CARSON, Calif. — The Goodyear Blimp cruised at about 1,500 feet as the sound of a pickleball bouncing off paddles could be heard over the three 200-horsepower engines on the helium-filled airship.
Jay Devilliers and Catherine Parenteau, professional pickleball players, exchanged crisp shots during a rally mere inches from the open cockpit, occupied by two pilots.
Never mind both players said they were having a hard time maintaining their balance as the blimp sailed over the Southern California terrain.
“Crazy,’’ Devilliers said later.
On Sunday, the Goodyear Blimp will provide aerial views during the last day of the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Finals that start Thursday in San Clemente. The blimp also played a starring role in a a first-of-its-kind promotional stunt.
It involved three pickleball pros, two blimp rides and a small, makeshift pickleball court big enough only for singles matches that turned into quick-paced rallies.
The action took place inside the gondola, which inside measures about seven feet wide and is where the pilots and passengers ride. The precautionary measures included tethering the ball to the net (thus preventing a loose ball from ricocheting through the blimp) and using breakaway suction cups to attach the net to the walls (thus reducing the risk of players tripping over the net.)
Oh, and all passengers had to sign waivers.
The PPA Finals will be televised by the Tennis Channel and livestreamed on Pickleball TV. But only a few people witnessed live what occurred inside the gondola.
Such as on the second of two flights, when the co-pilot took a paddle from one player and then rallied with the other player while the pilot-in-charge steered the airship.
How did the pickleball stunt materialize?
A couple of months ago, officials at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company read an article about the rise of pickleball, said Julianne Roberts, the company’s Director of Global External Communications. She said the article mused about whether the sport was “Blimpworthy’’ — meaning big enough to warrant the iconic Blimp overhead.
For 70 years, the Goodyear Blimp has worked with the likes of the NFL, NBA and NASCAR to provide overhead views for premier televised sports events. Suddenly Goodyear was intrigued with pickleball and reached out to the PPA, the sport’s leading pro tour.
In 2022, the PPA dispatched six of its players for a pickleball exhibition on the roof of the Space Needle in Seattle. That’s 605 feet high.
The league was more than happy to provide some of its best players for the blimp excursion.
Roberts, who works at Goodyear’s corporate headquarters in Akron, Ohio, recalled the story Wednesday while standing at the Goodyear Blimp Airship Operations in Carson and literally watched pickleball reach new heights.
Why did the pilot play pickleball?
Devilliers, ranked seventh in men’s singles in the PPA rankings, is from France and affectionately known as the “Flying Frenchman.’’ He appeared to be flying high while rallying with Parenteau, ranked second in women’s singles.
“No matter what, I’m the best male player in the blimp,’’ he joked.
That seemed a fair statement considering he was the only male pro onboard. But soon after that remark, Michael Dougherty, the co-pilot, emerged from the cockpit. (At this point, the passengers were allowed to roam the gondola and enjoy the sights.)
“I heard your outrageous claim of being the best male player on the blimp,’’ Dougherty told Devilliers with a grin. “You didn’t even give me a chance.’’
Devilliers gave the co-pilot more than a chance.
He gave him his paddle.
With the borrowed equipment, Dougherty acquitted himself well during a few minutes of rallying with Parenteau before returning to the cockpit.
The blimp landed without incident.
Is pickleball America’s fastest-growing sport?
Hard to say if blimp pickleball is just a fad, but real pickleball clearly is not.
Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported that the number of people playing pickleball in 2022 was 8.9 million, marking a 159 percent increase over three years. That makes if America’s fastest growing sport for the third year in a row, according to the association.
The prospects for people who want to make a living playing the sport seem to be improving. too.
Launched in 2018, the PPA has attracted attention and competition. They recently merged with Major League Pickleball, a group backed by the likes of Tom Brady, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
The sport has its own star — 16-year-old Anna Leigh Waters, who is ranked No. 1 in women’s singles, No. 1 in women’s doubles and No. 1 in mixed doubles. She is making seven figures a year, according to her mother, Leigh, who said most of the money comes from sponsorship.
And did we mention pickleball is now officially blimpworthy?