (virtual) golf course, eat, drink and be merry.
Which was a major takeaway of the week. Whether it’s hitting against a gaming wall, an interactive smartcourt or even a virtual reality headset, if it gets a racquet, paddle or club in your hand—and it’s fun—it will ultimately benefit and grow the sport.