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Q&ACE With Chris Rothermel, Founder of Pickleball Playground

Extremely unique property featuring expansive landscape for play, growth & fun

March 19 2024
SOURCE: The Pickleball Playground, Knoxville, TN

Q. What Inspired Launching The Pickleball Playground?

A. I've always wanted to own a gym of some sort. I love being athletic, I’m really into CrossFit, and I have played racquetball since 2007. I love people, and I just really love a gym atmosphere. It’s a place where I can surround myself with like-minded people who are into fitness and who lead a healthy lifestyle. There is good energy in an athletic facility and I’m very drawn to that. My wife, Amy and I saw the huge need for additional indoor pickleball courts in Knoxville, so it just seemed like a natural path for us.

We quickly realized that not only was there a need for additional courts in the area, but there was a huge need for a more social pickleball club; a place where you could go play your matches and then stay for a while, have a drink and talk with friends. Pickleball is a very social sport, which I love, so making our club very people-centric became a core value for us. We wanted to make a pickleball club where every player feels welcomed, they feel important, and they feel included. We wanted our club to welcome all levels, and for this to be a FUN club, nothing too stuffy or uninviting. That’s when The Pickleball Playground was born. We felt this name really encompassed our main goals for the club. We were creating a playground for people of all ages.

The Pickleball Playground: The 101

SOURCE: The Pickleball Playground, Knoxville, TN

If we truly wanted to create the best pickleball club in Knoxville, we knew we needed a phenomenal space and lucky for us, shortly after starting our search, we found it. While the building and the land were expensive, we knew right away this was the space we needed for The Pickleball Playground. The property had been on the market for 2.5 years before we purchased it. We literally saw the listing on a Friday, and we had an offer to the owners the following Tuesday, which they accepted the next day. It was all very overwhelming, but it felt meant-to-be.

The facility is really one-of-a-kind – there’s nothing out here like it. There’s great opportunity to build and grow – we are on 6 acres of land with a 32,000 square foot facility. The existing facility definitely needed work. It was previously a tennis club owned by a wonderful guy and his wife, Rob and Angelia. Rob didn’t love the business side of things and really just wanted to focus on teaching tennis which is what he excels at. We could see right away that with some dedicated effort on the business side and a big investment in converting the courts and upgrading the spaces, this place had a ton of potential; it had five indoor tennis courts, but it felt tired and needed some fresh energy and a new vision. The property also had four outdoor tennis courts and 16 outdoor pickleball courts. Converting the indoor tennis courts over to pickleball courts became our primary goal for phase 1 of renovations.

There is also so much room to expand. We have a huge 2-acre grassy area where we plan on creating an amazing outdoor social space, plus we have room to build more indoor pickleball courts if needed down the road.

Club Courts & Features

SOURCE: The Pickleball Playground, Knoxville, TN

Our club now features 7 indoor pickleball courts, 1 indoor tennis court (which currently doubles as 4 additional pickleball courts), 4 outdoor tennis courts, 3 outdoor clay tennis courts, and 16 outdoor pickleball courts. Phase 2 includes converting the last indoor tennis court over to pickleball which will give us 11 indoor pickleball courts. All of our courts are tournaments-sanctioned, which is really important as the sport attracts athletes who are increasingly younger, faster and more competitive. Some of our features include extra high ceilings, all new (much brighter) LED lighting, fencing around each court and

outdoor playing surfaces. Pickleball, like tennis, originated on outdoor courts. We knew we wanted to keep the authenticity of that outdoor court feel but with the comforts of indoor. Some indoor clubs use a cushioned court, but from all of our feedback our players really wanted the outdoor court to feel so that’s what we gave them.

When designing the new interior layout, it was important for us to keep as much space open for sitting, socializing and watching matches as possible. While we could have crammed 14 pickleball courts in the space, we landed on 11 indoor courts which left us with a whopping 5500 square feet of space to play with. My wife’s mind started running with all the possibilities for these common spaces and has really dreamed up something special for the pickleball players in Tennessee.

We completed Phase 1 of renovations in mid-September 2023 and immediately opened the club. Since then, we have been working on architectural plans, permits and licenses. We will begin construction on Phase 2 in April, and we can’t wait to show Knoxville what we have in store. In addition to going FULLY climate-controlled just in time for summer, we are building all-new restroom and shower facilities, a new reception area with pro shop, a high-end player’s lounge with bar and multiple gathering spaces with 6 large-scale televisions. The designs are truly incredible, and I cannot wait to see phase 2 come to life and even more excited to reveal it to our members in about 4 months from now. Our new bar area will be named Recess, and we can already envision our players asking their friends after work or church or whenever, if they want to go to The Playground and to Recess. This is truly going to be a destination location for pickleball not just in Knoxville, and not even just in Tennessee, but for people in surrounding states here in the South.

SOURCE: The Pickleball Playground, Knoxville, TN

Q. Launching a Pickleball Club: Is it what you expected it to be?

A. Part of me thought owning a pickleball club would give me more time to play pickleball! My wife and I both have a racquetball background -- we've played with some of the best competitors in the world, which translates a little bit, but pickleball was relatively new to us. We did have a pickleball court in our backyard at our previous house and played recreationally. It was built more for our 5 kids and our friends than for me and my wife. Our kids love the game and play often. Now I don't spend much time on the courts because our players would rather see me making the facility better than playing. You’re much more likely to find me walking the courts, talking to people, getting feedback, and just learning what our members want from us. Someday I will have more time on my hands to really get into playing the sport.

Members love to see me at the club. We have managers who oversee the facility but I'm usually there multiple nights each week and during the day. It's funny, because when I’m outside the club, in town, I'll see a member at a restaurant they’ll say ‘Hey, Chris, how you doing’? It's a lot of fun to see members around. I love being part of that.

Q. Tell Us About The APA Tournament at The Pickleball Playground

A. APA ran a great tournament. Everything ran smoothly, we heard lots of great things from all the participants who came from across the entire region. More recently we held our own first sanctioned tournament with Southern Pickleball with 249 players, including players from Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, California, and Georgia. It was the largest tournament ever held in Knoxville. One of the great things about our club is obviously just its sheer size. We have the ability to host some really large tournaments here, drawing participants from all over the country. World Team Pickleball will be hosting a tournament at our facility in October, and this is really just the beginning. Word is spreading quickly that we are a place to be for tournaments in and around the East Tennessee area, so our event calendar is starting to fill up quickly.

Q. Were You An Entrepreneur Before Starting The Pickleball Playground?

A. My wife and I are both entrepreneurs.

We have had successful businesses, and we also had a couple flops. But that’s part of being an entrepreneur. Our failures have been our biggest lessons, our successes have helped cash flow new opportunities, so in our minds you never really lose with new business ventures. People ask me all the time: How did you start this? Well, from a very young age we have worked extremely hard, saving money, making the right choices, so that if an opportunity like this presented itself, we could do it. And we did. We don’t like to have things we want to do but can’t afford so one of our main focuses for the past 23 years or so has been accumulating assets and building our foundation. Each business we have built just continues to catapult us to the next level.

The greatest thing about this venture is that my wife and I have always owned separate companies, which kind of set us off in different directions. This business has brought us and our family closer – we all own it. My 21-year-old son, Collin, even has a 1 percent stake in the company. He put most of his life savings into this business, which actually puts more pressure on me than the 99 percent I own. I don’t want to let him down! It’s fun. All of our kids are involved in one way or another and really what we hope we are teaching them is that if you work really hard from a young age, you always save more than you spend, you set yourself up to be open for opportunities, you put other people’s interests above your own and you just generally be a good person, then good things happen. The universe will reward you. That’s the big takeaway for our kids. I hope they see that.

Q. Advice Would You Give A Pickleball Enthusiast Interested In Opening A Pickleball Club

A. Oh, I think you gotta be a little bit crazy! No, seriously, I think my wife and I are both a little nuts for taking on such a big project at this stage of our lives. For us this was no longer about the money and more about wanting to do something together – something that invigorates us and that we both feel good about. It definitely takes at least two different people to partner on the venture. By that, I mean, for example, I'm the people person, I can go in and spend 30 minutes talking with a member or non-member, and next thing you know they’re writing a five-star review on Google, so it takes that type of person, a real people person. And it takes an analytical person - someone who enjoys working behind a computer most of the time, who can write up the programs, who sets budgets, timelines, goals, etc. So, it takes both mindsets. And luckily, my wife and I are those two different people. Building a pickleball business means you need to go all-in once you own the property – it takes a while for people to understand the mission of the product you’re building but if you have clear goals and stay on your path, your vision will start shining through.

For both of us, our priority is to make sure that everyone who walks through The Pickleball Playground doors is happy while they’re here. Because when that member or potential member walks in the front door, we want them to not just see how amazing our space is, we want them to feel the great energy and want to be part of it. That’s what you get at The Playground. Beautiful spaces, world-class pickleball courts and tournament setting, inviting social spaces, a high-end player’s lounge and bar, but more importantly you gain a community. A community of like-minded people wanting to socialize, have some fun, and who are incredibly inclusive welcoming new members to their fold. We are building the space, but it’s the people who really make this an incredible place to be. And that’s what inspires us, too. We are drawn to the energy being created at The Pickleball Playground.

Going to work has never been so much fun.



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