What started as an outdoor activity in Aubri Steele’s driveway to escape the isolation of the pandemic turned into a business making pickleball apparel.
The inspiration behind her company, Civile, was sparked in 2020 when her husband painted a pickleball court in the driveway of their Solana Beach home. The mother of five saw how this game — that’s at the cross-section of ping-pong and tennis — brought her family together. Soon they were playing every chance they could and had neighbors joining in on the casual, outdoor activity.
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When she started her business, Steele wanted to share that sense of good-natured fun she felt when she played pickleball, especially during a time when society seemed so divided. Civile’s pickleball-themed hats and shirts feature phrases like “play nicely” and “don’t be a dink” — a dink being a play on words and a shot executed on the court.
Like a game of chess, the strategy that goes into pickleball and the low-impact nature of the sport intrigued Steele. She loves walking up to the court and having no idea who is going to be a great pickleball player simply by looking at them.
“And there doesn’t seem to be that kind of inherent athleticism that necessarily makes you better than somebody who doesn’t have it,” Steele said.
The game is played with a whiffle ball, a paddle larger than one used for ping-pong and with a net on a court smaller than one used for tennis. In 2020 there were approximately 4.2 million pickleball players in the U.S., which is a 21.3 percent increase from 2019, says a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
While a large share of pickleball players are 65 years and older, the fastest-growing segment is casual players who are 54 or younger, according to the 2020 Pickleball Participant Report.
Steele picked up on this trend and ran with it.
Even as the pandemic ramped up in 2020, the founder and CEO of Civile figured, “no time’s the right time” to start a business. Throughout her career, Steele worked in education and real estate, but decided it was time to follow in her father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur.
The push to make the business a reality came at a turning point for Steele when her father passed away toward the end of 2020.
While she would have preferred to have him by her side on this journey, Steele was able to invest some money he gave her into starting the business. Additionally, she said Civile is funded by her business partners — six other women who use their individual expertise to help run the company.
Civile uses biodegradable packaging and manufactures its products locally in Southern California, which contribute to a more sustainable business model, Steele said. In the company’s first year of business, she said they’ve had a 30 percent repeat customer rate.
She added that in the next year, they are looking to build on that momentum and quadruple their numbers, including revenue. Civile’s online store sells clothing that ranges in price from $28 to $148. With approximately 4 million pickleball players across the U.S., Steele said they hope to capture a third of that market.
Matt Powell, vice president and senior sports industry adviser at The NPD Group said there was big growth in the athleisure sector during the pandemic as more people paid attention to their health and lifestyle. There was also an uptick in interest in golf and racquet sports, such as pickleball, which offered a socially distanced physical activity.
While interest in golf and tennis have tapered off, he said the interest in pickleball hasn’t. Powell said sales of pickleball equipment were up 75 percent last year.
“It was already an emerging sport … it’s an easy sport to learn … it’s not hyper-competitive and you don’t have to be the fastest, strongest player to have fun playing pickleball,” he said in a phone interview.
“It’s not as big as tennis but it’s growing faster (in the U.S.),” he said. “And if both sports stay on current trajectories, I would expect that pickleball at some point will be larger than tennis.”
The local popularity of the sport is also underscored by a proposal to build more dedicated pickleball courts in San Diego County. Steele and her friends play multiple times per week at one of the main pickleball facilities in the region, Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle in Encinitas.
While you might not need specific clothes to play pickleball, Powell said it’s a hot, trendy sport and the players are enthusiastic about having things that identify them as pickleball players. This is something Steele had in mind when designing clothes that could be worn on and off the court to create a community of people.
“It was the darkness of 2020 that led me to do this — led me to create something,” Steele said. “Pickleball obviously was the opportunity … and then the loss of my father in late 2020 was kind of the spur in the heel that actually really, really activated me to just get up and do it … That was the little kick in the pants that I needed to just get up and go. Because again, no time is the right time.”