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CEO Patrick Sullivan and his wife, CMO Ashley Leroux-Sullivan, discuss how a niche sport and their supplement brand fit together. Read more.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

March 7, 2024

8 Min Read
Invented in 1965, pickleball is becoming increasingly popular, with courts popping up around the country.
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This article was originally published in Nutrition Business Journal's Sports Nutrition and Weight Management Issue.

There is no shortage of supplement companies that sponsor pro athletes and sporting events, but few have worked to embed their brand into a sport the way Jigsaw Health has done with pickleball. Between sponsoring and actually playing in tournaments to building its own “boutique stadium” to livestreaming Tuesday Night Pickleball, Jigsaw Health has been all in on pickleball since before it became the phenomenon it is today. Nutrition Business Journal talked to CEO Patrick Sullivan and his wife, CMO Ashley Leroux-Sullivan, about navigating a niche sport.

How will you know when Jigsaw Health has completed its domination of the pickleball universe?

Ashley: When not one player’s bag is void of a Jigsaw Pickleball Cocktail hydration packet.

Patrick: According to some surveys, that’s like 35 million people.

So, once you’re selling 350 million packets a month?

Patrick: Yes, it’s simple math, really.

What drew you to the sport?

Patrick: We got into it because it was a sport that no one had heard of, and we found that the people inside of the sport were absolutely addicted to this fun, social version of tennis.

Jigsaw Health CEO Patrick Sullivan and his wife, CMO Ashley Leroux-Sullivan

When did you start thinking in terms of products?

Ashley: When we started getting into it, we realized we already made a great electrolyte product called Electrolytes Supreme that we could use to market to pickleball players. And it wasn’t until we had been playing ourselves for about a year that we came up with the idea to formulate products specifically for pickleball, because we realized that cramping was a major issue. People start playing, they don’t want to stop, and, therefore, they become mineral deficient and start cramping. We’ll go to tournaments, where the bracket starts in the morning and, if you keep winning, you play all day. Jigsaw Pickleball Cocktail is formulated with 800 mg of potassium, nearly the equivalent of two bananas. We encourage people to drink it prior to playing, which helps keep them from cramping while they play.

And once you have a product, you need athletes, right?

Patrick: We realized we could sponsor Pickleball Pros for a fraction of the price it would take to sponsor an NBA or NFL player. So maybe we wouldn’t have as much reach, but the people who love pickleball would be excited and would see our ads. About five years ago, there was a group on Facebook called the Pickleball Forum, and it had maybe 50,000 members at that time. We thought, "Well, if we can turn all 50,000 of them into customers, that would be awesome for our business.” So maybe it was a micro niche of only 50,000 pickleball addicts in the whole world that would see or care about what we were doing, but we thought that would be fun. And we decided it was worth investing in.

Ashley: Seth Godin writes a lot about how in marketing it’s great to identify with a tribe, and we’re like, "This could be our tribe." We’ve been looking around, trying to find our tribe forever, and pickleball just seemed to be the right thing, at the right size, at the right time.

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What kinds of things have you done to cultivate the connection?

Patrick: Since 2019, we sponsored six of the top pros, including Ben Johns, the world-ranked No.1. We also sponsored both pro tours. We wanted to make a big splash through doing some commercials featuring the pros, and those ran during the tournaments that were being livestreamed on YouTube. As soon as those first few commercials hit the airwaves, our inboxes and our phones were blowing up from ambassadors in the pickleball sphere. They were like, "Wow, it’s a company from outside of pickleball that’s giving attention to the sport that we love."

Ashley: All of the influencers were saying, "We love your product. How can we help? How can I become an ambassador?”

What do you think other brands could learn from your experience connecting with what was a niche sport?

Patrick: For us, legitimately loving pickleball is what shines through all of the content and execution that we’ve done. Before we got into pickleball, there was a triathlete, and he thought we should consider advertising in the triathlon world. I remember saying, "Well, Jason, I feel like the problem is I don’t like running, and I’m not really into bicycling or swimming. So, I don’t think we could be authentic to triathletes." But apparently, I will chase a yellow plastic ball around a tiny pickleball court for 2 1/2 hours and not think twice about it.

Ashley: Five years of investing into various aspects of marketing in pickleball and we’re not tired of it at all. We’re going to go play this afternoon. It has just become a part of who we are. So, I think a similar thing for anybody looking at the niches, is whether it’s a niche that you’re going to fall in love with. Are you going to be dedicated to being in that niche for the next five years, whether it blows up or not? Pickleball blew up, and it’s had a noticeable impact on business, but I’m sure that we would still be doing all this even if it hadn’t gotten so big.

Has the pickleball boom made it harder to stay out front?

Patrick: The popularity has almost had some dramatic drawbacks. The price of advertising and the prices for sponsoring pros and sponsoring the tours and stuff all went up, probably 20 times in the last five years. We knew that if we were only going to be an advertiser, we’d be stuck with those prices, but if we become more of a content creator, then we’d have the ability to charge others trying to advertise in the space. That’s why we built the indoor pickleball stadium, The Orchard at Jigsaw Health. I call it a boutique stadium. It seats about 150 people, and we’ve hosted Tuesday Night Pickleball at The Orchard, an event now, for the last year and a half, featuring awesome pro pickleball.

Ashley: It’s essentially a very elaborate way to run Jigsaw marketing and Jigsaw ads to this community of pickleball lovers, and we get a lot of the cost covered by other advertisers wanting to reach this same audience. About two weeks ago, we signed an agreement with a production company that came to us asking if they could pitch the rights to streaming platforms. They’re two weeks into pitching. We might totally strike out or we might hit a home run.

What’s your advice to other brands cultivating a relationship with a niche sport?

Patrick: Think authenticity first, and hope that your timing is right.

Ashley: And accept that it’s probably impossible get the timing right on purpose.

Is it still a niche sport?

Patrick: Yes and no. This past weekend, one of the top 10 plays on ESPN SportsCenter was a rally that happened during a tournament in Phoenix. This amazing behind-the-back, around-the-post shot was No. 1 on SportsCenter. So, if it is a niche, it’s a niche that still has some room to grow.

Do you worry about being too closely associated with pickleball? Is it possible you could be turning off the croquet and lawn bowling communities?

Patrick: Yes, there is a risk that pickleball is growing so fast that it went from trend to a fad. And every fad risks becoming yesterday’s pet rock. But I would also say we’re not worried about whether it’s a fad or not. Pickleball Cocktail sales alone represent about 7% of our revenue, but we also know that pickleballers are also buying Jigsaw MagSoothe and Jigsaw Electrolyte Supreme. So, pickleball is probably somewhere between 7% and 30% of our business. And if pickleball ever becomes a punchline, it’s fine because there will still be plenty of pickleball addicts in need of hydration.

Ashley: And we’re still going to go out and play. We’ve been hearing since 2018 that the name of the sport is silly, but once you start playing, you don’t care. It just has its own language and subculture. So yeah, I would say we’re not worried about being too closely associated with the sport.

Is there a sport you would not pursue? Maybe something really dorky like speed walking?

Patrick: The No. 1 question that we get from our ­customers about Pickleball Cocktail is, ‘I play insert-name-of-sport-here. Can I take Pickleball Cocktail, too?’ One of our influencers, Thomas Delauer, had a great answer for this: “No matter what sport you play, you still sweat the same way.”

For more insights into the ever-evolving supplement industry, subscribe to Nutrition Business Journal.

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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