Q&ACE: Valerie McCarthy, Co-Founder of The Pickleball Club @ Lakewood Ranch
Professional expertise & personal passion fuel pickleball’s most luxurious indoor/outdoor club
theTUNDRA recently caught up with health and wellness expert Valerie McCarthy, who, with her husband Brian, founded THE PICKLEBALL CLUB, the emerging pickleball destination that recently launched its flagship sports facility in Sarasota, with plans to open 15 additional clubs throughout Florida. With amenities and services rivaling those of a five-star resort, THE PICKLEBALL CLUB @ LAKEWOOD RANCH is living up to its mission: to optimize the on-site customer experience by raising the ‘expectations’ bar, providing members best-in-class offerings throughout the venue, so that pickleball enthusiasts play their best game at every level–physically, socially and emotionally. Here are a few inspirations driving Valerie McCarthy’s limitless passion for wellness and sport.
Q. What inspired your passion for fitness and wellness to the extent you pursued both educationally and professionally?
A. As a lifelong athlete I have always been interested in sports and wellness. I started swimming at the age of two and became a competitive swimmer at age five. I pretty much have had a life-long love for athletics! I have enjoyed ice skating, skiing, field hockey, softball and basketball. When I qualified for nationals in swimming at age 11, it was an “AHA” moment for me in that it ignited a passion for competition and fitness that has stayed with me to this day.
It was such an exhilarating feeling qualifying for national competition that I clearly remember at that young age, knowing that I loved competition. I loved setting a goal for myself and not only meeting it but exceeding it. Since then, I have always thrived on competition; I love to win and I try to learn something that makes me better when I don’t.
Q. How did that passion evolve over time?
A. I have always had a strong interest in finding ways to help others improve their lifestyles with fitness and inspiring people to make wellness a way of life.
I decided to study the preventative side of health and wellness during college at Kent State University. I enjoyed learning about kinesiology (the science of human movement, performance, and function) and personal fitness training.
The connection to fitness training is that everybody is different and should have a personalized approached based on individual strengths, preferences and body type.
Q. A continuing thread throughout your professional history is commitment to service; how did that dedication lead to creating the “Play for Life” foundation?
A. My work at the YMCA, a world-renowned non-profit organization, drove my passion to serve. Working with children opened my eyes to the youth obesity epidemic in our country and made me want to help teens through fitness. Additionally, when I married my husband Brian, who is a military veteran, it empowered me to get involved in the veteran community where I have been an advocate for more than 25 years. These are men and women who have given their all to ensure freedoms for the rest of us and yet when they come home from serving, in many ways our country fails them. Suicide rates among veterans are staggering and by helping them engage with the Mind-Body-Spirit connection through a fun sport like Pickleball, it alleviates stress and improves physical and mental health.
Q. As a female founder of sports-related businesses, what were the most challenging obstacles you’ve faced and how did you overcome those challenges?
A. Historically sports have been male-dominated, and that mentality carried into the work world - especially in my era. Not being a male head of the household, I was passed over for many positions. But I’ve learned that despite this, it is hard for others to say ‘No’ to you when you are really good at your job. That pushed me to always do better, be better. I drew on strength from a lifelong love of sports and competition, and I have an inner drive that always pushes me forward.
Q. What insired THE PICKLEBALL CLUB and what is its unique product differentiator in a vertical that’s slightly oversaturated at present?
A. Clearly, my background and upbringing in the sports world inspired THE PICKLEBALL CLUB in part, but also just a plain love for the sport. We stand out from the crowd in that we’ve created an amenity-heavy private club atmosphere and membership. THE PICKLEBALL CLUB is the first of its kind in the country and we have no direct competition in the marketplace. We are setting a standard in the Pickleball market. Our target market is the pickleball enthusiast looking for a private club experience. Our first location is in Lakewood Ranch, in Sarasota, Florida and our Grand Opening was in May 2023. We have more than 600 members in that club with eight more clubs in progress across the state.
Amenities unique to THE PICKLEBALL CLUB include (but are not limited to):
- Twelve tournament-grade indoor and two outdoor pickleball courts with specialized insulation for sound deterrent
- Outdoor players’ courtyard
- Pickles Café offering a wide selection of culinary favorites and drinks including wine, beer and specialized coffees, kombuchas, etc.
- Dink’s Pro Shop featuring pickleball fashion, equipment and accessories
- PlaySight video technology for live streaming and recording for training purposes
- Locker rooms and a mezzanine for lounging while overlooking courts
Q. Do you envision the future of the PICKLEBALL audience as more amateur-driven or as spectator sport of professional leagues?
A. There is room for both! Powerful figures from actors, to NFL stars, to other celebrities have already driven tremendous interest in the sport. Pro tennis players looking for an alternative as they age are influencing Pickleball (Sharapova, McEnroe, Graf, Agassi, etc.) It is the fastest growing sport in the country and there is hope for scholarships and collegiate opportunities to play the sport as well.
Q. In what ways do you anticipate the sport evolving across age groups and demographics?
A. I expect to see more collegiate participation and more scholarships. While Pickleball was turned down for the Olympics, I am hopeful for the future. It’s a multi-generational sport that connects people. We bring together the different age groups through The Play For Life Foundation. We focus on First Responders (active and retired), Veterans, and Youth.
Q. If you could play a match with a doubles player who would be your partner?
A. That’s tough! I’d say Chris Everett or Stephi Graff.
Q. Is there any other (heretofore unrecognized) sport and/or interest you might envision has the potential to take hold w/the exponential popularity that Pickleball has experienced over the past couple years?
A. Not with the same amount of recognition. The benefit of Pickleball is the ease of learning and how quickly you can start playing. It is also a multigenerational sport, unifying many people. Kids can play with grandparents – we’ve had 95-year-olds and eight-year-olds playing together at the club. It’s very unusual to see that in any sport and pretty cool.
Q. What’s your go-to read?
A. Currently I am reading several books but I love a good biography. As a team, we read the Customer Service Revolution, and it was very insightful for us. It shaped how we approach Concierge level customer service at our club. Great customer service is all about “creating relationships,” and that’s hard to do through text, email, etc. and those who prioritize this, no matter the age, are the ones who excel in this area. It’s heartening to observe that many younger generation entrepreneurs are dedicated to providing excellent customer service, demonstrating a strong commitment to customer satisfaction and innovation. I think in general good customer service is hard to find - it doesn’t really depend on age or generation.
Q. Pick your poison: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or TikTok?
A. I’m not one for social media— it’s hard to develop relationships through an iPhone. I’m more social in real life by nature, but if I had to choose it would be Facebook.