Weekend Warrior: Investor Praveen Varshney is putting his heart (and body) into pickleball

Unlike tennis, experts and newbies can play together and enjoy "longer, faster rallies."

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Varshney, who has always loved racquet sports, now plays pickleball exclusively

Unlike tennis, experts and newbies can play together and enjoy "longer, faster rallies"

As principal of the Vancouver-based investment firm that bears his name, Praveen Varshney does a fair amount of real-estate research. “One of the things we talk about in real estate is the highest net use of the land and how you achieve that,” he explains.

That also applies seamlessly to his latest hobby, pickleball. Varshney picked up the sport (essentially a smaller-scale version of tennis, played with a perforated plastic ball) a couple of years ago as something he could do with his wife. But he started noticing how, in places with four tennis courts where one had been converted into a pickleball area, the theory of the highest net use became very obvious.

“There would be 16 people playing pickleball and a wait-list of people on the bench,” Varshney says. “On the other three courts, one tennis court is empty; the other two have two singles games going on. So look at that use of the real estate, right?”

Varshney, who played tennis competitively growing up, now prefers pickleball over his childhood sport, both for its “longer, faster rallies” and because he sees it as a much more welcoming activity. “The gap between good and bad tennis players is really big,” he says. “But the gap in pickleball is a lot more compressed. So you can pretty much play and have a rally with anybody.”

Shortly after falling in love with the game and introducing dozens of friends and family members, Varshney joined the board of the Vancouver Pickleball Association. The group was a driving force in setting up the many pickleball courts at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park, which remains one of the city’s only dedicated public areas for the game.

Varshney hopes to keep growing the association, which has some 750 members, in large part so that it has added backing when he goes to the City and the park board to request more access to courts. He’s also considering talks with the school board, given that much of its public space generally sits unused from 5 p.m. until sundown.

As a member of the Arbutus Club, Varshney has access to its indoor courts, so he isn’t promoting pickleball for his own gain. “It’s about how can we create more awareness of this sport and get more people to try it,” he argues. “And inevitably, more people try it, even the hardcore tennis guys, and they end up liking it—or secretly liking it.”

Along with the obvious rewards that the game offers to older folks by helping them stay physically active, Varshney, who at 56 plays three to five times a week, advocates for its mental benefits, too.

“It’s truly one of these sports that’s going to keep people fit longer,” he says. “We want a long life, but we want the quality to go with it—we don’t want to be a vegetable or whatever. And I think with the quickness side of it, for brain health, it’ll help people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s because it’s fast—you have to think quickly.”

Besides making the game more accessible, Varshney has some bigger-picture goals. “We’d love to make it an Olympic sport. If they can make breakdancing a sport, pickleball can get there,” he says with a laugh. “And we’d like to get Vancouver on the map and maybe host an international tournament as well.”

For now, both of those seem like a bit of a pipe dream, but with the pandemic boosting pickleball’s popularity and Queen E’s courts seeing wait lists that rival those of the hottest restaurants in town, Varshney just may be onto something.

“You play doubles and get a nice rally going, and then someone screws up and you get a nice gut-busting laugh,” he says. “I really do think the social isolation issues from the pandemic are being addressed by the sport.” 

Warrior Spotlight

Varshney Capital Corp. may be a small Vancouver family office of about 10 people, but its reach stretches across the city. The firm invests in social-impact companies big and small, from 300-employee fintech outfit Mogo and publicly traded coffee pod producer Nexe Innovations to Montessori-inspired cooking school Little Kitchen Academy. Principal Praveen Varshney is a co-founder of those businesses and many others. “The goal is to invest in these companies that grow and have a bunch of people at their offices,” he says. “They have to have a purpose behind it; it can’t be just to make money.”