Pickleball’s ‘ultimate ambassador’ took $50 million from investors - who now say they were duped

Rodney “Rocket” Grubbs said in court filings that he currently owes his investors a total of $47.5m, including interest.

Graig Graziosi
Monday 03 June 2024 19:38 BST
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Louise Thomas

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A man dubbed pickleball’s “ultimate ambassador” took nearly $50million from various investors, who now say they were duped out of the funds and are fighting to get some of their money returned.

Rodney "Rocket" Grubbs, 68, is now in involuntary bankruptcy after admitting to owe $47.5million plus interest to the investors. He said he always intended to repay investors, who say the process has been slow - if it happens at all.

“You just never would think he would do this,” Bob Zitnick told the Wall Street Journal. “And then you wonder: ‘Am I stupid?’”

Zitnick, 64, and his wife lent Grubbs $300,000 in 2007 for real estate deals. They have gotten some of the money back, but repayments ended in 2018 and the couple now holds promissory notes from Grubbs totaling $3million.

Rodney ‘Rocket’ Grubbs, 68, has been accused by business creditors of taking investments from them in the form of promissory notes and not paying them back
Rodney ‘Rocket’ Grubbs, 68, has been accused by business creditors of taking investments from them in the form of promissory notes and not paying them back (Facebook/Pickleball Rocks)

The couple is some of the 500 creditors across 30 states and countries that Grubbs owe money too. He took the money for pickleball and other investment ventures.

Grubbs is well known — and previously loved — entity in the town of Brookville, approximately 40 miles northwest of Cincinnati. He coached tennis and ran a pickleball shop in the town. He began making a name for himself in the sport by traveling to tournaments all over the world and selling his merchandise through his company, Pickleball Rocks.

Pickleball Rocks was, according to Grubbs, the “world’s most recognized pickleball apparel brand.”

Like many other businesses, it requires investors to operate, and Grubbs allegedly collected those investors from people he knows in the pickleball community. He issued promissory notes — typically for $25,000 at 12 percent interest over 18 months — with the promise that they would join a small group of investors, and that the money would be used to buy inventory for the company’s apparel store, authorities said.

Mr Grubbs said in court filings that he currently owes his investors a total of $47.5m, including interest.

In January, the Indiana Secretary of State securities division sent Grubbs a cease and desist warning to stop offering promissory notes he used to collect investment funds. He has not been charged with a crime in connection to the investigation.

Teri Siewert and her husband reportedly spent years trying to recoup the money they lent to Mr Grubbs, and realized that they might not be the only players to give the well-liked pickleballer their cash.

Ms Siewert, 67, described him as being like “Barney Fife,” the bumbling but lovable deputy sheriff sidekick to Andy Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show.

“He’s just this affable, you know, bumbling kind of character,” she told the paper. “And you wanted to help him.”

Pickleball coaches in demand

She said she was told by Grubbs in 2017 that one of six of his investors has dropped out of the business, and that her and her husband could take their spot, but that it had to be a secret to protect his funding sources. They agreed to help him and gave him $25,000 in 2019.

They tried to get their money back once in 2021, but he told them that the pandemic had left him unable to sell merchandise at tournaments, severely limiting the money he had on hand. They tried again in 2022, but he again said he couldn't repay them. Siewert said that's when she began to get suspicious that she was never going to see her money again.

She eventually began a Facebook group called "From Pickleball Rocks to Prison Rocks," where people who had outstanding loans with Grubbs could share their issues.

Pickleball Rocks stopped operating this year after a group of his creditors forced him into involuntary bankruptcy. Grubbs has now stopped attending tournaments, and claimed assets of approximately $1.6m, far less than what court filings say he owes his creditors.

Grubbs told the Wall Street Journal he never issued any loans that he didn't intend to repay, but noted his business took a hit during the pandemic and never fully recovered.

He began playing pickleball in 2008 and helped to build the sport's base over the last 20 years. Grubbs visited tournaments in shirts that said "Pickleball Rocks — Ask Me How" which provided an in for courting potential customers and, possibly, potential investors.

Now, his once-popular shirts are a reminder of all those who claim they're owed money by the man.

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