Pickleball Points

Sorry — I incorrectly cited the dates for the upcoming prize-money pickleball tournament at the Ocean Pines Pickleball Club. It will be held between Oct. 22 and 24, and 217 players are already registered. They do so many great things at Ocean Pines, like the $16,700 raised for cancer last weekend, it is difficult to keep them sorted in this old head.

I’ll be there to catch up with Julie Woulfe and Frank Creamer, co-founders of the Ocean Pines Pickleball Club, and answer your questions about Paddletek paddles.

I’ve been very reluctant to publish this article, because I greatly admired the paddle industry in the way they managed the supply of paddles for the incredible year to year growth of pickleball. This article speaks to a potential problem, but one that most certainly doesn’t include all brands of pickleball paddles.

Last June, I slapped myself on the cheek and then came out of my COVID bomb shelter to help a friend who asked me to explain the differences in pickleball paddles to participants in his weekly clinics. The folks from his clinic asked me for an opinion about the paddles they already owned, and I was alarmed by what I discovered.

The first few clinic participants asked if they had acceptable paddles, and I recognized the brand/model and told them I thought they were in good shape. Then several more came up to me and asked the same question, and I started to give them a pass as well, because they had what appeared to be acceptable brands.

Although neither one said anything derogatory about their paddles, I noted they were subconsciously rubbing their elbows and shoulders as they waited to speak to me, so I asked if I could just hit a few balls with their name-brand paddles.

Oh, my gosh.

They were terrible to the 10th degree. It was like striking a railroad stake with a sledgehammer, which is something I did while waiting to get into Officer Training School.

Four more pickleballers arrived — the same terrible scenario. I could not hit more than one or two balls, and I felt pain deep in the recesses of my elbow and shoulder.

Over the past four years, I have complained in my column about the confusing marketing claims the industry has continued to make. Larger sporting-goods companies once took great care in their messaging through print media and in-store displays. But with the internet, pickleball companies can now just pummel you with misleading and, many times, invalid claims.

Now there are more than 200 vendors of paddles and balls, according to USA Pickleball, an organization trying their best to guide pickleball and provide protection to pickleball consumers. But the paddles I encountered could doom the pickleball industry, and now you, hopefully, understand the reason I have written this.

If companies in the industry manufactured these paddles simply to provide cheap paddles to consumers, I offer this advice: It doesn’t take a genius to sell cheap. In fact, cut your losses now and get rid of everyone except folks in the shipping room, as well a bookkeeper to maintain the books until you shutter the business.

Perhaps and, hopefully, these paddles were hand-me-downs that have continued to degrade when left in over heated automobiles. But if approved manufacturers didn’t produce these atrocious paddles or they weren’t terribly degraded over time, then counterfeiters have invaded the industry.

Counterfeiters are quite good. The only way I first detected counterfeit tennis rackets in what was then the major brand in the industry was because a label on the most popular brand had been copied and printed in reverse by someone who did not read English. Counterfeiters receive the profit, pickleball manufacturers will receive the lawsuits, and consumers encounter the bad experience.

A good thing is that some pickleball paddles are manufactured in the United States, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be counterfeited. When I first discovered tennis counterfeits, company engineers bristled while telling me no one could make their racket to the same level of quality. They missed my point, because the counterfeits need not be as good as company-engineered paddles, they just need quality cosmetics.

Higher consumer prices can trigger the counterfeiter’s greed. Each time the industry yanks up prices, especially “willy-nilly,” they open the door a little wider for counterfeiters. Manufacturing profits, like a tall tree with shallow roots, can be destroyed overnight if the American industry gets targeted like the cotton market for sports clothing was specifically targeted by the Asian cotton industry.

I just hope that American pickleball manufacturers are not added to the long list of once-famous, now-shuttered, sporting goods companies.

I am not going to make friends in the pickleball industry with this article, but my allegiance is to the ordinary pickleball players who laugh, giggle and play a serious game periodically. By spotlighting this issue, hopefully, I can help all pickleballers — the consumers who sometimes seem to be forgotten by the companies.

A little irritation here, a drop-off in sales there, and fairly soon companies begin to pay more attention to their knitting. While the internet provides more efficient distribution, it leaves manufacturers blinded to what is happening across America.

Consumers: Having gone to bat for you, I think a little tender loving care in the way you store your paddles might help their playability and longevity. Leaving them in your automobiles, being roasted by magnified sunlight, cannot be healthy to a paddle that relies on adhesion between the core and face.

Pickleball is a great sport. Play it. Enjoy it. Handle your equipment carefully, and be very careful in the marketplace. There is Latin expression “Caveat emptor,” which very (very) roughly translates to “Let the pickle be aware.”

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.