If the insurance industry hasn’t noticed, the sport known as pickleball is exploding across the country, especially in Florida, where more than 15 indoor clubs, replete with air conditioning, cafes, locker rooms, video training and other amenities are planned or are under construction.
The growth has brought new opportunities but some tricky challenges for carriers, insurance agents and property developers in Florida’s expensive and distressed insurance market.
The sport, which is something like tennis but with smaller courts, more players and less running around, is still so new that some insurance carriers are leery. Major international insurers, such as Chubb, which often write high-end properties and tennis clubs, won’t touch it, said Shawn Munns, an insurance agent who helped The Pickleball Club secure liability, workers’ compensation and construction coverage on some of the clubs while they’re being built in Florida.
“Pickleball is less strenuous and less risky than tennis, but it has an older age group that plays it, so a lot of carriers have shied away from it,” said Munns, who is with CoWest of the Rockies Insurance Group, based in Denver.
The concept of all-inclusive pickleball complexes has proven so popular that Munns became an investor in the clubs in Florida. The developers, including co-founder Matt Gordon, is set to spend $180 million over the next few years to build the clubs. And despite two recent hurricanes in Florida and concerns from other property developers that soaring premiums in the state are proving too much for some south Florida projects, Gordon’s team seems unfazed.
“We’re building to Miami-Dade standards, so it would take a Cat 4+ direct hit to really cause us some harm,” Gordon said last week. “I’m sure our friendly insurance carriers will use the storms as an opportunity to increase rates. They always do.”
The real sticker shock on property insurance premiums may come once the clubs are completed.
“Property coverage is going to skyrocket for them now and will be tougher to write. But general liability will stay the same as that risk has not increased at all,” Munns said after Hurricanes Ian and Nicole plowed through parts of Florida in late September and early November.
Gordon, an attorney and investment banker, teamed up with commercial real estate investors and entrepreneurs Brian and Valerie McCarthy of Sarasota to launch the ambitious pickleball club plans. Brian McCarthy, a former U.S. Navy rear admiral, and Valerie were instrumental in creating one of Florida’s first pickleball academies, more than two years ago in Sarasota, according to news reports. The Pickleball Club said in a September news release that it has more than 47 shareholders.
Gordon said that when the team initially tried to find liability and other insurance for the clubs, from Florida and regional insurers, the cost was staggering. He had previously worked with Munns on other projects and finally reached out to him and CoWest. Through Philadelphia Insurance Co. and other carriers, Munn was eventually able to find coverage at about 70% of the cost that some insurers had quoted to Gordon.
“It did take quite a while to find a carrier,” Munns said. One of the planned clubs also needs flood insurance, he noted.
The first of The Pickleball Clubs is now under way in Lakewood Ranch, northeast of Sarasota. When completed in the next few weeks, it will offer 12 indoor courts, two outdoor courts, a shop, a dining facility and food trucks. Another is planned for 4 acres in nearby Bonita Springs, with 14 courts. Other sites are planned for Port St. Lucie, Fort Myers and other parts of the state.
As storms and rainfall are predicted to increase, along with soaring temperatures in Florida, the word “indoor” is key to the clubs’ success, Gordon said.
“Climate change has not hurt our business model,” he noted.
Pickleball has been around since the 1960s, according to the International Federation of Pickelball. But only in the last decade or so has it gone viral. An estimated 5 million people now play the sport – up 50% in the last three years. Three new venues are opening every day in the United States, the Washington Post reported.
The largest age demographic is 65 and older, but the 35 to 44 age group is close behind, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association told the Post.
The phenomenal growth of facilities and courts has led to some friction with diehard tennis players, who argue that picklers are taking over their spaces. Tennis courts can be easily converted to pickleball, but the new stripes can make it difficult for tennis players, some have said.
Despite that, the less-strenuous but still high-aerobic pickleball appears to be the future, fans say.
“Pickleball is the fastest growing sport nationwide with no signs of slowing down,” said Gordon. “We plan on being the market leader during this all-important land-grab phase of the industry, given the tremendous demand for indoor court space.”