From its downtown Port Washington facility, Pro-Lite Sports makes and ships paddles for this fast-growing sport around the globe
The sign in front of Neil Friedenberg’s pickleball shop in downtown Port Washington simply says “Play Pickleball.”
That’s the message Friedenberg, owner of Pro-Lite Sports, wants to get across to those curious about the sport.
“Pickleball is one of the only sports where you might get beat by somebody two or three times your age,” he said.
Friedenberg and his small staff of eight to 10 employees make and sell pickleball paddles to distributors and retailers all over the world.
The sport is one of the fastest growing across the globe, he said.
“The sport shares a lot of elements from badminton, ping pong and tennis,” Friedenberg said.
Pickleball is played with two to four players who use wood or composite paddles to hit a modified Wiffle ball over a net on a 20-by-44-foot court.
The “kitchen,” or non-volley zone, is a 7-foot area on either side of the net where players are not allowed to stand for more than one return. Players are also not allowed to spike the ball in that area.
Matches are usually played in sets of three, with each game played to 11 points.
The history of the sport is disputed, but many fanatics agree on a story based out of Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 1965.
That summer, State Rep. Joel Pritchard and two friends returned from golfing one Saturday afternoon to find their families bored.
They decided to get a badminton game going, but couldn’t find a shuttlecock, so they improvised with a Wiffle ball, lowered the net and made paddles out of plywood.
The sport languished a bit until 1984 when Pro-Lite was founded, then under the name Ultra Lite Paddle Co., and began making composite paddles.
Friedenberg’s father Mark, an avid pickleball player and former national champion, eventually acquired the company before passing it down to his son in April 2011.
Pro-Lite moved to the former Fireworks Popcorn building at 101 W. Grand Ave. in October 2014.
“It was basically me making paddles in my in-laws’ basement for a few years until we found this space,” Friedenberg said.
Pro-Lite makes 11 styles of paddles from materials like carbon fiber, graphite and fiber glass.
Custom graphics are printed for individuals who swear by the products, Friedenberg said.
The company ships its products to countries like Finland, Singapore, England and Costa Rica, although the majority of its business is in the U.S. and Canada.
Pro-Lite sells more than 90% of its products to distributors and retailers including Sports Authority, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Scheels All Sports, Friedenberg said.
Pro-Lite paddles range in price from $54 to $85 based on materials.
Its Rocket XL model, for example, has a polymer core, weighs eight ounces and comes in five colors.
All of the company’s products are made in the United States, Friedenberg said.
“That’s something that will never change,” he said.
Friedenberg believes the sport will catch on part because retired tennis players still have the urge to play competitively.
“We make paddles specifically for former tennis players with longer handles and a smaller face that feels familiar in their hands,” he said. “Some players have injuries that force them to retire, but pickleball doesn’t have the problem.”
Pickleball is truly a lifelong sport, as evidenced by the high level of interest from older adults.
The Cedarburg Senior Center offers pickleball at the Community Center Fridays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. through Aug. 21 and the game will also be played on Thursdays and Saturdays in Mequon this fall.
An introductory clinic will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 12, at Range Line School in Mequon.
Tournaments are played throughout the country with grandparents doubling up with their grandkids, Friedenberg said.
“My dad always says this game saves lives,” he said. “It adds years to lives. It gets sedentary people up and you can improve quickly.”
Friedenberg hopes the sport is eventually played in the Olympics.
“When I saw Ultimate Frisbee become an Olympic sport, it gave me hope that pickleball will some day get there too,” he said.