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Serving Up Success: Inside the Rise of Vulcan’s Pickleball PaddlesLock Icon

8 min read

First things first: It’s a pickleball paddle, not a racket.

It’s one of a few essentials for playing America’s fastest-growing sport, and “thousands and thousands” are made each year by an Arkansas company, Tanners Team Sports Inc.

Tanners of Hot Springs “got in on the ground floor” of pickleball with its Vulcan brand paddles, according to Lucia DiGiacomo, general manager of Vulcan Sporting Goods, a Tanners subsidiary.

And Vulcan is now an official paddle of the burgeoning Professional Pickleball Association tour.

 

“Of course I play, absolutely,” DiGiacomo told Arkansas Business. A former tennis player like Tanners CEO Vince Signorelli, she loved the sport at first swat. “That’s actually how I’m here. I started playing and became friends with Vince and Dusty [Thornton], the VP of marketing.”

Signorelli also saw the sport’s huge appeal the first time he played, and his business instincts flashed. “Having studied and played, a group of us felt that it was an excellent business opportunity,” he said.

 

(Karen E. Segrave)

 

He started Vulcan Sporting Goods in 2015, making grips for baseball bats. Tanners had for years produced oil for baseball gloves. Pickleball paddle production began in 2018.

“We have awesome relationships with many manufacturers because of the baseball side of the business, and it was easy to start developing and engineering pickleball products,” DiGiacomo said. “It was still relatively uncharted territory. Because while pickleball has been around for a long time [it was invented in 1965, see sidebar], it just wasn’t a mainstream sport yet. “We were lucky we got in on the ground floor. Over the last two or three years, pickleball has just exploded.”

$19.99 to $250

Vulcan’s paddles range from a basic $19.99 model sold at Walmart to a $250 professional model handmade in Tennessee. “Not many companies can offer that variety,” DiGiacomo said.

“The paddle manufacturing run that we did for Walmart was the largest paddle manufacturing order in history,” DiGiacomo said. “So that tells you how many paddles are moving.”

She and Signorelli expect demand to keep growing for paddles and other Vulcan products like rosin bags, paddle caddies, portable nets and even the colorful hard-plastic balls themselves.

A recent study found that 36 million Americans played pickleball at least once in 2022. That means 14% of the population participated, a level that puts the sport on par with golf and well ahead of tennis, which had about 20 million participants.

 

(Karen E. Segrave)

Most pickleball players are 55-plus, no surprise for an activity associated with retirees, but the next-fastest growing age group is 18 to 24, DiGiacomo said. “We have Gen Z coming up and falling in love with it, just like their grandparents are.” The average age of pro tour players is 23 or 24, she said. “Pickleball is getting younger and younger each year.”

Once seen mainly in YMCAs and senior centers, pickleball players now compete all over, on public courts like those at Kanis Park in Little Rock and Wilbur D. Mills Park in Bryant, which recently dedicated six pickleball courts and two tennis courts built for $550,000.

The four public courts at Vulcan’s headquarters are open 24/7, and according to the pickleheads.com website, 45 Arkansas towns and cities have pickleball courts.

Because of high demand for public courts, many devotees play at private clubs, where they can reserve courts. The Little Rock Racquet Club already has pickleball facilities and is building more indoor and outdoor courts. Most country clubs have also added courts.

‘All Demographics’

What makes the game so popular?

“It’s fun,” DiGiacomo said. “But I think the biggest factor is it doesn’t take much athleticism to really enjoy it. The most comparable sport would be tennis, but to play tennis you have to play or practice a decent amount of time to play well enough to have fun.” The same holds true for soccer or golf, she said.

One fitness club in town, Hot Springs Health & Fitness, recently started the HSHB Pickleball Club, offering courts for members and non-members willing to pay a fee.
One fitness club in town, Hot Springs Health & Fitness, recently started the HSHB Pickleball Club, offering courts for members and non-members willing to pay a fee. (Karen E. Segrave)

“But pickleball players can pretty much pick up a paddle and do it right away. It crosses all demographics, body types, genders, ages. You could literally have somebody on a court for 20 minutes and they’re already playing a game and having fun. And it’s a very social sport.”

It is also quickly becoming a spectator sport, and Vulcan is one of the three top sponsors of the Professional Pickleball Association, the leading pro tour, as well as a couple of its star players, Jay Devilliers and Tyler Loong.

The average PPA player’s pay averages perhaps $300,000 a year, DiGiacomo estimated, and a tour competitor, Major League Pickleball, announced in August that it was signing top players to guaranteed contracts providing six-figure salaries and covering travel, hotels and health care.

 

Vulcan announced in February that it would sponsor the PPA’s prime indoor tournament, now the Vulcan Indoor National Championships. The Tennis Channel covered the final live, and the tournament’s purse totaled more than $100,000. Vulcan also sponsors the PPA’s Vulcan Tournament of Champions and the Vulcan Kansas City Open.

“Tennis Channel and the PPA just announced a partnership, so it is jumping headfirst into pickleball,” DiGiacomo said. “MPL, which is Major League Pickleball, is a close second to PPA, and I was at an event last weekend and the entire thing was on ESPN. So when you have major broadcasting networks coming in and recognizing the value and popularity of the sport, and you see big sponsors like Southwest Airlines, Carvana, JP Morgan and Budweiser, I think it’s already a spectator sport and bound to keep growing.”

Vulcan is a growing presence at Tanner Team Sports, but pickleball’s revenue is dwarfed by Tanners’ baseball operations, DiGiacomo said. “We have from 50 to 60 employees [at Tanners] and that’s because of the seasonality of baseball.

“Pickleball is a full-year sport, but only myself and my team, just a few of us, are strictly pickleball. Everyone else here generally splits their time between baseball and pickleball.”

Acquisition

Signorelli moved Tanners to Hot Springs in 2002, 11 years after he built it up from the bones of a small leather-care products company.

“I’ve always had a love affair with baseball gloves,” Signorelli told Arkansas Business last year. “Pro baseball players picked up on our glove care, and it took off from there.”

The company widened its lineup of team sports accessories to 300 items, partnering with Rawlings Sporting Goods and developing private-label production for big retailers.

Tanners was acquired this year by Smith’s Sporting Group, also of Hot Springs, which makes sharpeners, knives and tools for outdoor recreation. No financial details were revealed. They have facilities opposite each other in Mid-America Industrial Park.

Vulcan’s four lighted pickleball courts are open to the public 24 hours a day with court lighting. Many employees of parent company Tanners Team Sports play the sport, including Dusty Thornton, Liliana Hanke, Jenna Tillery and Rickey Lacefield.
Vulcan’s four lighted pickleball courts are open to the public 24 hours a day with court lighting. Many employees of parent company Tanners Team Sports play the sport, including Dusty Thornton, Liliana Hanke, Jenna Tillery and Rickey Lacefield. (Karen E. Segrave)

In a news release, the president of Smith’s Sporting Group, Mike Taylor, said his company had “enjoyed a great relationship with Tanners Team Sports for a long time as they produce the honing oil used on some of our sharpeners.

“Our board looked at a variety of acquisitions … to diversify and strengthen our position,” he added. “This acquisition successfully diversified Smith’s Sporting Group into several indoor and outdoor sporting activities, furthering our vision for growth.”

The companies’ combined headquarters in the industrial park comprise 10 acres and 80,000 SF of manufacturing, warehouse and office space.

Signorelli, who as principal stockholder in Tanners wanted to sell to a company that would treat him and his employees well, called the acquisition a “perfect fit.” Under the deal, he remains Tanners’ CEO.

“Smith’s acquisition of Tanners makes us stronger by inserting new resources, incredible new talent, and amazing operational assets the company needs,” Signorelli said in the release. “Smith’s puts us in a better position to compete and win.”

The sale was “really great for us,” DiGiacomo said. “They bring a wealth of knowledge that we didn’t have. And vice versa, we have a lot of access to other areas of the industry that they just didn’t have before. And of course, we’re right across the street.”

Birth of a Sport: A Badminton Net, Ping-Pong Paddles and a Dog Named Pickles

Nobody knows for certain how pickleball got its name, but those who play it say it’s similar to tennis, except that every court has a kitchen.

“There have been a lot of rumors about the name,” said Lucia DiGiacomo, general manager for pickleball at Vulcan Sporting Goods. “The most popular is that the family that developed it had a dog named Pickles, and he ran off with the ball.”

Congressman Joel Prichard of Washington State and his businessman friend Bill Bell invented the game to give their bored families something to do on a summer Saturday in 1965, according to usapickleball.org. Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island had an old badminton court, but he and Bell couldn’t find a full set of rackets, so they improvised with ping-pong paddles and a plastic ball. The two men and another friend, Barney McCallum, soon created a full set of rules, and by 1990 the sport was being played in all 50 states.

“It is similar to tennis, but the scoring is more like volleyball,” DiGiacomo said. “You can’t get a point unless your team is serving. It’s primarily a doubles sport, and you and your partner keep serving and as long as you win the point.”

When one team accumulates 11 points, it wins a game, and matches are generally best two out of three games. The scoring system can confuse newcomers, “but it’s one of those things where once you play a few times, you catch on,” DiGiacomo said.

Nets are a few inches shorter than a tennis net, but the court is much smaller. In fact, you can crowd four pickleball courts onto one tennis court. Volleying is permitted, but not if you’re standing inside a line painted parallel to the net seven feet on either side.

That area is the no-volley zone, commonly called the kitchen, and players with their feet inside the line must let the ball bounce before swatting it back.

The paddles are usually a blend of fiberglass, carbon fiber, or polypropylene with a honeycomb core. “It varies by preference and manufacturer, and cost preference,” DiGiacomo said. “You can get out there and play regardless of whether you’re holding a $20 paddle or a $250 paddle.”

The balls themselves are hard plastic, and slightly different for indoor vs. outdoor play. Outdoor balls have 40 holes in them, indoor balls generally 26. “Here in Arkansas, outdoor pickleball is definitely more popular,” though wind can complicate play, DiGiacomo said. “In northern parts of the country, they have indoor facilities with outdoor court conditions like permanent nets, a hard tennis-style court, great lighting, and of course climate control.”

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