PICKLEBALL LEAGUES IN CLASS OF THEIR OWN
Surge in tournaments provides exciting pro & amateur opportunities
If you need further evidence that pickleball has entered the mainstream American sports scene, look no further than the number of pickleball leagues that have sprung up over the past year. While the lion’s share of recent attention has been on the pro pickleball PPA/MLP pickleball drama, these are not the only leagues. Far from it. From leagues dedicated to amateurs and seniors, college players, and opportunities to play with sports legends, pickleball leagues are tapping into players’ and fans' desires to experience higher-level competition.
Amateur Does Not Equal Inferior
The most significant growth of pickleball leagues is at the amateur level, with many tournaments and organizations attracting thousands of players undertaking the collective mission of expanding pickleball’s reach and appeal. Don’t let the word ‘amateur’ fool you. These are highly competitive leagues featuring top-level players and taking place at some of the country’s most prestigious venues.
The Amateur Pickleball Association (https://apatournaments.com/) is a league by ‘players for players,’ which aims to increase player access to tournaments and further the popularity of the sport. It does this by hosting more than 50 tournaments around the country each year and attracting more than 2000 amateur players competing in divisions based on age, gender, and player rating. APA tournaments follow USA Pickleball rules and provide players with a consistent experience in terms of scoring and play. The
APA also hosts tournaments for juniors and college players to encourage and support the next wave of pickleballers.
The Amateur Pickleball League (https://www.mygopr.com/amateur-league) offers its own spin on amateur play by featuring team-based competitions. Each team is split evenly between men and women and the league is organized in regions – North, South, East, and West – each consisting of five teams. The APL spun out of the Global Official Pickleball Rating (GOPR) organization, which ranks players based on match results. If this sounds familiar, the APL format is similar to Major League Pickleball league play and features exciting, fast-paced action in fan-friendly events. The APL promotes a community that brings together players and fans who share a love for the game and a desire to increase the popularity of pickleball. The Entry League is geared for players in the 2.0-to-3.0 range. The Intermediate League is for 3.5-4.0 ranking players, while the advanced league features 4.5-5.0 players.
An amateur league gaining popularity among the younger demo is the APP Next Gen Series (https://www.theapp.global/tour/2023/next-gen), which is an offshoot of the pro APP Tour. The Next Gen league claims to be the first tournament to develop the next generation of pickleball pros. Next Gen matches run in conjunction with APP tour events and feature top American pickleball players between 16 and 23 years of age. Next Gen players receive coaching from pickleball professionals to assist them in making the jump to the professional circuit.
Not to be outdone, pro league Major League Pickleball, MLP pickleball, has rolled out an amateur league, aptly named, Minor League Pickleball (https://officialminorleaguepb.com/), to provide amateur players with a competitive, fun, social experience. Minor League Pickleball follows its parent league’s team-based competition of four-player teams (two men, two women) based on their pickleball ratings, their DUPR ratings. Just like MLP, Minor League Pickleball uses match play, rally scoring where points are scored by either team after each rally and the Dreambreaker tiebreaker to foster action-packed, highly entering matches for players and fans. Teams play a series of round-robin matches within their groups. The top teams then compete in single-elimination matches with the top winners qualifying for the National tournament.
The World Pickleball Tour (https://www.wptevents.com/) describes itself as the largest amateur pickleball tour. And they might be right. With events in 15 states across the US, the World Pickleball Tour delivers player-focused experiences and events designed to fuel a passion for pickleball. The WPT is a co-ed league featuring a round-robin match format. Gold medalists from each event qualify for the WPT Amateur Invitational Championships and vie for a share of a $175,000 cash purse.
While some leagues focus on developing the next generation of players, the National Pickleball League https://www.nplpickleball.com/ is dedicated to showcasing the pickleball prowess of players over 50 years old. The NPL brings together senior players united by their love for the game and a shared commitment to healthy competition, sportsmanship, and lifelong mental and physical health. The NPL consists of six co-ed teams that play in events throughout the year. Teams are then seeded based on their win totals and points scored and then compete for a National Championship. The NPL includes #1 ranked 50+ players Beth Bellamy and Rick Witsken along with pickleball pros with multiple major title wins. In addition to playing for prize money and bragging rights, NPL strives to demonstrate that age and gender are no barriers to achieving greatness on the court and in life.
The Pro Circuits
The growth of pickleball has also seen a spike in the number of players joining the pro pickleball tour. In the not-so-distant past, pro players led nomadic existences, traveling the country in search of tournaments and scrambling for meager prize money. In just a few short years, pickleball has become big business fueled by the advent of rival professional leagues, high-priced player contracts, corporate sponsorships, and broadcast deals with cable and streaming sites. These rivalries ratcheted up the amount of prize money and created an opportunity for players to make pickleball their full-time profession.
The Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) https://www.theapp.global/ was founded in 2018 to grow pro pickleball. It runs tournaments throughout the year and is the only pro pickleball league sanctioned by USA Pickleball. In 2023, the APP will host 16 tournaments throughout the US, serving up more than $2 million in prize money. The year-long competition culminates in players qualifying for the APP Masters tournament, including some of the most recognized names on the APP tour including Paris Todd, Rob Nunnery, Andrei Daescu, Simone Jardim, Yates Johnson, and Megan Fudge. Players on the APP tour are free to play in other professional tournaments. APP tour matches stream on YouTube and the APP Facebook page in addition to being broadcast on CBS Sports and ESPN. With its strong support of amateur players, the APP focuses on growing the sport among multiple age groups with the ultimate goal of seeing pickleball become an Olympic sport.
The two biggest and most recognized tours are operated by the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) https://www.ppatour.com/ and Major League Pickleball (MLP) https://www.majorleaguepickleball.net/. After a turbulent year of negotiations and recriminations, the two leagues signed an agreement in September that brought them both under a single holding company with executives and owners from each organization serving on the new board. Backed by a $50 million investment, the merger enables players from the PPA, the leading pickleball tour that features bracket-style tournaments and determines player rankings and uses side-out scoring, and the MLP, the upstart, co-ed, team-based league to compete in both leagues’ events. Since the PPA is not sanctioned by USA Pickleball, they have reworked some of the rules in response to player input, including replays on let serves and after a referee calls a serve illegal. Players compete throughout the year on the Carvana PPA Tour, consisting of 25 tournaments in 14 different cities.
PPA tour players are ranked by the DUPR ratings and then drafted by the 24 MLP teams. A total of 96 players are part of the MLP Premier and Challenger Leagues, including world number ones, Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, JW Johnson, Riley Newman, James Ignatowich, Julian Arnold, Anna Bright, Catherine Parenteau, Callie Jo Smith, and Hurricane Tyra Black. PPA players will compete in the MLP’s six events taking place in Arizona, California, Florida, and Georgia.
In the runup to the merger, a previous attempt to bring both leagues together failed at the 11th hour, resulting in a rush by both leagues to sign pro players to exclusive contracts for ever-increasing guaranteed money. The land grab for players caused friction between the pros and the leagues and threatened each organization’s viability. Cooler heads prevailed and the merger appears to be a win-win for players, sponsors, and fans. However, the jury is still out as to how this combined league will be financially viable long-term under the burden of inflated guaranteed contracts and player availability and commitments. The first cracks in the new deal came just a month later, in October, when Steve Kuhn, the founder of MLP abruptly resigned after his plan to expand MLP by selling more teams was rejected by team owners for violating the terms of the merger agreement. For now, players and tournament organizers are moving forward with the next stops on the PPA and MLP tours. Players on the PPA tour have the opportunity to compete against the recognized best players in the world in traditional bracket play and can enjoy the excitement and fast-paced team-based MLP action.
The newest pro league on the block provides pickleball with a twist. PBX https://www.pbxpickleball.com/ is the first team pickleball tour featuring retired pro athletes from MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL, and the Olympics. In partnership with professional sports alumni associations, PBX Pickleball enables amateur players to take the court with some of their sports heroes. To date, PBX has signed more than 40 sports legends including NBA star Rick Barry, Major League Baseball’s Matt Holliday, John Smoltz, and Tino Martinez, Patrick Sharp and Kris Draper from the NHL, college football coaching legend Urban Meyer, and 3x Olympic swimming gold medalist Brooke Bennet.
The number of new pickleball leagues appearing on the scene in the last couple of years is just the latest evidence of the growth of the sport. As pickleball matures, look for additional consolidation and mergers to continue as leagues vie for more control and to take advantage of the synergies between leagues. For now, the new leagues provide more opportunities for amateur players to compete in professionally run tournaments and enable pros the financial freedom to pursue their pickleball dreams full-time.