As Pickleball Rises in Popularity, One Longhorn Is at the Center of It All

Shields playing pickleball in Bel Air, California.

It was a bright morning in the fall semester of 2022 when MBA student Thomas Shields’ phone buzzed with unlikely news: Kevin Durant, ’07, was in Austin, and he wanted to meet up for a lesson in pickleball. That was an excuse to skip class if Shields had ever seen one, so he booked a private pickleball court for them to play in town. Before he knew it, he was standing across the net from Durant—with whom he was quickly on a first-name basis—instructing the basketball legend on how to hit his first “third shot drop.”   

When Shields started playing pickleball in 2018, he never imagined he would someday become the go-to authority on the sport. But in the years to come, Shields would host a Major League Pickleball draft show, offer commentary on professional matches, and discuss the breakthrough sport with celebrities such as Mark Cuban and Jamie Foxx.  

“In most of these moments, I just go, ‘This is so insane,’” Shields says. “But this is exactly what I want to be doing.”   

Shields is the founder of The Dink, a pickleball newsletter turned media business that launched in 2020. Shields started the newsletter—named after a finesse shot in the sport—to share updates about the emerging professional pickleball scene, hoping to elevate coverage beyond rudimentary Facebook groups. Today, his newsletter has a reach of more than 100,000 readers, and The Dink has expanded to include retail, two podcasts, social media partnerships, and steady advertising as pickleball has become a nationwide craze.   

“By existing, we’re giving validity to the sport. Any sport worth its salt has media coverage, and pickleball didn’t have that,” Shields says. “These larger media organizations aren’t covering it, because they don’t see it as a big enough opportunity, [but] the people within this niche are starved for content.”   

Although Shields says most people did not know what pickleball was a few years ago, the sport has been around since 1965, according to the USA Pickleball Association. Pickleball got its start with handmade equipment and simple rules but has since spawned professional circuits across the U.S. and Canada. Since 2021, more than 36.5 million Americans have played pickleball both casually and competitively, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals. Shields credits this newfound popularity to the influence of media companies like The Dink and the sport’s relatively low barrier of entry.    

“It does not matter your age, your gender, your socioeconomic upbringing,” Shields says, “anybody can play it and have fun the first time you play. And I think that is hard to find in a lot of sports.”    

Shields grew up in a competitive sports family with mandatory tennis lessons and matches on vacation. But as his family members got older, they turned to pickleball as a less strenuous alternative. The once-staunch tennis loyalists were immediately obsessed after their first match.    

“My grandpa built a court at his place in Michigan, and we started to play a little bit more intensely,” Shields said. “But at that point, I knew absolutely nothing about pickleball other than I would play it sometimes.”   

However, Shields had a dream of starting his own business, and by 2020, he was convinced that the untapped market of pickleball media was the perfect opportunity. After graduating from Miami University in Ohio with a degree in finance, Shields went on to work in investment banking for three years before overseeing sales and operations for a New York City startup. But nothing quite excited him like researching pickleball news, first out of personal interest, and later to repackage and publish for his growing online readership. After a year of writing about the sport, he says he became one of the most educated people about pickleball and saw the potential to monetize.   

“We very quickly realized there was a major appetite for pickleball news,” Shields says. “So, we launched an Instagram, jumped on Facebook, started publishing news on our blog. Before we knew it, we became this ESPN of pickleball.”   

It was at that point Shields quit his day job to go all in on The Dink. In 2021, he took The Dink on the road in a sprinter van sporting the startup’s logo, stopping at professional matches around the country to sell merchandise and pickleball accessories. He also put out an open call to players who were interested in collaborating, which piqued the interest of Tyson Apostol.   

Apostol is a reality television personality known for competing on Survivor, but he is also an avid pickleball player. Having learned about the sport around the same time as Shields, Apostol was one of the first celebrities to begin posting pickleball content on social media. He is now a pickleball influencer of sorts, scoring brand deals with major outfitters such as Fila and sharing pickleball content with his more than 95,000 Instagram followers. Apostol reached out to Shields for a pickup match at his neighborhood court in Mesa, Arizona, and the two later decided to collaborate on producing The Dink’s first podcast, PicklePod, which launched in September 2021.  

“With The Dink’s reach and my reach, we were able to capture a large majority of the pickleball audience,” Apostol says. “The beauty of our podcast was we could talk unfiltered about the sport, and we weren’t affiliated with anybody, so we could really goof around and be ourselves.”   

Uploaded weekly, PicklePod covers tournament recaps, pickleball pop culture, and player strategies with rotating guest appearances. Although Apostol later left the PicklePod (he now hosts another podcast for Major League Pickleball), the show has continued with professional player Zane Navratil. Together, this casual commentary and The Dink’s more professional online news appeal to a wide variety of consumers, Shields explained.   

Given the company’s success in producing pickleball media, Shields says they now have their eyes on app development and planning their own events and tournaments. Shields is hopeful that these future ventures will not only help educate people about the sport but make it easier for anybody to try and fall in love with pickleball.   

“Everyone I know who’s tried pickleball ends up loving it,” Shields says. “Pickleball has the ability to be competitive, regardless of your skillset. That’s the appeal—it’s an equalizer.”  

CREDIT: Courtesy Thomas Shields


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