Sometimes when a sport hasn’t yet hit the mainstream market, it looks for stories that inspire and push it to a pedestal from where it becomes tough to ignore it. In Ben Johns, pickleball has a potential to do that, potential to catapult him and the sport to regular televisions and live stream viewing and in turn give us our first big pickleball superstar player.
With pickleball (read its rules here) gaining in viewership and garnering the eyeballs, it is only natural more and more companies will be attracted to the sport to attract visibility to their brand. And as a result, some of the top players will be able to sign up deals and make themselves a decent career out of it.
What was once considered to be an old person’s sport, is fast gaining traction among younger audiences too, and pro tournaments all across USA are seeing 20-something players competing for top honours.
Who was the first pickleball player who got himself an endorsement deal?
Well, the answer is Ben Johns, who was signed up on a deal with Franklin in 2019. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise given Johns’ record at the highest pickleball level.
Ben Johns has an endorsement deal with Franklin, a sports good manufacturer since 1946 which had sign up with Joe Namath and based their entire line of products over him. Some of the other players they have signed up with over the years include David Robinson, Dan Marino, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Barry Bonds.
He has a Ben Johns Signature Pickleball Paddle for beginners and intermediate players which sells like hot cakes available in the Franklin stores and Amazon after having first made an appearance in September 2019. This pickleball paddle has a length of 16 1/2 inches and weighs approximately 8 oz.
Interestingly, Johns has played multiple racket sports in his career, including tennis – and the little-known padel – but in the end settled in on pickleball. Not a bad call given he has been a world number one player on the official Pickleball global rankings.
Watch the Ben Johns interview from August 2019 where he speaks of his toughest opponents, favourite players and other endearing stuff!
Johns, a student at the University of Maryland, took to pickleball in 2016 in Florida, on courts which were built next to tennis courts. Both he and his brother Ben (about whom we speak below) were playing tennis there when he saw a few playing pickleball and gave it a shot. He enjoyed it and the rest, as they say, was history.
Fast-forward three years, Johns won the first prize at the 2018 men’s singles Pro of the Tournament of Champions along with a silver in the Mixed Doubles category. Gold medals followed for him at the men’s singles and doubles of the pro Beer City Open and another couple of first prizes in men’s and mixed doubles pro at the SoCal Summer Classic.
His crowning glory has come in the 2019 Tournament of Champions, where he won the gold medal in all the three events; singles, doubles and mixed doubles competitions with Kyle Yates and Jessie Irvine as his partners in the doubles events. It wasn’t too surprising the sponsors came knocking home.
Having played tennis and table tennis all his life growing up, pickleball became his go-to sport in 2016 after which he has never looked back.
Interestingly, Ben has an elder brother Collin Johns, who was a tennis player too and did not like pickleball too much. Collin was ranked 978th in the world on the ATP Rankings and the funny story about him is he used to play the sport with two backhands, but no backhand.
That’s not the interesting part though. His earlier love was baseball but he quit that at 14 and became a professional tennis player at 16. And then, at the end of the 2018 tennis season, Collin has jumped over to pickleball where he is now making a name for himself.
Following on the footsteps of his younger brother, Ben, Collin got a sponsorship deal with Prince Pickleball following his decision to partner with his brother in men’s doubles pickleball. Collin also imparts training around the pickleball at the Baltimore Country Club.
Collin joins an elite list of pickleball players who use or have used Prince in their career. These include Simone Jardim and Jennifer Lucore. According to a media release by Prince, Collin will use the Prince Quantum Pro paddle while playing the sport, including when partnering the Franklin-sponsored brother Ben.
These are two pickleball careers worth following!