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Leavey alumni Connor Garnett with pickleball trophy

Leavey alumni Connor Garnett with pickleball trophy

The Business of Pickleball: Leavey Finance Alum Leverages His Competitive Spirit and Entrepreneurial Skills in a Surging Sport

Former Santa Clara tennis star and Leavey School of Business finance graduate Connor Garnett first picked up a pickleball paddle in April of 2022. In that regard, he’s no different than the nearly 9 million Americans getting into the rapidly rising sport.

Former Santa Clara tennis star and Leavey School of Business finance graduate Connor Garnett first picked up a pickleball paddle in April of 2022. In that regard, he’s no different than the nearly 9 million Americans getting into the rapidly rising sport. 

But unlike the throngs of pickleball converts flocking to public parks across the country, Garnett has turned the sport into much more than a hobby.

By the end of 2022, he had played in his first pro tournaments. By January 2023, he had quit his full-time investment banking job and became a professional athlete on the PPA Tour, the major organizer of pro tournaments and events. In April 2024, he won a singles title at a tournament in Los Angeles — in front of a crowd packed with friends and family, since he now calls Orange County home. That first gold medal came a mere two years after his first time playing the sport.

The title was a personal highlight and helped him reach his current No. 3 ranking among pro men. However, for this avid athlete and longtime sports fan, another moment might stand out even more.

“I got on SportsCenter’s Top 10 with one of the points that I played,” Garnett says. “Growing up watching that and then seeing myself playing on the TV was just wild.”

Calling His Shots

Garnett was already accustomed to sports success before he found pickleball. His senior year at Santa Clara, he and his tennis teammates made it to the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament. He finished his collegiate career with 72 singles wins, tied for fourth all-time in Santa Clara tennis history.

After graduating in 2019, he spent a year studying in Nottingham, England, where he participated in Futures tennis tournaments, one of the early levels of pro play. Eventually, he found his way back to the U.S. and put his finance studies to work as a full-time investment banking analyst.

The competitive urge never dies in athletes, though, and pickleball has allowed Garnett to rekindle his athletic ambitions. Pickleball, for the uninitiated, is a paddle sport that incorporates elements of tennis, badminton, and table tennis, but ultimately is its own unique pursuit. It was invented in the 1960s but has surged in popularity in the past decade. 

Garnett’s hard-earned tennis skills, from movement around the court to specific shots, gave him a head start. Once he realized the possibilities of pickleball, he had to find a balance. At first that meant sticking with his promising finance career and treating pro pickleball as a side job. It only took a few months for that balance to change dramatically.

“Once I was able to break even with pickleball, that was when I thought, ‘Let me test this and see what I can really do,’” he says. “I realized I was good enough to get some people believing in me, get some sponsorships, and give it a whirl. I knew I’d regret it if I didn't do it.”

He left his investment banking job. Office hours and finance analysis gave way to training hours, interviews with the media, and abundant travel for tournaments. As he made the transition from banker to pro athlete, he was also transitioning from the muscle memory of a tennis player to the nuances of a new game.

“Tennis really helps with all the mechanics of pickleball, but it’s definitely a different sport, too,” Garnett says. “There are a lot of deceptive shots in pickleball, and I’m still learning.”

The Twoey

Fortunately, Garnett has a deceptive — and defining — shot of his own: the “Twoey.” The two-handed backhand he brought over from his tennis career has become a critical part of his game and his branding.

“People just kept identifying me with the Twoey, so I started leaning into it,” Garnett says. “My first YouTube video I posted was going through the two-handed backhand, and that video got a ton of traction and eyeballs. It all just compounded. Now I’ve trademarked it, and I’m selling Twoey merch.”

Garnett’s entrepreneurial spirit is as strong as his competitive one. He sees pickleball as an opportunity not only to put his athleticism to work, but also his business skills.

“My vision is to continue growing as a player and become the number one singles player and a top doubles player, as well,” he says. “But I also want to really brand myself well so I’m able to make it a lasting career beyond playing.’

Garnett’s business education and background gives him an edge when it comes to managing earnings, dealing with sponsors, navigating contracts and other aspects of a pro career. Beyond that, he also has a keen eye for the business opportunities surrounding this popular sport. 

In addition to leaning into Twoey via content and merch, he and his dad are opening a pickleball club in Seattle, near where he grew up. He teaches clinics both in person and virtually. He’s earned himself sponsorship from sporting companies such as ProXR Pickleball and Florence Marine X, among others. He’s done all of this despite only having picked up a paddle a little over two years ago.

“A cool thing about pickleball that I really love is the business side, too,” Garnett says. “It’s a merging of my two worlds. I can use what I know on the business side of things, and I still get to compete at a high level in the sport.”

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