Pickleball: What’s the Dill?

By now, most Americans have heard of pickleball.  The sport experienced a 40 percent growth between 2019 and 2021, making it the nation’s fastest growing sport.[1] Then, in 2022, participation nearly doubled, increasing by 85.7 percent year-over-year and by 158.6 percent over three years.[2]  There are presently 8.9 million “picklers” in the United States.[3]

Average Americans and professional athletes alike love the sport.  Several professional tennis players have signed with the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour.  2014 Wimbledon finalist, Eugenie Bouchard, and two-time doubles winner at Wimbledon, Jack Sock, have both picked up the paddle.[4]  On the business side, the sport boasts celebrity investors such as LeBron James, Mark Cuban, and Patrick Mahomes.[5] 

If you haven’t heard of pickleball, you may have heard it.  Pickleball can be much louder than tennis.  It requires hard plastic balls, is a more social sport, and can fit more players into the same space as a tennis court.[6]  The sounds of pickleball have created strife in American communities.  Local residents across the nation have resorted to petitions and lawsuits in an attempt to limit play and obstruct the development of new courts.[7]  Some people have even sold their homes, citing an inability to enjoy their properties.[8]

This new American pastime is proving to be contentious in other areas of society; specifically, in college sports.  Noah Suemnick created a pickleball club in college and has been growing the sport ever since.[9]  In February of 2023, he founded the National Collegiate Pickleball Association (“NCPA”).[10]  The NCPA is now planning a collegiate pickleball tournament scheduled for March of 2024.[11]  The tournament will include separate categories for college athletes, professional picklers, and celebrities.[12]

Suemnick has already secured tens of thousands of dollars in sponsorships and a television deal with CBS sports is in the works.[13]  To further authenticate the NCPA, Suemnick applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register the name “National Collegiate Pickleball Association.”[14]  

However, Suemnick is now at odds with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”).  The NCAA, in a cease-and-desist letter, threatened Suemnick with litigation for the unauthorized use of its intellectual property.[15]  The NCAA believes “NCAA” and “NCPA” are too similar such that the use of “NCPA” would cause confusion and harm to the public.[16]  It further maintains that the use of the word “association” is misleading given that Suemnick is one person, unlike the NCAA.[17]  

The NCAA has not yet sued Suemnick.[18]  However, it wants Suemnick to change NCPA’s name.[19]  Suemnick thinks the sport’s popularity and revenue opportunities are driving forces behind the NCAA’s threats as the NCAA has yet to sanction pickleball as a sport.[20]  It is notable that the NCPA tournament will take place around the same time as the NCAA’s March Madness tournament. 

Whether you consider yourself a pickler or not, this game is here to stay.  Given the variety of legal issues that have come with the expansion of pickleball, it will be interesting to see how the sport is received in other markets. 

(Image Credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/03/well/move/pickleball-popular-sport.html

[2] https://sfia.org/resources/sfias-topline-report-shows-physical-activity-rates-increased-for-a-fifth-consecutive-year/

[3] https://sfia.org/resources/pickleball-sees-unprecedented-growth-will-require-25000-courts-built-900-million-investment-to-keep-up-with-demand/

[4] https://womenstennisblog.com/2023/09/08/eugenie-bouchard-pickleball/; https://talksport.com/sport/tennis/1559837/eugenie-bouchard-pickeball-mahomes-brady-lebron-james/

[5] https://sports.yahoo.com/le-bron-james-tom-brady-patrick-mahomes-bet-big-on-pickleball-will-it-pay-off-002908636.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALaBBPz6CdcOFxOfUph0exK5TLPVsbztHJbQii21D7biGt_QterykMZbQIYSrZ_YU8wCXr0SCdn4MTycQ0F9BTLPxyGpB7xqQub30pkcolAhm7c00hsZHc_uHOVVN-5obcZAVUKFMi5pIEhblwoufqnMpBTU9F_46bUERerjAw7M

[6] https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/11/business/pickleball-sports-noise-complaints-tennis-ctpr/index.html

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/politics/story/2023-09-07/ncaa-threatening-to-sue-local-pickleball-promoter-over-name-of-his-organization

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] https://www.sportico.com/law/analysis/2023/ncaa-college-pickleball-trademark-dispute-1234738076/

[15] Supra note 9; https://www.techdirt.com/2023/09/14/ncaa-sends-cd-to-national-collegiate-pickleball-association-over-trademark-concerns/

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Supra note 14. 

[19] Id.

[20] Id

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