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A Look at Rapidly Evolving Pickleball Paddle Technology

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This post is written from the perspective of a paddle reseller who has been involved with peddling paddles since 2016.

When we began reselling pickleball paddles, we decided we wanted to work exclusively with one company. Why? Because we wanted to build a relationship and because our research showed technology at the highest level did not vary significantly from company to company. The biggest difference at that point in time was in the shape of the paddle, more so than the construction. So we happily hopped on board with Engage Pickleball. A family owned company, based in USA.

State of the art paddles were retailing for prices ranging from $70 – $85. The construction was a honeycomb core, and most companies were now favoring polypropylene (we will refer to as “poly” in this blog entry going forward) construction over aluminum or Nomex. The paddle shape/form was literally cut out of the poly honeycomb. (The entire paddle including handle.) Then some type of form was added to build up the handle, usually balsa wood, and a laminate surface, usually constructed of a fiberglass blend of materials, was glued onto both sides. The paddles had graphics added and then a protective bumper strip was glued on followed by wrapping the handle with a synthetic grip. Voila! You had a pickleball paddle. State of the art. These paddles literally could be produced as a small home based operation in a garage or basement. In fact, that is how many started.

As the popularity of the sport increased, we saw a prolific growth in the number of companies producing pickleball paddles. I have no idea how many, but I believe it safe to assume there are 100s of paddle models being produced. Why so many? Well, for one reason, the construction, as described above, was not overly complex and could be produced in a home-based or small business setting fairly easily.

While the rapidly increasing number of new brands fought it out to distinguish themselves from the crowd, the major brands were also going on a marketing and pricing offensive. Pickleball continued explosive growth, tournaments increased and prize money was introduced. A grassroots effort to broadcast tournaments via live internet feeds helped feed the popularity of the sport and the top players became more and more well known and recognized. Paddle companies were quick to latch on to the top players and offer sponsorships for those players to use their brand of paddle. This added costs and the top manufacturers, acting as one, quickly raised prices. Note, cost of raw materials was not much different, but the cost of marketing and sponsorships and adding incentives for resellers to help with product sales and promotion did increase the costs. Add to this the paddle construction was prone to premature breakage where the manufacturer was replacing them at a very high rate and the costs of running a paddle company were indeed increasing.

In terms of technology, paddle companies used a variety of methods to create a surface that would allow for the greatest access to spin. The standards for maximum spin are closely monitored by USA Pickleball and most companies needed paddles to fall within standards before launching to public, otherwise paddle would not be classified as legal and would not bear the USA Pickleball seal of approval. For the most part, all approved paddles were near the top of the threshhold and spin was largely similar. (Note that some textured surfaces and especially when grit was used, did not have much longevity as the texture did not prove to be durable.) Technology was tweaked but performance differences were relatively minor. Paddle companies increased the width of paddles, (made them thicker…generally from approx 14mm to 16mm), in part to add durability and reduce the dreaded paddle handle snapping issue. They painted the surface laminate composites darker colors so visually it was not as easy to see the dead spots forming as honeycomb cores were breaking down. ProKennex made use of unique technology that included dampening material, but the biggest change in technology went to Gearbox. This was a company previously in the racquetball space. They burst onto the scene with a patented full carbon fiber paddle including the core. This was the first MAJOR innovation since the move away from wooden paddles to synthetic materials. To this day it is the only core, with the exception of old wooden paddles that nobody uses any longer, that is not honeycomb based.

Gearbox paddles stood out. While all honeycomb core based paddles were essentially a disposable commodity that would need to be replaced at a rate similar to tennis shoes, the Gearbox paddles were constructed to last. The handles did not snap, there was no edge guard to come loose and the core materials did not wear out and go dead. We went all in! We brought them in because in our opinion the option of selling paddles that did not have warranty issues was the way we wanted to go. We were now proudly offering the most technologically advanced paddles on the market for our customers. Gearbox pricing was, at the time, similar or lower than the disposable paddles at a price point of approximately $140 in 2018.

Meanwhile prices continued to increase and the top of the line honeycomb core poly paddles were were hitting prices of greater than $200 with some even going into $300 (with clever marketing…Selkirk) Gearbox raised prices to $200. At this point, for my customers I was skeptical about sales. I did however believe in the product and knew it offered a long term value that other paddles could simply not match, so I hung in with Gearbox and did not really pay attention to paddle technology, just watched lots of new brands entering the marketplace as a disinterested sideline observer because they were just a theme and variation on the current mainstream paddle design.

Carbon fiber surfaces started coming on strong as more and more manufacturers started offering these as options. Both advanced players and professionals embraced the control and spin. Many years back, Pro Lite introduced a carbon fiber surface. At the time Simone Jardim used and endorsed it. That was the first carbon fiber surface I can recall. Getting back to more recent usage, Electrum charged onto the scene with a carbon fiber surface that attracted a lot of attention and was one of the first to propel the movement toward this material. Advantages included great touch and feel along with excellent spin potential and great control in the soft game and with resets. Still, the raw materials could be sourced and manufactured by many of the long time/most recognized brands and created using their existing manufacturing facilities and paddle construction methods.

Along with the new carbon fiber surfaces was yet another increase in pricing. Many of the newly introduced carbon fiber faced paddles were mostly hovering around $200+. In 2022, Ben Johns was followed by a slew of professional players all jumping to raw carbon fiber surfaces. Ben and many were going with a newcomer to pickleball, Joola. Interestingly these paddles were manufactured in China vs. USA where most of the paddles professionals were using were still being made. At about this time something new and very interesting was happening. Smaller companies were popping up and were working with Chinese factories to import paddles rather than producing paddles in house. Note: The Joola paddles suffered tremendously from durability issues with many reports of handles snapping, edge guards coming loose etc…it was not a good look for a company who, powered by endorsement deals with Ben Johns and a stable of other pros, was rapidly gaining market share.

In early 2023, Gearbox announced a new version of their 14mm carbon fiber core paddles at $250.00 To us, this signals a price increase where we can no longer comfortably sell to our customer base. Even though Gearbox paddles will last significantly longer than any paddle currently being manufactured, the price point has moved it from a “no – brainer” to something that is restrictive.

So we began a deeper dive into the paddle manufacturing industry and what we found was surprising to us. Currently the industry is undergoing a radical transformation…a paradigm shift. The current brands that dominate the game, the brands that are essentially homemade, have competition. Competition from factories who are able to produce paddles that are more technologically advanced and in the right scenario can be made available at the same or lower price point than current composite faced, honeycomb core paddles made in the USA. Everything is about to change. The professionals want these paddles as they offer performance advantages and advanced and recreational players will be following suit. Suddenly the traditional names will find themselves needing to innovate to create paddles that are equivalent or better or risk losing their competitive customer base. They can drop back and sell to those entering the game, but pricing will need to drop. In my opinion, they are in a position that will force them to reevaluate and decide how to compete or risk going out of business.

Today the hottest technology is coming out of China. It is making use of raw carbon fiber for the face. The current preferred is T700 which can be manufactured with various textures via a heat compress. These textures meet legal requirements and help produce more spin than any previous technology and more importantly this texture lasts significantly longer than other methods of creating paddle texture. The production of the heated compress for the surface is not the only technology that is hard to replicate in a basement. Manufacturers are also creating a carbon structure around the paddle to increase stability and durability. Some manufacturers call this 360 degree molded carbon fiber and others refer to it as carbon fused edge technology. They are also making use of foam that is injected into the edges of the paddle for added dampening and feel. Using cold and heated molds and injecting foam is again something that requires equipment that most current small manufacturers do not have access to. This molding process combined with extending the face into the handle creates a unibody construction that is significantly more durable that other honeycomb core paddles. (Note: Core in these paddles remains the same, polypropelene honeycomb)

Paddles incorporating this technology are the current state of the art. Suddenly a carbon fiber surface that was previously offering spectacular control, is now paired with a construction process that creates a significant increase in both power and spin. The performance these paddles deliver is next level and though very early, it is easy to see that pickleball players of all levels will be flocking to this new technology.

The cost is one of the main variables. Some manufacturers are coming in along with the current industry norms. Around $220.00. However, this is where it gets interesting. Virtually anyone can reach out to one of the few Chinese factories producing these paddles and for a reasonable investment, create their own paddle line. We are seeing enterprising pickleball players teaming up with engineers and working with these factories to produce their own version of this technology. Since these are lean and mean start ups, with virtually no staff, and no sponsorships to pay out, some are positioning themselves as disruptors. The price point to produce is reasonable (approx $30 – $40 per paddle) They are setting retail pricing at a point where they can make a profit and also be significantly less expensive than other manufacturers who are offering either similar technology or technology that is clearly not as advanced. They then run all phases of the business and sell direct to public. With a price point that is well below $200 and the grassroots internet reviews and an army of ambassadors promoting the paddles, they will undoubtedly find an audience and traditional paddle manufacturers should be concerned because suddenly with the introduction of Chinese manufactured paddles, the paradigm is shifting and dramatically so.

We intend to bring in and recommend several of these new paddles. We will work with companies who are making informed manufacturing decisions and offer something we consider to be outstanding. We are already in contact with four that we like and will likely bring 1 or more of them in and make them available to our local pickleball players.

In fact, just yesterday we signed on with Six Zero Pickleball out of Australia. We are fans of their Diamond and Double Diamond (power and control) paddles. The company is run by an engineer who is on top of current design elements and in fact is a leader. We are impressed with their level of customer service as well as the products they are bringing to market. As a testament to their success, they have sold out of their inventory and are currently taking pre-orders for an April shipment. We do not yet have them in shop, but they are one we are excited about partnering with. We love the slightly unique shape/design they have chosen. You can save 10% by using our discount code when ordering from them online. Just use “GUTS&GLORY10” This is the first of at least 3 outstanding up and coming industry disruptors that we plan to work with in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned for more! (Note: The Double Diamond makes use of a raw carbon fiber surface while the Diamond is a raw fiberglass based surface which is different than carbon fiber…still plays great and with quite a lot of power…did not want to be misleading in any way)

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