Meet the Face of America’s Fastest Growing Sport: Pickleball
And that face — which belongs to UMD senior Ben Johns — is literally everywhere
Ben Johns is the number-one player on the men’s international pickleball circuit. Notably, he is neither a Baby Boomer nor a resident of the Sun Belt. It’s an assumption a lot of people make about who plays the game, which is pretty much a mashup of all the racquet sports — tennis, ping pong, badminton, squash, etc. — and a number of non-racquet sports, like volleyball.
But Johns isn’t only a pickleball player. The 22-year old from the DC suburbs — a senior at the University of Maryland studying material science engineering — has a sponsorship with Franklin Sports and his own pickleball vacation company, Pickleball Getaways. Last year, Johns started an instructional video company, Pickleball 360, and a podcast, Freestyle Boys. That’s not it: Later this month, Johns, whose success on the courts reportedly nets him $250,000 year in tournament winnings, is moving from his home in Gaithersburg to Texas, where he’ll make the soon-to-openAustin Pickle Ranch, a sports and entertainment facility in Southeast Austin, his official training facility. (Generally outside the scope of this story: He’s also launched a cryptocurrency portfolio management system.)
Johns randomly picked up the sport when he was 16, during a family vacation in Florida. The third of six kids, all homeschooled, he says he had burned out from the tennis circuit he’d been on since he was eight. Johns took to pickleball immediately; within a year, he was winning tournaments.
Despite the game’s popularity in RV parks and retirement communities, pickleball is not an elder-sport — though it is the kind of sport achy-kneed 70-year olds can excel at, a strategic game that doesn’t rely only on brawn or speed but brains, too. Even before the COVID lockdown, which saw pickleball grow by 21.3%, the Sport and Fitness Association had declared it “the fastest growing sport in America.” According to its governing body, USA Pickleball, 4.2 million Americans now play the game at least once a year.
Pickleball was invented on Brainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965; these days, pickleball courts (which look like tennis courts but are about a quarter of the size) can be found adjacent to tennis courts and basketball courts in every state in the country and all the Canadian provinces. It’s played in at least 20 countries.
Johns knows that people who like pickleball love pickleball — to the extent that they’ll schedule their vacations around it. Johns’s travel company, Pickleball Getaways, offers both a resort option and a tour option, and pickleball is always the most important item on the daily agenda. While COVID grounded the company’s offerings to a halt for nearly two years, the company’s first trip of 2022, to Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, has been fully booked for months. Hosted at the Grand Palladium Resort and Hotel, the facility sets up 16 pickleball courts on four of their tennis courts to accommodate Johns’s 80 guests. (Johns’ favorite pickleball vacation spot is “hands down, definitely Ecuador, because it was just, just gorgeous,” says Johns. “I mean we’d be playing thousands of feet in the air, 10,000-feet altitude. It was pretty awesome.” In 2022, his company has trips slated for Portugal and Croatia.)
Though Johns leads most of his vacation getaways, sometimes he needs to be in class, so his business partner, Dekel Bar, a former pro tennis player, runs the show.
“It’s kind of funny to see my face places,” says Johns of his continued success on and off the court and the branding that has followed. “I was playing tennis with some friends and they’re like, “Hey, we went to this tennis store and your face was on the wall. What’s up with that?!”
His face will be all over the new Pickle Ranch in Southeast Austin. With 32 dedicated pickleball courts, it will be the largest pickleball facility in the state. Scheduled for completion in April 2022, Johns says, “I might show up for occasional special events, you know, like playing with local celebrities there anything like that. Maybe some exhibitions.”
Of course, that’s not all he’s been up to. From April 2020 through August, Johns shot almost 90 instructional videos with his older brother, a former pro tennis player who has also become a pickleballer (though initially he vowed never to play). Most of the videos were shot in McLean, Virginia, at the Army Navy Country Club, which recently installed six pickleball courts. “It’s very quiet. They are definitely some of my favorite courts in the area.” He plays there as a guest. North Creek Community Center in Montgomery Village, Maryland, is where Johns plays when he’s training at home.
Each video is two to five minutes: “Pretty bite sized,” Johns says. “You know, I’m not a big believer in long videos. I think people lose interest.” Clips, which are released once a week to subscribers, focus on one specific shot or strategy or skill. Johns plans to shoot another 30 or 40 videos next year. “We kind of aim to be luxury content in the space. They got the best player, which is me, and they got a couple of a good pros, too.” The subscription is $20/month or $150 for the year.
His podcast also launched during COVID. While he and his co-host, pickleballer Rob Nunnery, “really cover everything,” you will not be surprised to learn that it always comes back to pickleball. “There’s a wide variety of pickleball, non pickleball, pro pickleball, political pickleball.”
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