Will Pickleball Save America’s Malls?

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Soon heading to the mall could mean more about playing sports than going shopping. America’s fastest growing sport, pickleball, is soaring to popularity while many traditional malls languish under the burden of debilitating vacancies.

Meet the match made in retail space heaven: pickleball is finding its home in abandoned retail locations, while malls jump to lease up square footage and draw in traffic.

Pandemic woes, widespread online shopping habits, and inflationary challenges have hit traditional malls hard across the US in recent years. While no one wants to see malls go away, in order to survive, the struggling shopping centers are rethinking rental strategies, opening up to mixed use tenants that previously wouldn’t be found in typical mall environments.

Pickleball may be one such saving grace. The rising sport has experienced troubles of its own lately – not with lack of interest, but with lack of venues. Despite the number of players increasing by a whopping 159% over three years from 2019 to 2022, the availability of places to play hasn’t kept pace.

While pickleball courts are popping up at hotels, rec centers, and retirement communities, public parks departments struggle with budgetary constraints to build new courts, and country clubs navigate pushback from tennis players who don’t want to give up space to pickleball courts. Some neighborhood associations face complaints by residents who are bothered by the popping sound of the pickleball and protest its development in their communities.

A perfect match seems to be the roomy spaces afforded by defunct Bed Bath & Beyond and Old Navy stores in mall locations, where landlords hope people will come to play and then shop or eat afterwards. One group known as Pickleball America will fill an 80,000 square foot anchor spot in Stamford, Connecticut formerly occupied by Saks Off 5th, which is set to become one of the largest indoor pickleball venues in the country.

A new concept called “Camp Pickle” aims to combine the sports play with food and drink options in a throwback 1940’s camp culture setting. Camp Pickle will debut in Huntsville, Alabama next year, with plans to build similar camps in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Dallas.

The matchup is a win-win for purveyors of the sport and retail owners alike. Could it be the Hail Mary that malls have been searching for? Will pickleball soon be coming to a mall near you? Read more here.

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