Bahram Akradi loves pickle ball.
In fact, the CEO of the Life Time fitness club chain loves the fast-growing racket sport so much that he’s making it the centerpiece of his growth strategy. Looking more like a country club than a gym, with amenities like tennis and basketball courts and even waterslides, Life Time plans to build 600 pickleball courts among its clubs. from the current 250 by the end of 2023.
“I believe pickleball will be the largest participation sport in the United States,” says the 61-year-old CEO. According to Pickleball USA, nearly 4.8 million Americans played the game last year, up 15% from the year before.
But pickleball can only take a company so far. Akradi, who founded Life Time in 1992, is doubling down on the chain’s fledgling efforts to build integrated luxury clubs and coworking spaces as it tries to fend off rivals like Equinox, among other efforts.
Life Time’s 160 centers are concentrated in Minnesota, Texas and Illinois, but it plans to expand its presence nationwide. In New York alone, Life Time plans to expand from four centers to 10 next year.
That’s a stark contrast to the company’s stance in 2020, when Life Time, like many fitness club chains, closed many locations for months due to the pandemic.
Life Time’s revenue that year fell by nearly half from 2019 to $948 million. That rose to $1.32 billion in 2021, and Wall Street expects revenue to reach $1.88 billion this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg analyst estimates.
Akradi, a lifelong athlete who regularly leads spin classes for Life Time patrons, thinks the home workout trend will be short-lived and predicts a strong return to personal fitness classes. “Man is a social being. They need social interaction,” he says.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: How has the fitness club industry survived the pandemic and how is your business doing?
Akradi: If all you care about is pure exercise, then fitness is already a commodity. You can do it anywhere. You can do this in a hotel room, office buildings and residential buildings. But if you look at the sports country club environment, the social aspect of beach clubs, the value of our business, hasn’t changed at all. Our cafe and bistro revenues are higher than before the pandemic.
What sets you apart from competitors like Equinox or even Planet Fitness?
Country club culture is not gym culture. If you go to Garden City [Long Island] or if you go to Westchester, New York, you will find that there is no comparison between Lifetime and Equinox. They are not in our space. They are not our competition. They compete with 25% to 30% of the width we offer. For example, our clubhouse in Brooklyn is 88,000 square feet with a basketball court and a full-size swimming pool.
Are you positioning your high-end gyms as a solution for mall developers looking to move their rental makeup away from department stores?
We have been doing this for the past six years, negotiating and working as partners with some of the biggest mall developers such as Simon Properties and GGP (now part of Brookfield) and have attracted large format clubs. We attract people with a median household income of 150% of the median household income of the general surrounding area.
Life Time is expanding its presence in the co-working space sector with nine locations and four more coming soon. Wouldn’t that put you in direct competition with WeWork, which is led by your ex-employee? Sandeep Mathrani?
I want you to understand that Sandeep, the CEO of WeWork, is a great friend of mine. I will be quite bold and the only reason the company is still standing is because Sandeep went to it. He knows what he’s doing. He is a professional. When we add co-working spaces to our sports club or country clubs, we do something different. We really don’t have a head-to-head competitor in this category. But we are not going to take Sandeep and WeWork. That was never the intention.
What is behind the golden ball you want to walk?
I’m an old man and I’ve played just about every sport you can imagine. I believe pickleball will be the largest participation sport in the United States. I think it will be one of the most watched sports. I play tennis, but if I play with a beginner, I can’t play with them. I can court you with pickleball, take five minutes to teach you, then play with you. He unites America, his children are 88 years old, white, black, Indian, Persian; It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. Pickleball has what it takes to be one of the largest participation sports in our country for a long time.
You own and produce some iconic endurance races such as the Miami Marathon, Leadville ultramarathons and the New York Triathlon. These are quite labor intensive. Why are they valuable to you and do you think Life Time will do more events?
These events are just a rounding error for a $2 billion company. I can’t help it when there’s too much poop in the Hudson River and you can’t swim. [In 2021, the swim portion of the New York City triathlon was canceled because a heavy rain storm had sent too much effluent into the river.] But what we can control, we run only in a first-rate way. Our job is to brand these events and create sports gear for our members.
In 2011, you competed in the 110-mile Leadville road race and ended up in the hospital with strain after the race. What did he get out of that episode?
I’m not a runner. I ceremoniously run a 5K once a year. But I started running an ultramarathon in Leadville, Colo. After about 20 miles, my knees were really sore. Stopping wouldn’t cross my mind, so I kept taking Advil, which you should never do, and it turned into a bigger ordeal than it needed to be. But you know what? I’m still proud. There were 800 ultra runners; 353 finished and 450 did not. I was the last one. If I put my mind to something, it will happen. For these ultra-distance events, it’s just a personal problem for me. But if I’m playing acid, I have to win.
You still lead group rides on stationary bikes at Life Time. Why?
If I’m not equal to the front line, I don’t deserve to be here. We have more than 1.5 million people using our facilities. We have over 30,000 team members delivering this experience. So for me to be relevant, I need to feel what my customers feel, what my colleagues feel.
You immigrated to the United States from Iran at a young age and are a proponent of more immigration. In this hyper-politicized climate, where do you draw the line when talking about potentially controversial issues?
First of all, my philosophy is that everyone in this country is lucky to be here. I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat, so I never label myself and I don’t allow anyone to drag Life Time down a political path. My strongest request to all Americans is to be American, to be one, to be one. We must be the United States of America.
At least united around the acid ball?
Whatever the reason, it unites us. Sports always unite people.
- Akradi was born in Tehran and immigrated to the United States when he was 17 years old. After college at the University of Colorado, he worked at the Swim & Fitness chain in the US, where he caught the fitness bug.
- He was part of the group of buyers that took Life Time private in 2015 in a deal valued at $4 billion. The company went public in 2021 and has a current market value of $2.4 billion.
- Akradi has competed in several extreme endurance events, including the Leadman Triathlon in Colorado, which consists of a 3.1-mile swim, 140-mile bike ride and 13.6-mile run.