Pickleball has exploded in popularity in recent years, becoming America’s fastest-growing sport.
Investors say this effect has been more pronounced in the tech community.
From building relationships to escaping stress, here’s why VCs are obsessed with the sport.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, some of Silicon Valley’s brightest venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered on an asphalt court at the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Tennis Center, donning shorts, headbands, and Allbirds. In the background, pop music floated through the air as the group prepared for a trying battle of wits and athletic prowess — pickleball.
Instead of hosting a networking event for founders at a local restaurant or bar, the venture-capital firm CRV decided to sponsor a pickleball tournament to satisfy the latest Silicon Valley craving.
“We were just shocked at the total inbound that came to us from other VCs, founders, operators, executives — like, you name it,” Caitlin Bolnick Rellas, a CRV investor, said, referring to a tweet she sent out inviting founders and fellow VCs to join the tournament. “I think we got a total of 56,000 impressions on that one tweet of mine.”
Once reserved for the quiet neighborhoods of suburbs and 55-plus retirement communities, pickleball has exploded onto the tech and VC scene in recent years, investors say.
Pickleball, a racket sport that’s a cross between tennis, badminton, and table tennis, has rapidly grown in popularity in the US, with its number of players increasing nearly 40% over the past two years, making it America’s fastest-growing sport, according to a 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report. Many VCs say this trend has been especially pronounced in the tech community.
For some, the sport provides a break from the monotony of happy hours and networking events, allowing them to develop more-personal relationships within their professional communities.
A more ‘approachable’ sport
“Obviously, during the tournament people were ‘game-face-on’ and wanting to win,” CRV investor Chiraag Deora said. “But then during the happy hour afterwards, you found people were talking about things outside of their day job and really connecting over things in their personal lives and laughing about pickleball.”
Bain Capital Ventures principal and pickleball hobbyist Rak Garg told Insider that now if he sees a founder tweet about pickleball, he immediately DM’s them to play (“We don’t even have to talk about the company,” he admits).
Others prefer to have minimal overlap between the sport and their day jobs.
“It’s actually a way for me to meet people I would never meet, across all age groups and job roles in San Francisco,” IVP general partner Jules Maltz said. “They know my pickleball shots, but not my work stuff.”
The world of venture capital has long been intertwined with high-brow sports, like tennis or golf, stereotypically associated with the upbringing of society’s upper echelon, CapitalG partner Jill Chase, a pickleball enthusiast who frequently plays with her VC husband, told Insider. However, the accessibility of pickleball, both in terms of its required athletic ability and cost, means that it’s more approachable for a broader range of players, she said.
A networking tool
And other aspects of the sport make it an ideal pick for a hobby or networking tool, VCs added.
Pickleball’s casual “drop-in” culture allows players to easily show up to courts and join games, even without having a prior reservation or knowing other players, Maltz said.
Additionally, because of the sport’s smaller courts and doubles setup, players can often chat with each other during games, making pickleball an extremely social pursuit, Garg said.
And, although many are quick to emphasize that pickleball is a serious workout, some like Castle Island Ventures partner Nic Carter admit that they don’t find themselves “sweating from head to toe” during games — for Carter, that makes pickleball a “more elegant” choice than the high-intensity Barry’s workouts he typically invites his professional network to, he told Insider.
The rise of pickleball speaks to a broader generational and cultural shift within the VC community, one that emphasizes personal connections and accessibility, Garg said.
“A lot of the things that used to be in vogue I probably wouldn’t do anymore, like golf outings or whiskey nights or cigar tastings,” he said. “It’s not very inclusive. That’s why I think that pickleball and all these other things are better. It just makes everybody feel more at home.”
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