It’s a common story in the pickleball world — a player tries the game, gets bitten by the “pickle bug,” and starts playing all the time.
More uncommon, however, is deciding to start your own pickleball club just three months after picking up a paddle for the first time. But that’s exactly what Aisha Stith, Stephanie Allen-Tunsil, and two of their best friends did.
Although she had heard about pickleball during the pandemic, Allen-Tunsil didn’t try the game out until March 2023.
She was immediately hooked.
“My favorite part of the game is the fact that you can be terrible at first and still have an amazing time,” Allen-Tunsil says with a laugh. “It is nuanced enough that you want to be better, but even if you’re not great, you can get an adrenaline rush of competition, an amazing workout, and make new friends.”
A few months into the game, Stith, who lives in Atlanta, and Allen-Tunsil, who lives in Miami began chatting with their friends — SunJa Leon, and Lauren N’Namdi — about their experiences.
They all came to the same conclusion: there was a need to welcome diversity on the pickleball courts.
“The first time I played, I was at a private country club, and there was no one that looked like us,” Stith says. “I then started playing at the city clubs in Atlanta, which is a really diverse city, especially with a presence of Black people, but there still weren’t that many people of color playing collectively. And I thought this is something so fun that I have to tell my community about.”
So, the four entrepreneurial women decided to start PickleBallin’ Lifestyle Club in June 2023 as a fun space for everyone to learn the game. The group, which is organized through WhatsApp, meets several times a week for games, social events, and clinics.
More than 200 women are involved in the now-incorporated business in both Miami and Atlanta. And while the organization was founded with women in mind, it has grown in such popularity, that it’s now open to all.
“While it started to be a representation for us, it has quickly evolved to a safe space or judgment-free zone for anyone who wants to get into the sport,” Allen-Tunsil says. “It’s a very friendly community — you can go and play with anyone — but it’s still intimidating. So we want to take that intimidation factor away.”
And while there are many benefits to be had from playing the game, such as physical and mental fitness, the founders are focused on breaking down barriers between communities. Stith says one of her favorite parts of the game is seeing people from all walks of life playing on the court.
“You can have a mom, a doctor, a student all playing together,” she says. “This the great unifier. This game allows any person, despite age or ability, to get out and move.”
What started as one weekly meetup in each city has quickly expanded to more than four meetups a week. The club is free to join and most events are held on public courts to allow for easy entry.
Off the courts, club members regularly meet up for social gatherings, such as happy hours, spa days, and facials better known as “PickleParties.” Allen-Tunsil says it’s great to see the PickleBallin’ community grow in a few short months.
“I’ve never met anybody who played and didn’t love, so when I am able to introduce someone to the game and they have that great experience, I feel like I have a small hand in that experience,” she says. “So when people say, ‘I’m hooked on pickleball,’ that’s my most proud compliment. That’s the greatest thing you can tell me.”
For Stith, the club has been a way to not only improve her fitness but also connect with like-minded women. As all four founders are mothers, Stith says it’s been refreshing to accomplish a goal together.
“A lot of times, especially as moms or women, you’re kind of deterred from doing things collectively such as starting a business because it can be difficult getting all the pieces together. But we are all moms so, if we have to move a phone call because life happens, we all get it,” she says. “It’s been a great lesson in building a business, and I would encourage other women to find someone like-minded to help you accomplish your shared goals.”
Now that the community is blossoming, the founders are focused on their next two objectives: a sports gear brand and summer programs for children.
Stith, who is always following trends, says she’s noticed there is a void in great-looking functional items in sports such as socks, visors, and shirts. The club is now working on fashionable accessories that feature the PickleBallin’ logo.
“We want to accommodate anyone in the sport and help them in their development in whatever direction they want to go,” Stith says. “If they want to dress the part, we want to offer the cutest outfits for everyone to love so they can look and feel great on the court.”
As the founders are not only pickleball-passionates but also family-focused women, Allen-Tunsil would like to address the need for children's summer camps.
“By the time my son goes to college, it will be a fully-funded sport — it already is in some places — and so I don’t see why we wouldn’t invest in that early on,” she says.
For now, though, they are content with the communities they’ve built playing the game they love.
“Watching this organization grow feels like we’re watching our babies grow,” Allen-Tunsil says. “So, that’s the emotion behind it and I’m just really proud of us and excited for what the future holds.”