When Jason Aspes started The Kitchen in 2020, it was the result of a professional detour.
Paul had recently moved to Austin, Texas, to work on a startup focusing on the music and concert space, and his longtime friend Jason Aspes had been advising him in the endeavor. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic had other plans for the concert industry, which subsequently shut down and stopped the startup in its tracks.
Like many other Americans in the first months of the pandemic, the two took to pickleball, a racket sport that incorporates elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton and is played as either singles or doubles on a surface smaller than a tennis court. The sport, which has evolved quickly in the past three years, can feature fierce “firefights” or impressive displays of touch at the net with a ball that resembles a smaller wiffle ball.
“During the pandemic, it was an opportunity to get outside, get some exercise and do something different,” said Aspes, who officially joined the company in 2022. “And we both just really fell in love with the game and recognized there was an opportunity here.”
“One thing led to another and pickleball just absolutely boomed,” Aspes added. “We were right there at the ground level of that groundswell.”
Enter The Kitchen, an online community with a website, TheKitchenPickle.com, that is chock full of content, as well as its various social media accounts featuring news, views, videos and, of course, memes.
“I was working on the music startup and raised the round, and we built a similar community to what The Kitchen is in the concert space,” Paul said. “And then when things got shut down after we raised the round, I discovered pickleball and started leveraging some of the same growth strategies to build an audience, and it just took off super quickly.”
“It’s an incredibly social sport, but there was nothing online tying people together,” Aspes said. “It was all disparate, there was no unification, there was no place to understand what the rules were, there was no go-to home for pickleball, and we tried to provide that.”
The two are early-90s graduates of Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs and have ample experience in the fields of advertising and social media. Aspes, who lives in Brookhaven, has been a competitive basketball player, and Paul, who is still in Austin, came up wrestling. Both say that pickleball has brought out people from any and all athletic backgrounds and has rekindled the desire to compete for many.
“I wrestled in high school, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m so addicted to pickleball, because it’s been a while since I’ve been able to compete in a sport at a relatively high level,” Paul said.
“We see athletes from all different backgrounds,” Aspes said. “Obviously all the paddle and racket sports are huge. Ping pong, badminton, squash, racquetball, tennis, that’s where we’re seeing tons of people coming in now, but also basketball, baseball, golfers who are looking for more exercise and something a little bit more social and quicker, and less expensive. There’s a lot of positives to the game.”
Fans can expect a little bit of everything at The Kitchen’s website, as well is its social media channels on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, with a dedicated Atlanta group on Facebook with thousands of followers. Across all platforms, The Kitchen has nearly 300,000 followers, the largest online pickleball fan community cumulatively, according to Paul.
“I think it’s a bit of a mish mash and it’s all about what you’re looking for,” Aspes said. “So if you’re looking for instructional and you’re trying to improve your game, that’s there. If you’re looking for conversations with like-minded fans, that’s an option. If you’re looking to interact with the pros, we have tons of pros who pop into the platform. There’s no real barrier between spending time with the professionals.”
From the tennis world, Paul cites big professional names like Atlanta native Donald Young and former UGA star John Isner who have jumped into pickleball. And the game has attracted big celebrities such as Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as investing interest from stars in other sports, such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Rob Gronkowski. In 2022, The Kitchen hosted an event in Miami with 11 Vodka and two events in California, with Cutwater Spirits and comedy studio Funny or Die.
For metro Atlanta, Aspes and Paul say that there is more and more choice for courts and venues, even at indoor gyms such as the Lifetime Fitness in Sandy Springs, which recently repurposed its basketball courts as three permanent pickleball courts. Even a fixture like Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, or ALTA, is jumping into pickleball competition, Aspes said.
“There are a lot of options coming down the pike, but we’re seeing tennis courts, tennis clubs, tennis communities convert their tennis courts, not necessarily into full-time pickleball, but to at least give people the option to play pickleball or tennis,” Aspes said. “It’s just booming. Every day we’re seeing new clubs opened up around the country.”
Another online community, Atlanta-based Pickleheads, is also riding the wave of momentum. With offices in the Berkeley Park neighborhood of West Midtown, Pickleheads CEO Max Ade, an Atlanta resident, founded the service in February 2022 with his team in order to connect the growing number of players to court and game options nationwide. Brandon Mackie, a co-founder of the company and a Georgia Tech graduate who played tennis at Jenkins High School in Savannah, says that at this stage of pickleball’s rise, accessibility is key.
“The goal of Pickleheads is to be the digital home for pickleball players,” Mackie said. “So you can imagine anything from finding a court to organizing your own games, to finding local players near you, all that happens on our site. So really what we’re seeing in the space right now is a big supply-and-demand challenge. There are just way more people that want to play than there are courts available. And what our site means to do is make the game more accessible to people and help people get out to the right courts at the right time so they can go and enjoy the sport.”
Mackie said Pickleheads has a nationwide court directory of nearly 11,000 entries and is constantly being updated with more.
“We have what we believe to be the largest database of pickleball courts in the country,” Mackie said. “No matter where in the country you live, you can use our site to find a facility close to you and get information on how many courts there are, what are the popular times people play, do you need to bring your own net, what sorts of amenities are provided.”
Pickleheads features such hotspots as Hammond Park in Sandy Springs, the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody, McClatchey Park in the Ansley Park neighborhood of Atlanta and many more. Mackie also cited the trend of tennis centers adding or converting courts, such as Sandy Springs Tennis Center, which now has eight courts.
“There’s an estimated 5 million players in the US playing right now, and a lot of industry insiders and experts estimate we’ll see 40 million players by 2030,” Mackie said. “And if that happens, it will be almost twice the size of tennis in terms of participation.”
More options will be coming to Pickleheads in early 2023, Mackie said, including features that will allow organizers to reach more potential players and communicate more efficiently with entrants to big events.
For The Kitchen in 2023, Aspes and Paul are excited to add retail options for the growing number of pickleball products, launching in February, as well as a six-city, moneyball-style amateur tour. But the goal, Paul said, is always to act as ambassadors for the sport while encouraging positivity among its growing following.
“We really try to be not only champions of the sport, but we also spend a ton of time curating the content and the conversation, so we can keep the sentiment positive,” Paul said. “We definitely are not fans of online trolling or keyboard warriors, and we just don’t allow that in our communities.
“We’re relatively new to the sport still, and we have a ton to learn. We’re always just trying to remain humble and work as hard as we can to grow the sport.”
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