If you’re tired of hearing about the “Tour Wars” of the past week in pickleball (or, if you’re a casual fan who has no idea what the PPA or MLP is), then I have a new kind of “tour” concept to tell you about, one that may be coming to a city near you soon.
Have you ever played in a charity golf event that featured retired pro athletes, mingling around, signing autographs, and generally mixing it up with the fans? I’m talking about the kind of events that athletes-turned-golfers like Charles Barkley and Tony Romo have made famous, and which happen all the time in major sports cities and feature retired home team players. The players get some appearance fees, get to play some golf, sign a few autographs, and pose for pictures, while the fans get to shake their hand, get a signed baseball, and a picture that lasts a lifetime.
Now, imagine doing all of that … on a pickleball court instead of on the golf course.
As it turns out, retired pro athletes are just as enamored of pickleball as we are, they’re playing the sport all the time, and an opportunity was there for the taking to capitalize on both the increasing popularity of pickleball and the rising interest of retired athletes.
In June of this year, Sports Facilities Companies (SFC) , which manages about 50 participatory sports complexes in 21 states and hundreds of pickleball courts, launched a new entity called PBX Pickleball. SFC & PBX have partnered with the alumni associations of the four major American sports professional leagues, including official partnerships with Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association (MPBPAA) and the NHL Alumni Association, to provide retired pros to the PBX events, and has named a slew of ex-pro ambassadors to help mobilize their fellow alumni.
I caught up with the CEO of SFC and the co-founder of PBX Jason Clement to discuss his new venture focused in exactly this space, get some background on their plans, and to then break some news items related to PBX naming a new partner and a possible debut for their events.
Said Clements, “We’ve been running pickleball at our clubs for a long time. So when the experiential kind of Fantasy Camp Pickleball idea came to us late last year, we knew that it had some legs. We have relationships to all of these ex-professional athletes and most importantly the alumni associations for the NFL Players Association, Major League Baseball Alumni Association, NHL. And then NBA. And their job is to actively look for things for these professional athletes to do. And a lot of these folks are playing pickleball, right? And they still want to compete. They miss the camaraderie of the locker room. And it just made a lot of sense to establish a platform on top of the foundation of our core business. We already have all the infrastructure in terms of events that we run across the country, so we created an event company and platform that allows these e- professional athletes to get together and play and compete and to have fun.”
PBX Pickleball will provide four kinds of events, leveraging these athletes:
- Corporate outings. Similar to the aforementioned charity golf events, these will be one-day events sponsored by corporations to provide their employees with an opportunity to play alongside retired athletes.
- Fantasy Camps/Dream weekends. Fantasy camps rose in popularity primarily in Baseball in the 1980s, capitalizing on fans who used to play themselves and who got the opportunity to take the field with the stars of their home team. Here the retired pros will play alongside fans while getting direction and training from active pickleball professionals.
- Pro-Am events: A Turnkey pro-am tournament product designed to be held alongside a more conventional pro or amateur event.
- The PBX tour: intended to capitalize on the latent competitiveness of the retired pros, the most ardent players will have an opportunity to compete on a tour schedule. Like with the American Century Celebrity golf tournament that is held in Lake Tahoe every year, the intention is to get these events televised and leverage the rise in popularity of the sport with advertisers.
So, when can we start to see some of these PBX events? According to Eric Nemeth, PBX’s PR representative, “PBX Pickleball is close to confirming a PBX Pro-Am event in the Dallas market surrounding the upcoming USA Pickleball National Championships in November.” As I wrote about earlier this year, USAP Nationals is heading to Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas in collaboration with the PPA in what promises to be a massive event, and adding in a PBX event makes all the more sense.
Having alumni from the major male US sports is one thing, but there was an element missing in the PBX business plan; Women pro alumni athletes. Says Clement, “45 percent of all pickleball athletes are women. And so we think it’s really important that these women athletes receive a platform to be able to compete and collaborate and join in on the camaraderie.” Which is what led to the next bit of news, to be announced later today.
Parity, an organization dedicated to closing the gender income and opportunity gap in professional sports, will be named an official partner of PBX, working with them to drive women athlete participation to PBX events as well as identifying, recruiting, and onboarding notable retired professional women athletes and Olympians across a variety of sports to participate in the inaugural season this fall.
I also caught up with Parity’s CEO Leela Srinivasan to discuss the organization, its goals, and this new collaboration.
Said Srinivasan, “We have almost 900 athletes that are affiliated with Parity across 70 plus different sports. So all the major sports, soccer, basketball, et cetera, but also a very long tail of niche sports, everything from archery to weightlifting. And we’re really here to try and create opportunities to put more money in the pockets of pro women athletes, whether they’re current athletes or retired athletes.”
Just like their male counter parts, retired female athletes retain their competitive fire and a desire to stay active, and are also finding pickleball to be an outlet. Srinivasan noted, “Based on the early response that we’ve seen in reaching out to our community to engage them about pickleball generally and PBX specifically, I can tell that they’re very excited to be part of the PBX community.”
Parity, as the alumni equivalent for dozens of women’s sports, will provide its athletes to the PBX events to be along-side the male retired pros and to eventually participate in the tour, supporting mixed doubles and women’s events.
I look forward to the PBX events and hope that they catch on in popularity with my fellow pickleball fans who also happen to be fans of other sports. Perhaps some day I’ll be able to ace a former major league pitcher off the court. I may not be able to hit a 95mph fastball, but I can sure hit a drop shot with the best of them.
Sign up as an “PBX Insider” at their website to stay in the loop for future announcements.