- Pickleball courts are taking over old big-box stores and mall anchor tenants.
- The empty shells make for perfect pickleball venues due to their large footprint and high ceilings.
- Pickleball, a mashup of tennis and ping pong, is considered the nation’s fastest-growing sport.
Inside a shuttered Macy’s store in Richmond, Virginia, changes will soon be afoot.
Crews will grind down the floor, scrape the high ceilings, and repaint the walls. A brand new HVAC system will be installed to better circulate the air. Courts will be laid down, lines will be striped, and nets will be suspended.
That’s because that old Macy’s is about to become a 12-court pickleball venue.
“No one would probably know that it was a Macy’s when we’re all done, except for all the people that grew up going there shopping,” Jon Laaser, co-owner and chief operating officer of the new pickleball venue, Performance Pickleball RVA, told Insider.
The facility will host lessons and large tournaments, and will also be home to a pro shop and a bar and restaurant. Laaser and his co-owners envision Performance Pickleball becoming a “top-end” experience, and they’re hoping to get the facility up and running by December.
This Richmond Macy’s, which is located inside Regency Square Mall, is just one of dozens of malls, former department stores, and former big-box stores across the country being turned into pickleball facilities. The retail apocalypse that swept through brick-and-mortar stores over the last decade-plus left in its wake large, empty shells begging to be repurposed — now, entrepreneurial pickleball enthusiasts are coming to the rescue.
Laaser said former anchor tenants like Macy’s are perfect for pickleball, since they’re “basically just big boxes” sitting empty inside declining malls. Regency Square was “kind of the crown jewel of retail and the social scene in the western end of Richmond,” he said, but had started to decline in recent years — pickleball is just one piece of its revitalization.
There’s a ‘gold rush’ on indoor pickleball courts
Pickleball, a mash-up of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, is widely considered the fastest-growing sport in the US — there were 8.9 million pickleball players in the US as of 2022, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group that represents the sporting goods industry. It’s led to an explosion in companies that make pickleball equipment and, more recently, dedicated pickleball facilities.
One such facility, The Picklr, operates six venues in Utah and Colorado. Jorge Barragan, The Picklr’s CEO, told Insider that he’s planning to open 25 more locations this year and 150 in the next three years via a franchise model. The Picklr’s prime real estate target? Former big-box stores.
“We all have ’em in our neighborhoods, we have those eyesores that you drive by and say, ‘ah, I wish something would go there,'” Barragan said. “There’s not too many people raising their hand and saying, ‘hey, I’m willing to take 25 to 40,000 square feet.'”
But The Picklr is. Barragan said he sees the recent wave of store closures by chains like Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, and Party City as an opportunity and hopes to work directly with liquidators to snap up some of the empty spaces.
Of course, it’s not always easy transforming a former bedding and bath emporium into a sports complex.
Barragan said that there’s often asbestos under the floor tiles, the bathrooms are outdated and, frankly, “pretty gross,” and the buildings from the 1980s and ’90s often have drop ceilings, which usually means the sprinkler systems are too low and need to be raised up. Plus, the type of overhead fluorescent lighting common in department stores isn’t ideal for pickleball — it can be so bright that the ball is almost impossible to see when it’s flying toward you.
Despite those challenges, Barragan predicts that those stores won’t stay empty for long.
“Right now, what’s happening is, I’m going and touring all these cities across the country and meeting with real estate agents and they’re saying, ‘oh, you’re actually the third pickleball facility that we’ve met with in the last month,'” Barragan said. “It’s almost like the gold rush — who’s gonna get their footprint faster.”