In a pickle – how malls are embracing the fastest growing sport trend

Malls infuse new life into their properties with addition of sports and entertainment concepts

May 31, 2023
  • Keisha Virtue
Lifestyle centers remain strongest mall type

There has been a great deal of speculation about the fate of malls lately, especially given that (since 2020) mall net absorption has been negative for 11 of the past 13 quarters. Much of this negative net absorption was a result of a spike in move-outs due to bankruptcy-related closures like GNC, Christopher & Banks, JC Penney, Neiman Marcus and Papyrus. But there has been one mall type that has remained relatively stable over the past several years – lifestyle centers. Lifestyle centers, which are open-air and generally have more experiential tenants, have seen mostly positive net absorption since 2017. 

And they have seen much lower vacancy rates in comparison to regional and super regional malls, where absorption has been mostly negative for the past few years – particularly for super regional malls, which are larger. Lifestyle centers’ resilience is likely due to their strong focus on experience – entertainment and food & beverage – which has been a consistent draw for consumers coming out of the pandemic.

Pickleball becoming a big hit at malls

Now, with consumers craving fun and social experiences, landlords are adding new attractions to their tenant mix. One growing sports & eatertainment phenomenon has malls in its sights: pickleball.

Pickleball – a cross between tennis, badminton and table tennis – has seen explosive growth in the US over the last few years, with over 36.5 million people playing the sport from mid-2021 to mid-2022. While it was invented way back in 1965, things really took off during the COVID pandemic, with Americans looking for entertaining outdoor activities. The average growth rate of the sport over the last three years is 158.6%. Pickleball’s soaring adoption rate is due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to start, the cost of entry is lower than for tennis or golf, and people of all ages, including children can enjoy it. With the combination of food & drink, pickleball is proving to be a fun – and potentially lucrative – eatertainment option. Furthermore, its larger footprint (as high as 80,000 square feet), positions pickleball to be an attractive option for backfilling empty mall anchor space.

Not surprisingly, mall owners are doing just that:

  • Pickleball America has leased over 80,000 square feet in a former Saks Off 5th in Stamford Town Center, Connecticut. The company is planning for over 500,000 people to come through the venue each year.
  • A former Belk store in Macon Mall will be the home of a 32-court indoor pickleball facility, as part of a larger redevelopment of the shopping center in Macon, Georgia.
  • ProShot Pickleball, a state-of-the-art indoor pickleball facility, recently opened in a former Burlington space at Shore Mall, New Jersey. The venue will feature eight courts, as well as a café, locker lounge and retail store.
  • All-Stars Pickleball Club took over an Old Navy space at Steeplegate Mall in New Hampshire.

And it’s not just malls getting in the action; Robert Thompson, founder of Punch Bowl Social, is planning a new concept called Camp Pickle, which will span over 50,000 square feet and feature multiple indoor and outdoor courts, old school games like duckpin bowling and darts, and food and drinks. One of the first venues will be the MidCity mixed-use development in Huntsville, Alabama, and he plans to have 10 company-owned locations by 2026. Another pickleball concept, Chicken N Pickle currently has seven locations with another eight planned by 2024. 

Contact Keisha Virtue

Sr Analyst, Research - Retail