How Thomas Shields Built a 150k Subscriber Newsletter About Pickleball

Thomas Shields started a newsletter in October 2020 about pickleball of all things.

In less than 3 years, he’s grown The Dink into a media company that reaches over 750k pickleball players every week between a newsletter, 2 podcasts, and social media.

thomas shields

Thomas was in the investment banking space for a few years, before finding himself working for a content marketing company called Cohley.

It was in this job that he realized the importance of content and branding.

At the same time, Thomas had listened to the My First Million podcast quite a bit, and always heard them talking about how great the newsletter business was.

He and his family had played pickleball for a few years, and so he decided to give it a shot as a newsletter.

In the fall of 2020, he sent out the first issue of The Dink newsletter, which now has over 150k subscribers.

How did he grow it so fast?

The Growth Timeline

Thomas Shields launched The Dink newsletter in November 2020. Since then, he’s been able to grow it to over 150k subscribers.

From past interviews, it seems like he got a little sidetracked trying to grow the social platforms while taking his eye off the newsletter growth.

And while the timeline above seems to prove that, he also didn’t really talk about the size of the email list until earlier this year, so it might be a little skewed.

The Growth Levers of The Dink

There are a number of really interesting strategies Thomas has used to build The Dink, but here are some of the most notable in my view.

1. The sneaky Facebook Group strategy. Warning: this strategy is not for everyone, but it could get you 5,000 subscribers pretty quickly.

2. Going on tour. Thomas did this in a really smart way to kick start the brand just 4 months in. And no, this wasn’t a music tour.

3. Referral program mixed with brand partnerships. Newsletter operators are always looking for interesting ways to get more referrals, and The Dink does this in an extremely smart way.

4. Passionate fans and a trending sport. We can’t leave this one out of the conversation. If the space wasn’t growing and the players weren’t so passionate, the growth would have been a lot slower.

5. The Dink Awards. This super smart branding play is one for the books. Thomas put together the People’s Choice Awards but for pickleball.

1. Sneaky Facebook Group Strategy

Thomas used a really interesting strategy to get the first 5,000 subscribers for The Dink.

There was a big Facebook Group called “Pickleball Forum.” Currently, the group has over 100k members, but at the time it was probably closer to 60k.

It was the only big Facebook group focused on the sport at the time, and Thomas saw this as an opportunity.

He decided he was going to try and get active members in there to join his newsletter.

How? One by one.

He went through and friend requested all of the active members in the group.

Once they accepted his friend request, he would get them to like the new pickleball page he created.

On Facebook, when someone likes your page, you can automatically invite them to join your group.

When people join your group, you can ask them to give their email address to “stay up to date” and then you add those folks to your newsletter.

This started working so well, that he made multiple Facebook accounts to friend request people. Once he surpassed those limits, he hired people on Fiverr to help scale up the operations even more.

Did he make some people mad? Yes.

But did he end up with ~5,000 subscribers? Also, yes.

I’m not recommending this type of strategy, but I think it’s a really interesting example of pushing the limits and thinking outside the box.

2. Going on Tour

The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) puts on a tour every year. Essentially, it’s like a competition among the pro players that takes place in different cities throughout the year.

Thomas ended up partnering with the PPA in January of that year, just 3 months after starting the newsletter.

I don’t know what this agreement looked like, but I’m going to guess it offered him some partnership dollars to create footage of the tour.

With that money, he built a custom van with The Dink logo on it.

He took the van all over the US to these tournaments and was posting live footage of the events, players, etc.

There is no way you aren’t getting noticed by the major brands, professional players, and attendees when you show up in this thing.

He also brought along a friend named Jack, who seems to be a professional photographer.

johnny the dink van

Having someone who knew their way around higher camera gear definitely paid off.

Before this tour, The Dink would post some videos and photos of local games, or of Thomas playing.

But now that they were on tour, they started posting their own footage from the pickleball matches.

This definitely got them noticed too. In an interview on the Pickleball Fire podcast, the host talks about how she noticed Jack running around getting footage while matches were being played.

With any media company, the name of the game is content. And having your own content team to get first-hand footage is the way to go.

Building Relationships

I know I talk a lot about how important it is to build relationships with creators in your space.

But this is another shining example of doing exactly that.

No one knew who The Dink was in the beginning of their journey. Sure, Thomas was able to reach out and get an “in” with the PPA, but after these tournaments and interfacing with people in the industry, things really started to pick up.

3. Referral Program via Partnerships

The Dink has done something really interesting in terms of a referral program for their newsletter.

In fact, I’d venture to guess you haven’t seen something like this done – because I hadn’t either.

Instead of trying to give away some digital product, stickers, or a discount on their own merchandise, they partner with other brands in the space.

the dink referral program

This is what shows up when you get their newsletter in your inbox. It’s a little unclear what you get from this email, so I had to dig a little deeper.

I went ahead and referred one person to the email list to get you guys some more details.

Here is the current list of prizes you can get when you refer others to The Dink:

You might notice that everyone gets 10% off at Fromuth Pickleball after just one referral.

After that, you can earn gift cards and even a free pickleball paddle. That’s really cool!

I was wondering why a brand would be willing to give away free merch in order to help The Dink grow its audience, and then it hit me.

The brand essentially gets free advertising every single time an issue gets sent out.

And The Dink? Well, the prizes are so aligned with their reader’s interests that their newsletter is getting shared all over the place.

There are thousands of results like this on Facebook alone – many of which are in local pickleball groups.

This doesn’t include DMs and emails people are forwarding to friends and others who they know play pickleball.

They seemed to have started this program around the middle of 2022, and since then their newsletter has picked up growth a lot.

Side note: I’ve never played pickleball, but if you’re going to sign up for their newsletter, it would be cool if you use this link so I can get some free pickleballs to try it out 🙂

4. A Passionate, Exploding Niche

I would be leaving out a huge component of this without mentioning that Thomas’s choice in niche was a great one.

Pickleball is exploding in popularity. You can see this clearly from Google Trends data around pickleball:

Even in just the last 2 years is exploding and is now trending the most it ever has since Google Trends was launched in 2004.

At the same time, people who play pickleball are wildly passionate about it.

Even Thomas will admit that:

By choosing a passionate niche, that is also exploding in popularity, he’s been able to really scale up the growth.

5. The Dink Awards

This January, Thomas launched The Dink Awards, which he likened to the People’s Choice Awards for pickleball.

This was brilliant, because you can get all of the people nominated to share so they can win the award.

He also partnered with the top organization in the space, like:

  • PPA – Professional Pickleball Association
  • Major League Pickleball
  • APP – American Pickleball
  • USA Pickleball
  • Selkirk – a top pickleball equipment manufacturer
  • PicklePlay – a top pickleball app in the space

These outlets then shared it on their social media as well:

They put out a press release when it went live, which got them media coverage like Yahoo Finance:

I don’t know exactly how well this went for The Dink, but you did get a little nudge to subscribe to be able to see the winners.

They’ve now done this two years in a row, so I have to imagine it’s helping spread the word and bring in some cool awareness around the brand.

How You Can Replicate The Dink’s Success 🗺️

While The Dink might have a different business model than a personal brand type of newsletter, there are a ton of interesting insights we can take away. Here are a few I’ve been thinking about:

A. Get Creative With Brand Partnerships

The Dink has some really interesting partnerships, and the best in my opinion is their referral program.

People who play pickleball need gear. Give them free gear for referring people to a newsletter and you’re going to get noticed.

Is there a way you can partner with companies in your industry to give away gift cards or discount codes to use their product, in return for brand awareness and a “sticky” sponsorship slot at the bottom of every email you send?

You can create a referral program with Beehiiv and SparkLoop if you’re using other email providers.

B. Try Out-of-the-Box Acquisition Efforts

While the Facebook Group strategy Thomas used might be a little questionable, hopefully, it can get some of your creative juices flowing.

Think about the places where your ideal customers are already hanging out. It could be Facebook groups, or specific subreddits, or even somewhere offline.

How can you go to those places and get in front of your audience there?

While the strategy Thomas used, might not work quite as well anymore, there could be a “guerrilla marketing” method you can use that’s a little different than what everone else is doing.

C. Going on a Virtual Tour

While not every industry is going to have live events that warrant a custom branded van and videography, you can still take this idea and run with it.

Epic Gardening does a great job of this with local garden centers, and even visiting gardens of celebrities.

But I think one of the best ways to do this is collaborating with other creators in your niche.

Maybe you interview someone in the space doing really interesting things, or doing a deep dive about their

You can past deep dives of David Perell and Mario Gabriele who have both used collaborations successfully to get even more ideas on how to replicate this.

chenell basilio

Chenell Basilio

Chenell is the head writer and reverse engineer at Growth In Reverse. She spends her days researching newsletters, audience growth, and generally figuring out how to help others create better content.

She has an almost useless Bachelor's Degree in Geography, enjoys running, listening to podcasts, and eating guacamole. 🥑

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