Chris Olson: Influential Paddle Reviewer
By Matthew Schwartz
February 5, 2024
Chris Olson was on the phone, getting nailed by the verbal equivalent of overhead smashes. On the other end was a paddle company executive, furious about Olson’s criticism of his latest creation.
“One company who we’ll leave nameless basically scolded me for 30 minutes on a phone call and told me I was clueless and had no idea what I was talking about,” Olson told me via email.
Olson’s fans disagree. He’s their go-to reviewer when deciding which paddle to buy. His YouTube channel, Pickleball Studio, has 20,000 subscribers. His Instagram account has 13,000 followers. The headline for a podcast he was interviewed blared, “The paddle reviewer who can make or break a company.”
How did a 27-year-old self-described nerd become so important to so many paddle buyers and companies?
Olson has known how to shoot and edit video since he was a teenager. He operated his own video production firm, making documentaries, promotional events and the like. He was the Director of Photography on a Netflix documentary, The Speed Cubers. Olson for years was heavily into the niche hobby of speedcubing, solving Rubik’s cubes in competitions. His personal best came when he solved one in 4.95 seconds. He didn’t attend college, telling me, “I opted to skip it and go straight into running my own business. I didn’t believe college was necessary for me to do what I wanted to do. It would have been a ton of debt for very little return.”
He recently told an interviewer he was getting frustrated about speedcubing because young kids were getting so fast at solving cubes. “When I can’t be the best at something, it really takes a lot of the fun out of it for me. Which isn’t super healthy, but I’m working on that,” Olson said.
He never even heard of pickleball until 2021, when a friend asked him to play. Olson played tennis growing up and his buddy thought he’d like it. “I got absolutely smoked,” Olson said. “Probably lost 1-11, 0-11, 3-11 or something ridiculous. I’m very competitive and enjoyed the sport, so I immediately went and bought paddles and the rest is history.”
Olson sells T-shirts that say “3.5 at best” on them. I asked him about his player rating. “Haha, not actually a 3.5 anymore. I’ll be playing 5.0 this year. I just recently won some 4.5 medals,” he said.
His reviews are recorded in his Minneapolis apartment and usually run between eight and 15 minutes. He opens each review by saying, “What’s up, guys?” He injects some humor and occasionally glances up to the ceiling or to the side for dramatic effect. He does not come across on-camera or in interviews as lacking self-confidence. He often compares the paddle he’s reviewing with similar ones. In one review of a new paddle, he brought out a competitor’s older model and said the new one was a copycat, just with a different name.
Olson is accessible to his followers, answering their questions on social media about paddles they’re interested in. They want to know, What does Chris think?
“I absolutely watch Chris' videos closely to get a feel for the market and try to get ahead of the curve on the next hot paddle,” says Daniel Hawk, a 41-year-old part time paddle dealer from Chico, CA, another self-described paddle nerd.
“Chris is detail oriented, professional, knowledgeable, passionate and charismatic in his own nerdy way,” Hawk said. Hawk says he doesn’t take Olson’s reviews as gospel, but that “All of his faithful followers pretty much see him as a divine oracle.”
Some reviewers say only wonderful things about the paddles they’re discussing or at least couch their negative thoughts. Perhaps they’re too timid to really blast a bad paddle or may feel some obligation to the company for providing the freebie. Not Olson. Last August he graded paddles sold by 36 companies and gave sporting goods giant Wilson “A hard F.” Olson said, “I’ve hit some of the Wilson paddles and they are just not good, especially for the price. It just seems like a big brand that got into pickleball and was like, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can make some money here.’”
Olson also gave an F to paddles from the major sporting goods company, Franklin. Of the Franklin original STK paddle, Olson said, “I don’t even know why you would play with that paddle, there’s so many other better paddles for the price.”
“There's definitely a few companies out there that hate me,” Olson said.
He always considers cost. He’s compared $250 paddles to some $100 models and told viewers to save their money because the paddles are essentially the same. His viewers appreciate that he’s their advocate. He’s like a consumer reporter who’s on their side.
The paddle dealer Hawk says, “I think his honesty/integrity are key. I'm sure he's had plenty of opportunities to sell out, but he seemingly always gives his thoughtful/well researched opinions without worrying about upsetting "big pickle." He also legitimately seems like a really good dude from everything I've heard and the few interactions I've had with him.”
Here’s more of my Q and A with Olson:
What was your goal when starting the reviews?
“The goal has and always will be to help consumers be better educated and have a non-biased source to come to for gear reviews. The pickleball space is filled with so many paddle salesmen, and it can be hard to figure out who to trust or know if that person is even giving accurate information. I see it all the time in the Facebook groups when people ask for recommendations with specific criteria and you'll see ambassadors recommend a paddle of their brand without any regard for the criteria that the player listed.
Are you surprised at the channel’s popularity?
It has definitely grown much faster than I could have ever anticipated. I don't think I had any doubt it could get to where it is now, but I thought it would take significantly longer to do that.
How often are you sent a paddle to review?
If I said yes to everything, I would probably have paddles coming to my house every day of the week. Honestly, even with saying no to the majority of the companies, that still happens, haha.
How often do paddle company honchos reach out to you to get reviewed and what is their usual pitch?
Ha, this is funny to me. I get reached out to tons, and most companies pitches are….really, really, really bad. It's actually so rare that I get a pitch that's good, that when I get one I'm like ‘Oh dang, this is exciting’ even if it doesn't seem like the paddle is anything special.
Most pitches go like this: ‘Hey, we have a paddle we want you to review. How do we make that happen?’ Literally that short. No info on their company, no specs, not even a link to their website. Half the time I have to figure out their company name by their email address and then Google them. Usually if they put that little effort into an email, I can tell their paddles won't be anything special. If you created something truly unique or good, you won't lead with a pitch like that.
How do you reconcile the fact that companies give you free paddles but you are honest and still give a poor review if you don’t like it?
I don't really have any issue saying negative things when a paddle was sent to me for free. I think when reviewers are new, they are hesitant to say negative things about a brand because they are scared they won't send them more stuff in the future. However, I think that's the wrong approach. You always need to be honest and forward because you need your audience to trust you and know that you aren't misguiding them.
One thing I like about your reviews is you are cognizant of cost and often say when reviewing a less expensive paddle that it’s just as good as another with similar specs that costs much more. I recently interviewed [paddle reviewer] John Kew and he said many paddles in the $99-$130 price range are fantastic, and that players at 3.5 or below do not need an expensive paddle. Do you agree?
I would agree. These days there's more paddles than ever that are <$140 and many of them are elite performers.
What is your goal going forward for Pickleball Studio?
I want to continue to be a trusted voice for Pickleball paddles. I have plans to experiment with some other types of content, but paddles are always going to be the main focus. I spent a lot of time during my break in January thinking of ways to continually improve the content and I think I've got a fun plan for the next year. This is something I hope to be doing for 5+ years, so finding ways to keep it sustainable and growing is key.
Finally, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable or get too nosy, but I’d like to in some way reference how you’re doing financially from the YouTube channel and podcast.
The business is doing well. I'm not getting rich at the moment, but I do hope that as I continue to invest that money back into the business that it will continue to grow steadily.”
Putting things in context, Olson’s popularity is relative. His 33,000 subscribers/followers are among the 36.5 million in the US that The Association of Pickleball Professionals estimates play the sport. I asked two dozen fellow rec players how they research paddles. Not one heard of any paddle reviewer. They don’t buy a lot of paddles and when they do it’s usually after trying a demo or getting friends' recommendations. They’re not paddle addicts like me and those I recently write about.
As paddle dealer Daniel Hawk says of Olson, “If he vouches for it, you can be sure, the hardcore paddle nerds are gonna want it!”
And paddle company executives are going to watch it.