The world's first pickleball tournament was held in 1976 at South Center Athletic Club in Tukwila, Washington. In 1984, the United States Amateur Pickleball Association (USAPA) was formed and tasked with growing the sport of pickleball. In 2019, the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) launched and is considered the first USA pickleball-sanctioned tour for professionals and amateurs.
Today, there are three professional pickleball leagues, the aforementioned APP, the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), and Major League Pickleball (MLP). There is also Minor League Pickleball, which serves as a feeder league into the MLP.
With all these different leagues and tours and news of investments into new teams and leagues by celebrities and athletes from other sports, it's challenging to keep it all together.
But we are here to help. Today's article discusses the different professional pickleball tours, including the differences between them and a look into what the future of pickleball might look like down the road.
The Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) is an organization that was founded in 2018 with the mission to grow, promote, and support the sport of pickleball professionally. The APP sanctions tournaments to ensure quality standards are upheld, providing a good spectator experience, strengthening the exposure of the sport within mainstream media, and enhancing advancement opportunities for players. APP's core values focus on integrity and fairness, which brings together all stakeholders in pickleball to create an ever-growing and vibrant community on a global scale.
The 2022 APP Tour has over $2 million in prize money for professional athletes. The Tour encourages all players, both professional and amateur, to play in global tournaments to qualify for the season-ending championship, The APP Masters.
The APP Tour has 32 tournaments scheduled for 2022 and 20 tour stops scheduled for 2023. There are four major tournaments and two championship events, offering opportunities for open pros, senior pros, super senior pros, and amateurs. The APP remains focused on providing all player athletes, professional and amateur, access to competitive APP tournaments.
Some of the top pros according to APP include:
- Jorja Johnson (Women's)
- Anna Bright (Women's)
- Andrea Koop (Women's)
- Beth Bellamy (Sr Women's)
- Julie Johnson (Sr Women's)
- Eva Welsher (Sr Women's)
- JW Johnson (Men's)
- Zane Navratil (Men's)
- Dylan Frazier (Men's)
- Rick Witsken (Sr Men's)
- Mircea Morariu (Sr Men's)
- Paul Olin (Sr Men's)
Founded around 2017-2018, the Professional Pickleball Association is a professional trou for the sport of pickleball that organizes events that award players almost $3 million in annual prize money. While the APP seems to be geared more toward welcoming players of all skill levels, the PPA's focus is more on signing top pros to exclusive contracts and bringing a more "polished" game to the courts.
According to this Sports Illustrated article:
"The PPA signed some of the world’s top pros to one-year exclusivity contracts. In exchange for guaranteed appearance fees, they would need to recuse themselves from nearly all APP events, essentially declaring themselves PC or Mac. The APP made no such stipulation."
This includes the pro that many consider to be the best in the world, Ben Johns.
Similar to other major league sports, the MLP has an annual draft with an influx of professional pickleballers for their teams. Unlike other major league sports, the MLP also offers a unique format of mixed genders, amateur players, and skill levels. They call it MLPlay.
Take a look at this rundown of the MLPlay rules from their website:
"MLPlay™ is an innovative pickleball format involving professional or amateur players of mixed genders and/or skill-levels competing as a team against other teams. For MLP pro pickleball competitions, team matches are composed of four games (women’s doubles, men’s doubles, and two mixed doubles), with a unique Dreambreaker™ singles tiebreaker. At times, modified scoring is used, and there is typically some form of alternating disclosure of a team’s line-up and/or singles rotational order. Access the full rules document here."
The Premier Level teams are represented by some of the best players in the world, including Ben Johns and Anna Leigh-Waters.
Major League Pickleball is perhaps the "purest" of the leagues. According to their mission, "We believe pickleball makes the world a better, more joyful place. From thrilling events and experiences to high-quality live broadcasts for fans around the world, our goal is to elevate and grow the sport we love in everything we do."
You can learn more about the league and its 2023 draft here.
Minor League Pickleball (https://minorleaguepb.net/)
Minor League Pickleball is a league that's providing opportunities for anyone to make the jump from amateur to pro. If you want to be seen and considered for the majors, the minor leagues are where you want to begin. This is a brand-new league offering tournaments, prize money, and innovative play formats across the country. See the 2023 Event Schedule here.
The Future of Pickleball
On many fronts, the future of pickleball looks brighter than ever! There is a ton of money and investment funds going into leagues, players, and ownership groups. And the demand seems higher than ever. Behind the scenes, there is some concern, though.
According to Si.com,"There are: Too many leagues. Too many federations. Battling billionaires. Bad behavior. And the growth of a booming sport is on the line."
One argument presented in the article mentions how other major league sports don't have multiple leagues competing against each other. Though, with the newly reformed XFL and the second-year USFL for professional American football, perhaps the landscape of major league sports is changing.
Perhaps we only need to look at the recent merger announcement between Vibe and MLP in November of 2022 to give us pickleball fans hope that cooler heads will find a way to prevail for the sake of the sport and its fans. The PPA also seems to be relaxing some of its previous restrictions on its players from other leagues so they can play in non-PPA events. See Ben Johns playing for the Seattle Pioneers in MLP.
There's also optimism in the amount of exposure professional pickleball is getting. In August of 2022, CBS announced that it would provide a live broadcast of a PPA tour event, marking the first time a professional event was shared on a major broadcast channel.
Even celebrities are getting into the mix of playing pickleball in front of national audiences. "Pickled" aired in mid-November and was hosted by comedian and "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert on CBS.
Ultimately, of course, the sport of pickleball and its future lies in the hands of those who play it, watch it, and live it each day. As long as there are people to root for players and teams, whether in the stands or on the screen, there will be a bright future for pickleball.
The future of pickleball looks bright, with professional leagues and tournaments popping up all over the world. With new investment funds pouring into teams, players, and ownership groups, as well as broadcasters like CBS providing a platform for the sport to be seen by national audiences, it's clear that there is momentum behind this rapidly growing game. The key will be finding ways to bring together various organizations in order to ensure continued success while still allowing competitive play between different entities.
Whatever happens next in pickleball’s journey toward becoming an even bigger global phenomenon remains to be seen—but at least we know that people (like you!) are rooting for its progress every step of the way!