Local partners aim to provide comprehensive pickleball platform

(L-R) Mark Tilson, Steve Dawson and Terry Liskevych
(Ken Grosse)

According to a 2023 Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) commissioned survey, some 36.5 million Americans played pickleball between August 2021 and August 2022. Other assessments have pegged the number even higher. For the last two years, pickleball has been named the fastest growing sport in the United States by Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Multiple pro leagues, celebrity investment, rapidly expanding equipment sales, mainstream media attention and a steady construction of new facilities have all been part of the spectacular recent growth of a game that has been in existence for more than half a century but as recently as three years ago was off most people’s radar. With so many Americans now flocking to the sport, there are plenty of holes to fill and opportunities to be realized.

One immediate area of need is how to efficiently find answers to basic questions like “Where can I play? How do I get better? Where can I get coaching? What types of strategies and tactics would fit my game?” And it’s not just players searching for replies. The relative newness of the sport has meant that teaching and coaching both players and coaches is a necessity.

A solution to those issues (and much more) can be found at The Art of Pickleball (, the newest website offered by Encinitas-based Total Sports. Already the global leader in digital coaching content, supporting nearly 100,000 subscribers worldwide, Total Sports adds pickleball to a lineup that includes the Art of Coaching Volleyball, Art of Coaching Softball and Art of Coaching Football.

For Total Sports CEO Terry Liskevych and President/COO Mark Tilson, who between them boast a wealth of experience across a wide range of coaching and sports business environments, vaulting full force into the pickleball realm was a natural.

“The amazing growth of pickleball has been well-documented and if you look at the numbers, you’ll see it’s across all age groups,” said Tilson, a former executive with the San Diego Padres, Miami Dolphins and JMI Sports. “With such an influx of people getting into the sport and also wanting to elevate their game from beginner to intermediate or competitive level, it seems like there’s a huge opportunity for the sport to continue that growth pattern.”

Although Art of Pickleball (AOP) has only been “live” since early January 2023, it already features an array of online material, notably instructional videos for all levels of play, encompassing specific shots and skills, in-game strategies, tactical development and drills from top pros.

In addition, the platform also offers a complete collection of practice plans and match analysis, a roster of coaches available for remote virtual training as well as extensive information on injury prevention, dynamic warm-ups and strength and conditioning—all specific to pickleball.

Total Sports spent nearly a year preparing for its pickleball debut. Research showed that pre-existing competition was largely composed of disparate YouTube-type channels with individual coaches or players providing personal tips on a fairly narrow range of topics.

Skylark, a marketing strategy and creative services agency based in Solana Beach, was brought on board by AOP to develop and produce the new video/photo archive which, at launch, contained over 150 individual resources covering not just the primary elements but nearly every facet of the game. According to Tilson, that count alone immediately put them in the top 10% of online options and those assets will continue to multiply.

“We’re going to follow the same philosophy we’ve used in building our other websites,” he said. “Today, our Art of Coaching Volleyball contains more than 4,000 videos and other resources.”

After navigating the “indexing” process that allows for new websites to be accessed via the various search engines, Art of Pickleball user figures have quickly been gaining traction.

“We’ve been really pleased to see the growth of traffic,” said Tilson. “When we started, we were obviously ranked at the bottom but in the first few weeks we were already just outside the top 10 and have been increasing between 200-to-800% week-over-week.”

The lure of pickleball was obvious but another “no brainer” for Liskevych and Tilson was creating a partnership with one of the biggest names in the game (locally and nationally)—Steve Dawson, owner of Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle club in Encinitas, one of the pre-eminent playing facilities in the county, if not the nation.

The 61-year-old Dawson was a two-time Big Eight tennis champion at Oklahoma and an ITF World Champion before focusing on pickleball where he has won multiple U.S. Open and U.S. National championships, is a two-time Canadian National Champion and winner of a prestigious Huntsman World Pickleball Championship.

Liskevych calls Dawson “a master teacher of pickleball.” His connections and sterling reputation in the game bring further credibility to AOP and access to a variety of data bases that will fuel new visitors.

Also involved in the relationship are Dawson’s wife, Jennifer, and son, Callan, both pickleball standouts in their own right. Jennifer has twice won pickleball’s Triple Crown (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) at the U.S. Open Championships and Callan is one of the most exciting players on the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour.

Conveniently, the seeds of a future affiliation were sown at Dawson’s club where Liskevych introduced himself while playing pickleball with friends. Dawson, an early advocate of the sport who went full bore about seven years ago already had huge visibility in the pickleball ecosystem through his venue, playing exploits, coaching work, events and sponsorships. But he was intrigued with what Art of Pickleball could offer, not only personally but for the sport as a whole.

“What I really like about their concept is that it’s not an open forum but it’s also not one person saying ‘my way or the highway,’ “ said Dawson. “You can pick a topic, go to Art of Pickleball and hear what 40 coaches have to say—it’s a true library.”

He was particularly drawn to the notion of AOP supplying educational tools for coaches. “There’s a need for quality instruction and a lot of teaching pros who have tennis or racquet backgrounds are now being pushed into coaching pickleball and they don’t have the background,” noted Dawson. “Being a racquet sport is a common denominator but in every sport there are nuances and seeing the caliber and diversity of coaches involved on the volleyball and softball coaching sites was something I thought would be important for pickleball.”

Liskevych bracketed a 12-year stint as coach of the USA Women’s Volleyball team, spanning three Olympic Games, with a pair of lengthy runs as a top echelon college head coach, first at Ohio State (men’s) and Pacific and later at Oregon State. Although he and Dawson are similar in many respects, Tilson believes the most important thing each brings to the table is their pursuit of excellence.

“They both have remarkable resumes and experience,” said Tilson, “but they also have this incredible expectation for this to be of high quality and value. They won’t settle for less.”

As far as the future, Dawson and Tilson speak bullishly on the position the sport and their venture will ultimately occupy.

“I see pickleball right now as exactly where it’s supposed to be,” said Dawson. “There are different national bodies, competitive arenas and teaching organizations—they have to weed themselves out and the strongest will survive. It’s normal and natural.

“If you look at tennis there were several major governing organizations, all kinds of little tours here and there and now, after 60 some years of pro tennis, we have the ATP and WTA .

“Pickleball is in sort of the same situation but it has exploded on hyper drive, all kinds of stuff happening at the same time. Instead of the 60 years it took tennis, I say it will take pickleball about 10-15.”

Compared to previous groups Total Sports has engaged with, Tilson views the sheer numbers the sport is generating and the uniquely vast demographic of the target audience as a huge differentiator for pickleball.

“Our products will attract players of all ages and skill sets as well as coaches at every level of development,” said Tilson. “Using volleyball as an example, we have a very solid subscriber base but the overall universe is miniscule when contrasted with pickleball.

“We may not get the penetration percentage we have in volleyball but, unlike volleyball, the pickleball market for our content is not necessarily a sub-set of the overall population—it’s the entirety. We’re not just trying to attract a specific niche of players or coaches. Our aim is all-inclusive.”