June 16, 2024

The emergence of a game merging elements of tennis, ping pong, and badminton, hailed as America’s fastest-growing sport, coincided with the rise of entrepreneur Rodney “Rocket” Grubbs from southern Indiana. His clothing and sports equipment venture, launched with T-shirts endorsing “Pickleball Rocks,” has thrived.

Grubbs, a charismatic figure from Brookville, soon established himself as a key figure in the sporting scene. One fan-site referred to him as “pickleball’s ultimate ambassador,” having traveled the globe to partake in tournaments, and simultaneously promoting his business, known for the trademarked slogan he created in 2009.

By 2022, Pickleball Rocks was predicted to exceed the $1 million revenue mark. To accomplish this, Grubbs required capital. Hence, he propositioned his affluent associates from within the sporting fraternity, offering exclusive financial investment schemes promising quick and lucrative returns. An investor, who spoke to IndyStar, believes that approximately 120 individuals from the U.S., Canada, and Portugal seized this opportunity, entrusting Grubbs with millions of dollars in return for promissory notes. However, the exact total is yet to be ascertained.

However, recent developments have raised concerns among investors. Last month, the Indiana Secretary of State’s securities division issued a cease and desist order, branding these solicitations as a “supposed fraudulent investment scheme.” This came on the back of increasing disgruntlement amongst investors over Grubbs’ missed repayment deadlines and lack of responses to their queries and demands. Officials clarified that Grubbs was not authorized to offer promissory notes in the state of Indiana.

Many investors who were once enthusiastic about funding Grubbs’ venture are now riddled with fear and apprehension that their investments have been squandered, giving rise to feelings of anger and resentment.

Florida-based investor Teri Siewert said, “Using his commendable reputation and that of those around him, he managed to manipulate some good people. Nobody was gullible; there were doctors, lawyers, professors, financial consultants. He held a place of trust within the pickleball community, which now feels betrayed.”

Grubbs dealing with judgments and penalties over $9 million

Grubbs — who has yet to face any criminal charges or securities infringements — was not available for comment. Recent lawsuits do not list any attorney on his behalf. His previously functional-Brookville phone number, which was operational in January, the month the state warning was issued, now seems to be disconnected.

Grubbs is currently dealing with judgments and penalties exceeding $9 million relating to three investor lawsuits filed in 2023, according to court documents.

In a separate lawsuit filed in December, multiple investors requested a federal judge to push Grubbs into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If granted, this would necessitate him to liquidate assets to reimburse their funds. In a written response to the judge dated January 23, Grubbs admitted that he could not afford legal representation. Additionally, he disclosed that his only eligible assets comprised of 11 low-income rental properties worth roughly $800,000 and Pickleball Rocks merchandise and equipment estimated at $150,000.

Pickleball Rocks CEO Rodney "Rocket" Grubbs was hit with a default judgment and penalties of more than $4 million in a 2023 investor lawsuit.

Grubbs admitted that this would be utterly insignificant in making up for the claims of the “not less than 250 outstanding creditors” in the event of him going bankrupt. Instead, he pleaded with the court to allow for other options that would allow the petitioners and any potential future creditors to recover their money by utilizing the only asset which had the potential to continue generating income – his business.

Grubbs expressed a belief in the intellectual property value of the name Pickleball Rocks, despite acknowledging that it has been drastically undermined due to rumors and what he termed “organized” social media attacks by investors. However, he claimed to remain hopeful about its future prospects and expressed a willingness to “relinquish all ownership/management/profit rights” from Pickleball Rocks to his creditors.

“A well-managed team could take Pickleball Rocks to continued growth,” he told the judge, referring to the “millions of new players joining the sport who do not engage on social media and therefore won’t be affected by the current news.”

Grubbs is optimistic that “these new players will shop and buy.”

Grubbs seen by investor as reminiscent of an old friend

Several of Grubb’s investors from five different states shared their experiences of encountering Grubbs at pickleball tournaments, in talks with the IndyStar.

They characterized Grubbs as affable, extroverted, and trustworthy. They mentioned his slightly religious inclination and observed that he did not seem to lead an extravagant lifestyle. Oklahoma-based pickleball referee Ron Ponder, who invested $65,000 in All About Pickleball LLC, the Indiana corporation legally operating as Pickleball Rocks, described interacting with Grubbs as akin to conversing with a familiar old friend.

“Within the pickleball community, he is a renowned figure. He treats everyone the same,” Ponder said. “He’s always thrilled to see you and never misses an opportunity to share news and updates.”

Before he became known as the “Rocket,” Grubbs held the designation as a certified professional consultant, according to his official website and the Indiana Secretary of State. The spectacled businessman, in his late 60s, describ.The Indiana Secretary of State put forth a 19-page grievance stating that Grubbs enticed potential clients by letting them know a $25,000 contribution would secure their participation in a select investor circle. This influx of funds would facilitate growth or the execution of new substantial contracts for Pickleball Rocks.

Guaranteeing a 12% interest rate compounded monthly, and entire repayment after 18 months, Grubbs further promised his investors an escalated interest rate— of 18% — in case he defaulted.

Robert Smutka, an investor hailing from Minnesota, shared with IndyStar that Grubbs habitually extended his loan under new contracts rather than repaying him on due dates. Wanting to protect the company, Smutka went along with moving his funds into fresh promissory notes.

A recent widower, Smutka, theretofore put funds from his retirement account into the business, refrained from publicly disclosing the exact amount handed over to Grubbs.

Investing on Trust

Teri and Scott Siewert firmly believed they had made a high-yielding investment with a person they trusted.

Both avid pickleball players, Scott had often played alongside and against Grubbs. Their keen interest in the sport brought them together at multiple tournaments. Despite being courted for over a year to invest in Pickleball Rocks, the couple initially resisted Grubbs’ offer.

Pickleball Rocks CEO Rodney "Rocket" Grubbs, right, stands next to friend and investor Scott Siewert on the podium after medaling in a doubles match.

However, upon receiving news from Grubbs about securing a contract to sell apparel and the ongoing availability of investment opportunity, the Siewerts, based out of White Springs, Florida, reassessed the decision. In early 2019, they wired $25,000 to Grubbs from their own bank account.

Grubbs claimed that he would use the combined $150,000 from six such $25,000 investment slots to stock up on apparel, necessitated by the new contract. As an existing investor had just withdrawn, a spot was available for the Siewerts.

@he couple accepted the 18-month loan and even proposed taking a lower interest rate to facilitate Grubbs’ business expansion; however, Grubbs turned it down, affirming that his business model provided for a higher interest rate.

Conforming to the agreement with Grubbs, like many other investors, the couple decided to maintain confidentiality around the loan. But as their loan’s maturity date arrived in September 2020 and they needed money to purchase a new house, the Siewerts requested Grubbs to repay them. Grubbs allegedly said he was unable to do so.

The Siewerts claim that Grubbs failed to repay them in the subsequent years—2022 and 2023 as well. Despite their multiple payment requests and attempts to renegotiate with Grubbs, he refused to repay.

Teri told that her daughter, who is a legal professional, had sent a demand letter proposing to clear the current outstanding of more than $50,000 in principle and interest for $30,000 only. They learned about such an arrangement when a friend informed Teri about a Texas couple who had suggested similar terms and received their funds back from Grubbs.

Despite such efforts, Grubbs continuously evaded repayment. This drove Teri to a heated confrontation with Grubs, who she saw at a pickleball tournament with over 1,000 participants near Dayton, busy setting up two vendor booths along with his wife, Karen. At the sight of an acquaintance five courts away, she found the strength to open up about her situation. The acquaintance shared her own similar experience and confirmed Teri’s suspicion about her not being alone as a victim.

Non-Stop Phone Calls

The Dayton tournament saw another significant event—the confrontation between Grubbs and Teri Siewert. Teri had eavesdropped on Grubbs offering a woman the same investment pitch and didn’t hesitate to caution the lady against getting involved. Grubbs was taken aback, and incredulously, he erupted into a loud laugh.
In contrast, he continued to disregard the couple’s plea for reimbursement. With no other option, they decided to take their complaint public in December. They recounted their ordeal on Facebook, Internet forums, and distributed their narrative to pickleball clubs. It wasn’t long before they were inundated with calls, convincing Teri that they were not alone, and this plot ran deep and wide. By the end of the weekend, she had documented more than 20 names and learned about the ongoing lawsuits against Grubbs in Indiana.

Oddly enough, soon after going public, Grubbs transferred $56,000 into Teri’s account, hoping to silence them. However, she wasn’t ready to back down so easily and urged other disheartened investors to raise their voice against Grubbs. After coming across one of Siewert’s online posts, Rick Griffith of North Carolina realized he too was part of the plot.

Griffith’s encounter with Grubbs was similar to others’. Grubbs spotted him at a Myrtle Beach Tournament in 2021 wearing a Pickleball Rocks shirt. The two struck a conversation, and Grubbs convinced Griffith to wire him $25,000 in 2023, promising to repay by July 26, 2022. He had initially planned to rollover but now doubted if he would be reimbursed at all.

“This venture has gone down the drain,” exclaimed Griffith.

Much Riskier Than Usual

Around 18 months prior, Ron Ponder, a pickleball referee based out of Oklahoma, received an unexpected text from Grubbs. In the message, Grubbs informed him about his plans to expand Pickleball Rocks by including nets, balls, and paddles in their product line. The firm had also employed a former Reebok executive.

Grubbs noted that the firm’s revamp would enable it to serve schools and colleges. However, to execute their plans, they needed extra operating funds. Following this, Grubbs presented his investment pitch to Ponder, suggesting—Consider a scenario where you opt to invest $25,000 for a span of 18 months, raking in an impressive 12% return on your investment each month.

“With my other investments, I was reaping 8% returns anyway. Thus, the offer didn’t appear overly ambitious or unrealistic, such as promising a 30% return. It presented a prospect better than average, albeit with an accordant increase in the associated risk,” Ponder explained.

“Since I had additional funds readily available, I agreed to go ahead with the proposition. It seemed like a lucrative venture, given the credibility of the brand and Rodney helming it. How could things go awry?” Ponder thought to himself before transferring $25,000 to Grubbs.

Roughly half a year later, Grubbs returned with another proposition. He was bringing together a small consortium of investors and had one spot open. The conditions were unchanged. Ponder committed another $25,000 towards the project. A couple of months hence, Grubbs floated a third opportunity before Ponder. He enlightened him about a lucrative chance to procure nets he could readily retail. For this, he required $15,000 for a period of four months.

To remit the money, Ponder chose to use Venmo and PayPal. By this point, however, he had started mulling over the fate of his investment.

“I found myself thinking, ‘I’ve invested as much as $65,000 with this man. I trust him implicitly because he is Rodney. Yet, simultaneously, my knowledge about him is rather limited,’” Ponder confessed.

As the repayment deadline of his maiden loan approached, Ponder found himself being ignored by Grubbs. After biding his time for a week, Ponder took the initiative to connect with him. Grubbs requested an extension, promising to repay the loan by Christmas. A week down the line, Ponder happened to spot the Siewerts’ post on Facebook.

“My suspicions led me to feel extremely aggrieved,” said Ponder, elaborating that Grubbs merely ridiculed the Siewerts as a disgruntled couple. Then, Ponder discovered the myriad lawsuits and similarly deceived investors associated with Grubbs.

“Losing this fund won’t wreak havoc on my finances. I could even ignore its disappearance. However, he has swindled people of their life savings,” emphasised Ponder. “Someone once mentioned, ‘You’re a fool.’ My response? I am not a fool. I placed my trust in a friend. I trusted someone I held in high regard, and that’s not on me. The onus is on him.”

You may drop an email to IndyStar investigative reporter Alexandria Burris at aburris@gannett.com. Alternatively, you can reach her on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @allyburris.