I was early to the pickleball reportage. Back in November 2021, I posited that somehow, NBC Universal stood to make a lot of money off 1:4 scale game of paddle tennis.. Pickleball was featured on nearly every franchise Bravo had in their pandemic-era lineup, and former pickleball power couple Lala Kent and Randall Emmett of Vanderpump Rules even showed off branded paddles. Because Bravo makes a lot of money off of their network stars’ various lines of merch (it’s reportedly called “the Bethenny clause”) like canned espresso martinis and shapewear, I thought we might see some major Bravoleb-backed pickleball bars, $100 paddles, and Spandex-blend court clothing. The bill of goods I was being sold seemed immaculately engineered and uncommonly sinister. In retrospect, I was naive — this thing is bigger than I could have imagined.
By February 2022, pickleball content was everywhere, going beyond Bravo to NPR to the New York Times. ESPN will air the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships. As the rest of the world catches on to the sport that’s been driving the elderly to insanity and perfectly healthy adults to faceplant, I’m starting to make connections that go way beyond Andy Cohen. I’ve had to buy new red string for my corkboard. I hear a dink dink dink rapping at my chamber door as I try to relax. I’ve done everything but pick up a racket.
I knew, for instance, that Bill Gates has played pickleball for over 50 years. In 2018, CNBC featured a video called “Why Billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates Play Pickleball.” The couple, of course, have since divorced in the wake of resurfaced allegations about Bill and convicted “abhorrent” pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s work with one another. But last month Gates posted a video titled “I’m a Pickler!” which is a watershed moment in pickleball marketing — this is the first time the sometimes-richest man on the planet has been so aggressive in promoting the concept of pickleball. Not even a brand of equipment or a charity: just the concept of pickleball. What does he have to gain?
“My dad was good friends with three families out on Bainbridge Island. When their kids were idle, they took a badminton court, a small tennis net, wood paddles, and a wiffle ball, and invented pickleball,” Gates says in the video. He also blogged about it, just like I’m doing. Before July 26, Gates had never once mentioned his ardor for pickleball on GatesNotes, even though he often writes about causes he’s passionate about, like for example, Alzheimer’s researcher and Mosquito Week 2022. Gates claims he didn’t even realize the popularity of the sport until he read about it in the Economist in January 2021. Another pin on my board.
Those three Bainbridge Island families, according to the USA Pickleball Association, belonged to Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum. The same Joel Pritchard was a conservative U.S. Representative and the Lieutenant Governor of Washington. Bainbridge Island is an expensive zip code and choice destination for weekending tech people. Rich people don’t tend to get up to anything good on islands, historically speaking.
Unfortunately, USA Pickleball did not respond to Gawker’s questions about Bill Gates’s or the Gates Foundation’s monetary ties to pickleball.
Is Bill Gates merely doing a PR video to cash in a little good will by being involved in something that’s suddenly astronomically popular? Or is pickleball astronomically popular because of Bill Gates’s shadowy influence?
A representative for the Gates Foundation did respond to Gawker’s query. “Neither Bill or the Gates Foundation has official connection to or monetary investment in the pickleball organization,” they said. Uh huh.
The money’s certainly there. Building pickleball courts in old K-Marts seems to be a cornerstone of new urban renewal in some cities, according to a New York Times article from June (NYT has become a pickleball newsletter with occasional stories about Vladimir Putin). Developers are creating major karaoke/bar/restaurant complexes around the concept of pickleball to keep the profits rolling, as only four people are allowed per time on court.
“If I have nine courts and the capacity is four per court but the project capacity is 600 people, we have to indulge them in great food, a great scene,” a developer of Electric Pickle, a new series of pickleball-centric entertainment venues, told the Times. “We call it hitting all the sensories.”
Most things that our friends online call a “psy-op” usually have a more simple explanation: popular things are fun, and fun things are popular. I don’t doubt pickleball is fun, and I don’t enjoy being a tinfoil hat kind of girl, but pickleball has succeeded in hitting one of those sensories: something smells off.