Spring is coming, and you are probably thinking about a new paddle. I am not a mind-reader, but I am a pickleball player, and, like you, I am always looking at paddles.
Recently, I overhear players talking about expensive $150 paddles coming onto the market, which prompted me to do my own review of some of these more expensive paddles. I wanted to determine whether the companies were price-gouging, or bringing new technology and materials to the market.
Having developed and launched quite a few tennis racket products, I can speak to how that expense can come about. Typically, a new or updated material from the aerospace industry might be offered to a tennis or pickleball manufacturer. In small quantities, these materials are very expensive.
I remember when the very strong and light “boron” was introduced to tennis. Two pieces of boron — perhaps only an inch long and three quarters of an inch wide, overlaid strategically on both sides of a fiberglass tennis frame — could greatly alter the playability of a racket but burn a hole in the wallet. It so enhanced stiffness that it made my shoulder ache after just a few minutes of hitting.
Just because it was a new material, and it brought new advantages, it wasn’t necessarily a better tennis racket.
With new materials in hand, the manufacturer (hopefully) does considerable tweaking on multiple variations of their own paddles to see if they might be used to improve playability. Once the manufacturer feels their company has enhanced a product, they (hopefully) will put it in the hands of a large number of selected players to do playability testing and collect their thoughts.
It typically is a long and expensive process for top companies. Other companies just put their new products out there and let you be the guinea pig.
I have spoken at length with the CEOs of several companies about several top-of-the-line paddles. One company pursued a new carbon fiber that definitely responds differently to the ball than other materials. At impact, the new material spreads energy throughout the entire face, resulting in energy being reapplied to the ball. It is also the nature of this new carbon fiber to create friction at slow ball speeds, which allows the hitter to add significant spin to the ball.
Another top company, by continuing to experiment and tweak their product, changed the formulation of the core with a new blend of a proprietary material and hit an absolute home run. In this case, the new thicker core spreads the ball impact energy across the entire face for improved play.
But what impressed me about this CEO was he wasn’t sitting back pleased with himself for five years of outstanding growth. He continued to burn the candle in the research lab, experimenting and tweaking for better products.
These companies can now offer some paddles in different weights, from medium to very light, without sacrificing playability. They can also offer some of these paddles in different handle sizes. Companies can also create improved playability by offering new shapes and, unfortunately, other companies can confuse the consumer by offering new shapes that that do not offer any benefits other than optical differences and more margin — for them.
I am at the point where you are probably asking yourself, “Which are the better companies?” I hesitate to answer, because there is very likely an XYZ company just about ready to launch a sensational new paddle, and I would not want any part of hindering them. Competition is what keeps all these companies from becoming complacent.
I am very impressed with how the major pickleball companies have managed fantastic growth, year after year, for half a decade. Rumor has it that one sales outlet went from 3,000 units a month to 17,000 units a month over a 24-month period.
Imagine you are sitting in a meeting room discussing the production of Brand ABC of pickleball paddles for next year. It is such a risky business, because if the company builds too many paddles, they stand the risk of bankrupting the company because their working capital is tied up in the warehouse.
So it would take a great deal of internal fortitude to tell everyone in that room that you will need twice as many paddles to sell next year as you are in the process of selling this year, especially when you know how everyone is overworked and scrambling every day to stay up with demand.
I was in that position for at least 10 years of my life. I personally know that, to do this, and still manage to introduce meaningful products, certainly suggests a serious commitment to the game.
At least a dozen readers have asked me about dead spots in their current paddles. I made an inquiry to a handful of companies about dead spots and heard not a word of response. Now, it could be they are busy just trying to stay up with demand, but from that lack of response, I conclude there must be a problem with dead spots that appear over time. I know, in my own experience, that if adhesive was not evenly and carefully applied, it led to product failure.
Of course, by leaving paddles in your automobiles in extreme heat and cold, you most likely have been a greater contributor to the problem than the manufacturer. Adhesives don’t like sun, heat, cold, humidity or excessive use. Well, there is an answer — don’t use your paddles. But what would be the point?
At one point in the tennis boom, I counted 70 to 80 companies around the world making tennis rackets, but only five or fewer really were producing serious products. So, let the buyer be aware. But whatever you do, keep playing pickleball so that one of the dead spots doesn’t turn out to be you.
Important news: The Town of Ocean City, at Northside Park, thinking about all those folks who have day jobs, will be offering “Drop-in Pickleball” on Friday nights from 5 to 8 p.m. from April 12 to May 10. The cost is $3 for Ocean City residents or $5 otherwise.
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.
By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point