Adam Franklin is the president of Franklin Sports, a key player in the rise of pickleball — essentially a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong — which is one of the fastest-growing sports in America played by approximately 4.2 million people in the U.S. The company’s X-40 model is the official ball of USA Pickleball, the governing body of the sport.
Sports Section sat down with Franklin to discuss the growth of pickleball, the push for it to be named a demonstration sport in the 2028 Olympics, and more.
FRANKLIN: We entered the pickleball market in 2016 at the request of one of our retailers. At the time, we didn’t really know much about it at all. We didn’t know how fast the sport was growing, and we kind of just jumped right in because a retailer asked us if we could produce and make this product.
As we started to get to know pickleball we realized, “Wow, this is something that doesn’t come along very often: a new sport that has mass appeal that retailers are getting behind.”
Given our familiarity with baseball and knowing how important the ball is to baseball, we decided that we wanted to put all of our R&D and marketing efforts at the beginning into the ball and create the best possible ball on the market. We took the two popular balls that were very different from each other and had very different characteristics at the time, studied both, and came up with what we felt was that happy medium between the two.
Once we put that ball out to the market at the right price point, it really just started to take off and began to really find mass appeal.
USA Pickleball reorganized and created a really incredible new team. We said, “This is something we’re interested in. We want to help you grow the sport, we’re interested in the youth side of things, and we’re interested, obviously, in the ball.”
All of their goals and our goals aligned, and it was a perfect partnership and allowed us to not only be awarded the official ball of USA Pickleball, but also the official youth development partner, so we’re really working closely with them to build out the juniors and the kids because that’s the future of the sport.
There are a couple of things. First and foremost, it’s a very social sport. It’s a welcoming community. People are very excited to introduce new players to the sport. It’s like a pride thing. And I think it’s less taxing on the body than it is for tennis, so it allows for broader appeal for those who maybe can’t tax their bodies as much. Doubles pickleball allows for a much easier entryway into a sport that’s super-competitive, super-social, and really just addictive and fun.
The last numbers I saw from the SFIA (Sports and Fitness Industry Association) were 4.2 million active participants, and that had grown 20% from the year prior. So we’re looking at hopefully 8 million participants in pickleball in the next three-to-five years.
It’s going to depend on a number of factors, but I still think the retail penetration is pretty solid right now. I think the more participation that we get, the more this sport will grow. And right now, some of the core items are paddles, balls, and nets. At Franklin, we’re developing and will be launching a line of pickleball footwear and apparel in the next three-to-six months, which I think is another big opportunity within the sport and will definitely be what really catapults us to the next level.
First and foremost, the durability is far greater than any other ball that’s on the market. It’s high-visibility. With the optic yellow colorway, we really created a very visible color. And then we have a proprietary recipe that goes into creating the ball.
It’s a combination of the percentage of PE (Polyethylene) and the resin that we use, the amount of time it’s cooked in the oven and then the way that we singe the excess plastic particles that are on the ball after you drill the holes. So we’ve got kind of like a four-step process, all of which took over two years of research and development to get to where we finally landed.
There’s definitely an eye on it. I believe right now the number is up to 53 countries with governing bodies, and I believe we need to get to 75. There’s a lot of talk right now with the right parties about how we get this thing to the finish line, so that in 2028 we can make this a demonstration sport.
I’ve been playing since we started in 2016, as often as I can get out there. We actually just built a pickleball court at our corporate office [in Stoughton, Massachusetts], so once we reopen and things are somewhat back to normal, we’ll definitely be having a lot more office games. I’m hoping that everyone in everyone in the company will have a chance to at least get out there and pick up the paddle and play.
Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.