Mar 21, 2023 - Sports

How 1 Twin Cities businessman hopes to become the Suni Lee of pickleball

a group of young people in athletic clothes holding bright green pink and blue paddle balls in front of a court

Participants in a Saint Paul Urban Tennis event try our PikNinja's paddles. Photo: Courtesy of Fuyei Xaykaothao

An Eagan paddle maker is capturing a small but growing slice of the booming pickleball industry.

What's happening: PikNinja, a company founded by Fuyei Xaykaothao, is racking up fans β€” and sales β€” across the nation with its goal to "grow the game for everybody."

  • "We want to be the Sunisa Lee of the pickleball world," Xaykaothao, who is Hmong American and the son of refugees from Laos, told Axios this month of his ambitions.

Catch up fast: Xaykaothao, a former college tennis player and pro, picked up a pickleball paddle for the first time in 2019 to ward off winter boredom. He was hooked, and, before long, his family was, too.

  • After his young daughter requested a paddle that was more "cool and empowering" than the basic models for sale at sporting goods chains, Xaykaothao decided to design her one himself. The brand's trademark "assassin ninja girl" was born.
  • "All of a sudden, everybody was like, 'Whoa, where did you guys get those paddles?'" Xaykaothao recalled. He ordered a batch for family and friends before launching an online store in April 2020.

Between the lines: Xaykaothao said his goal is to produce a hip, high-quality paddle at a lower price point to help expand access to the sport and appeal to younger players. His basic model is priced at $100, while many of similar caliber go for $150 or more.

  • An ambassador program where PikNinja gives players paddles and gear in exchange for promotion has helped create buzz and drive online sales across the country.
  • The products are also available at local clubs such as Lucky Shots Pickleball Club in Minneapolis and Mega Pickle and Pong in Chanhassen.

The big picture: The nation's fastest growing sport is becoming a big business, with tournaments, new facilities and high demand for equipment and apparel.

Zoom in: For PikNinja, that's translated to high demand and skyrocketing sales. As of early March, the company had already sold 500 paddles this year, compared to 1,000 in all of 2022.

Yes, but: Even with the interest, Xaykaothao said upfront costs and a long runway for orders due to supply chain issues have kept him from being able to grow sales enough to turn a profit.

What we're watching: Xaykaothao, who competes at the top amateur level of 5.0, said booming interest in pickleball is motivating "high-level, top tennis pros" to switch to the sport.

  • He's considering going professional in eight years, when he'll be eligible for the 50-plus division. His current age group (35-plus) is too competitive.

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