2 women find niche tour business for rise in pickleball

When pickleball was created on Bainbridge Island in 1965, it began with a handful of family and friends.

Nearly 50 years later, the Pickleheads company estimates 36.5 million people play pickleball in the United States alone.

“That makes pickleball one of the most popular sports in the country by participation, nearly twice the size of tennis, and just shy of popular activities like running and cycling,” Pickleheads co-founder Brandon Mackie said.

He added: “Pickleball’s popularity exploded during the pandemic when many Americans were looking for responsible ways to socialize and stay active. The growth has continued even as lockdowns have ended and normal life has resumed.”

Many people have joined the sport as players, fans or coaches. However, Jennifer Friedrich Wood and Madeleine Lapke have found their own niche. The friends have partnered to create the first pickleball tour in the place where the sport was born.

“We are two women who want a career after kids,” Friedrich Wood said. “We have been helping our kids’ foundations growing up and come from a Boys and Girls Club background. It’s time to show our kids we can run a business and give back a portion to some nonprofit that is dear to us.”

Friedrich Wood and Lapke created BI Pickleball Co. Although it has its own P.O. box, insurance and LLC, it will be looking to change its name soon to respect the locals. The two came up with the idea after grabbing some lunch in Seattle after working at Eastside Tennis Center.

Friedrich Wood is a Bainbridge native and certified pickleball instructor. “Tennis was my first love and played pickleball with friends in their backyards growing up,” she said. “As pickleball grew, I got more interested in it while trying to build my tennis career as a coach. It’s a hard trajectory to get to the top level of tennis but there is an opportunity in pickleball.”

Friedrich Wood was an assistant tennis coach at Garfield High School in Seattle and currently coaches tennis and pickleball at Eastside Tennis Center in Kirkland. She knows how to give tours as she earned a master’s degree in Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University in 2022.

Lapke never played sports growing up. Her first moment playing a sport was when she ran out of her seventh-grade tryout for cheerleading. Yet, her life changed after an auction at her kids’ school.

“We won dinner and pickleball,” Lapke said. “I was just going to have dinner but they paired us up with someone and if I didn’t play, then this man would not have been able to play. I felt so guilty. I connected with the ball a few times and had some fun.”

Afterward, Lapke joined Eastside Tennis Center and became addicted to playing pickleball.

“I built a group of people to play with, and they asked if I was certified to coach,” Lapke said. “I didn’t think I could coach anything, I can only play.”

The two were united a year ago when Friedrich Wood helped Lapke achieve her pickleball coaching license.

Their company’s first tour occurred May 12 and began on the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry. Although they are still figuring out how to create the perfect experience, they have a routine that works for the first month of tours.

The tour can alter based on timing limitations but includes a handful of locations and playing the sport. On their June 28 tour, Friedrich Wood and Lapke took two tourists onto the ferry and gave them some trivia questions regarding pickleball.

Once the ferry docked, the four of them drove to the Founder’s Courts at Battle Point Park. During the drive, Friedrich Wood played a speech from pickleball founder Barney McCallum. Once they reached the courts, Friedrich Wood and Lapke coached and played a few games with the tourists.

Then, Friedrich Wood shared the history of the sport at the picnic benches while Lapke handed out homemade lunches for each participant. Afterward, they hopped into the van and drove through Pickleball Highway, Cherry Hill Road and Fort Ward Beach. While driving, the four passed the first-ever pickleball court created and took a moment on the beach to enjoy the summer weather.

The last stops included learning more about pickleball and BI at the Historical Museum and ending at the Island Life Artisan Gifts on Winslow Way. The tourists were provided a 10% coupon while a percentage of sales went back to Friedrich Wood and Lapke’s business.

Even though the tour lasts a few hours, Friedrich Wood and Lapke hope to add more destinations to their tour, including the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. In addition, the two are looking for a permanent location to have their business and have the opportunity to coach youth and potentially the first high school team in the future.

Until then, Friedrich Wood and Lapke are just trying to make a profit in their new business through marketing and scheduling tours with people interested in learning the history of pickleball.

“We have always dreamed of a Sprinter Bus,” Friedrich Wood said. “Even a retro van with more than six people on a tour to give people the true 1965 home pickleball experience. It might sound expensive but a five-hour tour and you think of coaching at $100 an hour, it monetizes less. We want to share the experience of what it’s all about.”

The company logo is on the boxed lunches.
Madeleine Lapke gets set to hit a ground stroke from the baseline.