Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » Pickleball

Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » Pickleball

It’s gonna kill tennis.

I was riding the lift last winter and my companion was a local. So I asked the usual questions, was she retired, how much does she ski…

You see people move to the mountains to ski and stop. It’s classic. First you stop going on busy days, and then you stop going in bad weather, and then other activities supersede skiing, after all you have a life in town, and soon you may not even buy a pass, because you don’t break even.

This woman was retired, and said she skied five to seven days a week, which I thought was very good, but only half-days, because every morning she played PICKLEBALL!

And then she invited me to play the game.

This astonished me. First and foremost because she wasn’t that friendly. I didn’t even think she’d say bye at the end of the ride. And what experienced racket sport acolyte invites a newbie to participate? NO ONE!

And she was waxing rhapsodic about the group, the social scene, and she said she hoped to see me on the court soon.

Needless to say, I’m not sacrificing any skiing time to do anything else athletic. Nor did I have transportation. But the conversation stuck with me. Once again, because she really wasn’t that friendly.

And then all these stories started popping up in the news. Not that I was unaware of pickleball previously, but… First there were the stories about the noise. When the ball hits the paddle there’s a slap. And neighbors want to ban the game, at least at night, it’s driving them nuts.

Then there was the story about court conversion. How tennis courts were now becoming pickleball courts.

And then there was the story of the two competing professional leagues.

You see pickleball is a developing sport.

As was music from the Beatles until about twenty years thereafter. There was no infrastructure, it was built on the fly, via experimentation. The rollup of promoters into what eventually became Live Nation didn’t happen until 1996.

As was tech from about 1995 until five or six years ago. A constant changing of the guard. Always a new hardware item, and then software… But now tech is pretty mature itself, with a handful of companies ruling.

So there’s a vacuum, ready to be filled by something new.

In truth, for the past six years it’s been politics, because there’s so much at stake, and there are defined teams.

As for music… It’s been static. Hip-hop and pop. Just as it was TWENTY YEARS AGO!

In the seventies there was a tennis boom. Courts were built that were ultimately torn down, the real estate being too valuable. Sure, we read about Serena Williams, but most people have no idea who today’s tennis champions are and don’t care.

Like golf. Golf courses have been going out of business for years. But there is some innovation, which oldsters, the usual suspects, those who take the game seriously, positively HATE! Bigger cups, so it’s easier to sink your putt. And an emphasis on driving ranges that substitute for going to the movies, or dinner, it’s a social experience, with food and alcohol, it’s FUN! And most people don’t consider golf to be fun. It takes up so much real estate, especially in cities, it’s a hated sport. Give credit to these innovators, trying to save the sport.

Like Banana Ball. Creating new rules to make baseball faster and more enjoyable. There have been a lot of recent stories about the game, you can read one here: https://lat.ms/3T5tXON

As for music…

Music is hemorrhaging listeners. First and foremost because new music discovery is overwhelming. But even worse, what you’re listening to today…is just a variation on what you were listening to yesterday, why not just play the hits of yore?

And if it’s not hip-hop or pop, it gets very little attention, so it can’t grow. Not that there’s a specific scene that would triumph if it was amplified. But that’s what we need, A NEW SOUND!

We used to get one every three to five years, we haven’t gotten a new one in DECADES!

So what is going on?

First and foremost music doesn’t represent what it once did, whether in the sixties and seventies or the heyday of MTV in the eighties. Don’t expect those days to come back. But we don’t have to have the dreary scene we have today.

So first, the present rules are about streams, even though the charts factor physical higher, which is like playing occasional pickleball points with a tennis ball instead of a plastic whiffle ball.

And the streams are where the money is. So, the major labels just produce what will get the most streams. It’s business. Don’t blame them, they’ve got no incentive to do otherwise. If they’d read Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” they’d know that they need to disrupt themselves before someone else does, but the overpaid fat cats with no skin in the game don’t care. The future past their term of employment is irrelevant.

And then there are the avenues of exposure. Terrestrial radio used to be uber-popular, that’s where bands were broken. Now terrestrial radio is last, stations only play hits that were made online. And listening is tanking.

And then there’s the club and theatre business. Previously supported by the record labels, who bought tickets and drinks to support their new bands in the hope that they’d grow. But Napster hit the labels’ bottom line, and they cut back, and now they buy very few tickets to the gigs of their own acts at big venues, the acts that have already broken. And believe me, the promoters don’t give labels the tickets for free, not for years! You see those in the business know that the labels are second-class citizens, that live rules, if for no other reason than that’s where the money is.

But there is stuff happening online. Mostly by amateurs on TikTok, other social media. And the majors believe they can just hoover up those who gain traction with their infrastructure and bucks. But do you really need the major? Now less than ever. Then again, the majors need the billing so bad that they overpay and give the rights back, the deals are nearly impossible to turn down. But many don’t pan out, this can’t last forever.

And it’s good that people everywhere are creating music. But this doesn’t mean it’s music that people would rather hear than the classics. Oftentimes it’s just the soundtrack to a short clip.

And the best and the brightest are turned off, there’s just not enough money in music, there is if you’re a superstar, but for everybody else? And the odds are long that you can even quit your day job.

So where is the new music?

I’m not saying that it has to be played on traditional instruments, Kraftwerk proved that back in the seventies.

You see the public can only get excited if there’s a new scene. Multiple scenes. And the irony is there are multiple scenes today, but unless you’re making hip-hop or pop, they don’t grow.

And new scenes don’t happen overnight. It’s not like pickleball was invented three years ago, as a matter of fact it was invented in 1965! Which means that the new scene may already be out there, it just needs to be amplified. But none of the usual suspects, no one in the music food chain, wants to do this because of the opportunity cost. Promoters want guaranteed sellouts in large venues. Labels want a quick payout. And streaming services are so busy being agnostic, neutral, Switzerland, nice to all comers, that they’re a virtual Sargasso Sea, impenetrable.

So the metric can’t only be streaming numbers.

Then again, streaming services could do a better job of promoting that which is not the product of major labels, or that sounds different.

As for gigs…

There are even artificial ways to get people experimenting. The best original music and then a live tour of the winners. A la “American Idol,” but with those more talented.

So it’s a case of incentive and exposure. And the present scene has neither. And there’s no commissioner of music trying to build the business, there’s only the RIAA, a lobbying outfit that advocates for the interests of the major labels.

Something will eventually happen. It always does. Music figured out distribution with streaming, but the music itself… It’s dead in the water.

The new scene has to be a two listen smash. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” broke the Beatles, there’s not an equivalent track in today’s Spotify Top 50. For all the ink spilled over Beyonce, Drake and the Weeknd, the truth is they don’t appeal to most people.

So we’re probably waiting for spontaneous generation. Which will get started online. Remember the heyday of Napster? Agents marveled that acts could play far away states with no airplay… Students were spreading the word and then sharing the wares online. Today, there’s just too much of everything.

So ultimately, the new music scene is out of our control. But in truth, the new music scene is hobbled by an unfriendly business. Sure, you can post your music to streaming services for almost nothing, but that does not mean anybody will listen to it. You can play live for free, but from there to a sustaining business is a very steep climb.

But the usual suspects keep telling us everything is hunky-dory.

Like tennis. Believe me, the game is upset about pickleball.

Pickleball wins because it’s easy and fun. The learning curve for tennis is steep. The ladder to making it in music is unbelievably steep, to the degree it even exists.

There’s got to be a better way.

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