Brothers Mike and Rob Barnes started Selkirk Sport in Hayden in 2014 with the belief that pickleball, once an obscure sport played by seniors and in physical education classes, was about to take off. They figured the growing ranks of players — especially serious tournament participants — would increase demand for Selkirk paddles and other pickleball gear.
The next four years proved them right.
An estimated 2.5 million people played pickleball in 2016, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, including nearly 1 million regular players.
The Barnes brothers started playing pickleball about a decade ago. When the sport began to gain popularity around five years ago, they thought that none of the paddle manufacturers were setting themselves apart from the competition.
“Branding in the industry was atrocious,” Rob Barnes said. “There was no lifestyle brand, or retail presence for the sport, or high-quality manufacturers.”
The brothers invested in equipment to make lightweight, composite paddles that gave players greater control than the plywood paddles that dominated the market. Selkirk wasn’t the first to make composite paddles, but the company was among the first to throw energy into courting more competitive players seeking high-end equipment. Their father and stepfather are co-owners in the company.
David Johnson, cofounder and chief operating officer at web retailer PickleballCentral.com, said Selkirk caught on with players, becoming “one or two in terms of quality and playability, and probably top four in terms of volume.”
“Their branding is probably the best in the market, with a consistent, appealing look,” Johnson said.
That marketing effort by Selkirk and others has helped bring pickleball into the mainstream, said Justin Maloof, spokesman for the USA Pickleball Association, which has 21,000 members. Retailers selling Selkirk products include Dick’s Sporting Goods, Academy Sports+Outdoors and a host of websites.
“You’d have to go to a tournament to buy from a vendor, or go online,” he said. “Now, you see products in big-box retail. That certainly wasn’t the case five short years ago.”
The Barnes don’t disclose sales, but they say growth has been strong enough to employ more than 10 workers split between a 6,000-square-foot building in Hayden where the company manufactures parts and a 3,000-square-foot building opened this year housing product assembly.
The Barnes wanted to emblazon the company with a Pacific Northwest flair, starting with the name, drawn from the Selkirk Mountains extending between southeastern British Columbia and the Idaho Panhandle and eastern Washington. The first sentence on the company’s website describes its Idaho home as “a little more than a stone’s throw from Bainbridge Island,” the Seattle-area island where the sport was invented in 1965. Mike Barnes said the company sponsors “probably 90 percent” of the top competitive players in the region.
“We want to be like California surf,” Rob Barnes said. “We try to have that feeling. We are aggressively Pacific Northwest.”
New businesses are too often unable or unwilling to invest in marketing. In Selkirk’s case, attracting buyers meant establishing the company as a high-end performance brand as well as investing in sponsorships and product aesthetics, Rob Barnes said. Selkirk paddles sell for between $35 and $130. In September, the company launched a website, pickleball.com, featuring its sponsored pros in videos teaching newcomers how to play in an effort to promote the sport.
“It’s frustrating when new companies don’t spend on branding,” he said. “They go cheap with the logo, or they don’t spend time thinking about what niche they want to fill. Usually, the best way to go is high-performance.”
Rob Barnes, 25, works mostly on the product development side and shares accounts with the Selkirk salesman. Mike Barnes, 23, handles most of the operations and accounting side of the business. Before starting Selkirk, the brothers founded and sold a company based in Hayden that imported, sold and distributed parts for airsoft guns. The sale proceeds funded starting Selkirk.
Rob said the brothers haven’t run into the problems that befall some family businesses.
“We can say to each other, ‘That’s a stupid idea,’” he said. “We know we won’t hurt each other’s feelings.”
What is pickleball?
Pickleball is a cross between tennis and ping pong played on a badminton-sized court. Players use wooden or composite paddles roughly twice the size of ping pong paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball similar to a whiffle ball over a net about one yard tall.
Pickleball can be played as a singles or doubles game. The game’s increase in popularity has been driven by retirees seeking low-impact exercise, and new courts continue to spring up in retirement communities and golf resorts. Increased interest in competitive tournament play has brought younger players into the fold, and many U.S. children are introduced to the sport in physical education classes.
Coeur d’Alene has a pickleball association, and Boise has two associations, with players competing at local parks in the summer and at Home Court YMCA and Fort Boise in winter. Coach Silvino Lyra is trying to raise interest in the creation of a dedicated pickleball facility. On the Boise Area Pickleball site, he exhorted readers to think big.
“It depends on our city officials waking up to understand the growing and importance of this sport and take the initiative to build state-of-the-art facilities, like what I witnessed in Bend, with only 17,000 residents, and Brigham City with just 18,000,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, Boise, with an estimated population of 223,145 has just little islands of places to play.”