New sports facilities host players who pay
Developers meet growing demand for pickleball, padel and other sports
By Brian Bandell – Real Estate Editor
Nov. 10, 2023
Playing pickleball on a rare rain-free afternoon in South Florida usually requires more waiting than game time, and players of other popular sports often face the same challenge.
That’s where developers are stepping in, with new sports facilities proposed across the region. However, unlike at the local park, this playtime isn’t free.
“The demand for pickleball courts, especially in South Florida, is probably 10 times more than what the current supply is,” said Dr. Stewart B. Davis, a partner at Boca Paddle, a medical device entrepreneur and an investment banker. “You could build hundreds of pickleball courts tomorrow and there would still be a waiting list for them.”
The growing demand has led to more developers investing in sports facilities, including pickleball, padel, indoor tennis and ice sports. Some of the venues would be large enough to attract tournaments and training clinics, which would bring more visitors to town. For many investors, there’s also a personal satisfaction in fostering the next generation of South Florida athletes.
“So many kids I watched grow up in South Florida should be playing [college football] on Saturdays, but a lot slipped through the cracks because of a lack of resources, a lack of guidance and a lack of coaching,” said Jon Bostic, an NFL linebacker who is preparing to build the Wellington Sports Academy with training and competitions for 13 sports. “This is about what I can do to give kids what they need to not just live their dream of playing in college, but to play in the NFL.”
There’s a growing market for personalized training for youth athletics in South Florida, and club team participation has been increasing for many sports, said Daniel Cornely, assistant director of the MBA in sports management program at Florida Atlantic University.
When it comes to fast-growing sports like pickleball, there’s a lack of court space, he said, and many people would be willing to drive at least 15 minutes to play – even for a fee.
“People will pay for guaranteed playing time,” Cornely said.
Scores of opportunities
The private sports facility developments span the entire tri-county region.
The newest major venue is Boca Ice, a 73,000-square-foot ice skating facility that opened earlier this year. Mitchell Robbins, one of three partners who developed Boca Ice, said business has been great. It hosts 700 to 800 people a day during weekend open skate times. The hockey leagues play late into the night.
“The sport has a tremendous following because of the [Florida] Panthers’ success with their hockey team,” Robbins said. “This is a great opportunity for kids to learn all types of skating.”
Now, Robbins has partnered with Malcolm Butters, Davis and Brian Levine, the former CEO of Major League Pickleball, to propose a for-profit pickleball venue in Boca Raton. Butters is CEO of Coconut Creek-based Butters Construction & Development, which was the general contractor on the Boca Ice project.
Through a request for proposals process, their Boca Paddle group was selected by the city to build on 10 acres of the former Ocean Breeze golf course. There would be 14 pickleball courts and two padel courts inside, and eight pickleball courts and two padel courts outside. The estimated cost is $14.5 million.
The only indoor pickleball facility in South Florida now is Diadem in Coconut Creek – and it’s very busy, Davis said. Boca Padel would offer even more courts, on-site food and places for kids to play, he said.
Levine, previously a partner at Goldman Sachs, said South Florida is a hotbed for pickleball: The region has many of the top professional players and hosted many tournaments. In terms of real estate, it’s efficient, as four pickleball courts have the same footprint as a standard tennis court, he added.
“It’s easy for people to pick up pickleball, whereas with tennis, it takes a long time to get competent,” Levine said. “You can play kids against grandparents and have competitive matches. It’s social and it has a culture of positivity and inclusion at a time when society needs that sort of thing.”
In Pompano Beach, Florida Indoor Tennis LLC has proposed a 57,646-square-foot facility with indoor tennis and pickleball courts, along with food service, a pro shop and a lounge. The developers behind the estimated $12 million project are Neal Feinberg, who previously ran a tennis club in New York, and Carl Gordon of hedge fund Orbimed.
There are plenty of outdoor tennis courts in South Florida, but the intense heat and frequent rain make it difficult to play, especially as people get older, Feinberg said.
“When I’m playing in a tournament against younger people and it’s 100 degrees and humid, it’s not just uncomfortable, it’s dangerous,” he said.
In addition, the Sarasota-based Pickleball Club has a 4.9-acre site in Greenacres under contract, with plans to build a 41,140-square-foot facility with 16 indoor pickleball courts.
In Miami-Dade County, the sport of padel, which was founded in Mexico and is popular in Spain and Portugal, has been exploding in growth, with at least five new facilities planned.
“Miami has the biggest padel market in the U.S. because it is a city with a great variety of people from many different places,” said Patricio Hernandez Pons, who proposed Padel 42, with nine outdoor courts along the Miami River. “Miami has the potential to have many more courts because of all the demand it has for padel. People are reserving a week in advance in all the current clubs to be able to find a slot.”
Venture capital investor Wayne Boich said Reserve Padel, which has six courts and a cafe on Watson Island in Miami, has been busy since it opened in February. He has a deal to build a larger facility, with 10 padel courts and two pickleball courts, at the SoLé Mia mixed-use project in North Miami.
“The response in Miami has been amazing,” Boich said. “Right now, there is more demand for games at the Reserve than we have space for.”
Further north, the Wellington Sports Academy would total 127,000 square feet with both indoor and outdoor facilities. Bostic said it would have baseball batting cages inside. Football could also be inside or outside. It would also host basketball, volleyball and swimming. With up to 14 indoor basketball courts, it would be the largest venue for tournaments in South Florida, he said.
A big emphasis would be training young athletes and hosting Amateur Athletic Union clubs with a high-quality coaching staff and professional-level gyms, Bostic said.
“We are going to be the main host in South Florida for tournaments because we have the most court space, both indoor and outdoor,” he added. “They will use hotels on a weekly basis and they will visit the local mom-and-pop restaurants.”
The largest proposed private sports venue in the region is Destination Sport, an 820,000-square-foot, multisport facility planned in western Miami-Dade County. While it has not broken ground, its developers are making progress toward construction, Destination Sport Chief Strategy Officer Dave Beaudin said of the project, which was announced in 2021. They have a solid commitment to finance the over $200 million project and are almost done with the due diligence needed before they close on the land, he said. They hope to break ground in early 2024.
Destination Sport would host 35 sports, including hockey, and have full-size soccer and football fields indoors.
“It’s a great time to be in the sports facility business in South Florida,” Beaudin said. “There’s so much pressure to get an hour of ice time in South Florida, and there’s pressure on soccer fields for time, as well.”
The right financial model
Setting the right price is crucial to running a profitable sports facility operation. Some centers welcome all comers and make money based on volume, while others cater to an exclusive membership base.
Davis said Boca Padel would charge for court time by the hour, potentially $40 to $50 a court. With membership, people could receive priority for popular times, such as before or after work hours. The food and beverage operation should provide additional revenue.
Reserve Padel in Miami allows non-members to book a court for $100 an hour, which is for a group of four. Members have priority booking.
Florida Indoor Tennis in Pompano Beach would have an exclusive membership model, with an initiation fee ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 and monthly dues of $1,000. Feinberg said the plan is to have a small, but affluent, membership base. Premium members can schedule guaranteed court time within three hours and bring an outside pro trainer, which most private tennis clubs don’t allow.
“Our intention is not to pack the courts from morning to night,” Feinberg said. “People are happy to pay, as long as they can get the guaranteed court time when they want it.”
South Florida doesn’t have many open green fields left for development, but there are creative ways developers can lock down locations for new sports facilities.
Attorney Mitch Bierman, a partner with Weiss Serota Helfman Cole + Bierman in Coral Gables, said struggling retail centers and malls are great places to repurpose spaces for private sports facilities. However, facility operators should check the local zoning to make sure sports is a permitted use, as it doesn’t always fit into the category of general retail and commercial, he said.
An industrial building could also be converted for pickleball or padel use if the ceilings are high enough, but issues with traffic and parking would need to be worked out with the city, said attorney Wayne Pathman, managing partner with Pathman Schermer Tandy in Miami. It’s not hard to repurpose buildings in the urban core for these sports, since the courts are relatively small, he added.
Pathman has been approached by many developers looking to build major sports facilities in South Florida, and he believes now’s the time for one.
“When I coached my son in basketball, we traveled outside of South Florida a lot because there were no good places for tournaments in Miami-Dade County,” he said. “People want to be in South Florida, but there’s not a state-of-the-art facility here.”