It’s not often that we get the chance to live through the invention and ascension of a sport into popular culture. American football dates back to the Civil War era. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. FIFA was founded in 1904. But thanks to a man named Joel Pritchard trying to entertain his kids one summer in 1965, we may be watching the birth of a new major sport.
Pickleball has taken off in popularity over the past couple of years, spurred on by its widespread appeal throughout age groups, as well as its socially-distanced nature that made it a popular option during the pandemic. A sport described as a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, the activity once thought of as a way to pass the time and stay active for retirees skyrocketed in popularity and is making its way to the big leagues. Stephen Colbert is hosting a pickleball-centered celebrity special later this year, produced by CBS Sports, and celebs including Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Brees, and Larry David are already pickling aficionados.
In January of last year, the Economist named pickleball the “fastest-growing sport in America,” and that may have been more prescient than anyone knew. Nearly 5 million Americans played in 2021, contributing to an 11.5 percent% average annual growth rate for the sport for the past five years. But it’s not just in your neighborhoods — pickleball is going pro. The only question is which direction it’s headed, because, as with the humble beginnings of many a popular sport, no one can agree on anything.
This week, Major League Pickleball will kick off its second ever season, expanding from eight teams in 2021 to twelve in 2022. There was an MLP draft over Memorial Day weekend, during which clubs including the Florida Smash, ATX Pickleballers, and Mad Drops Pickleball Club selected players for mixed doubles as well as men’s and women’s doubles and singles teams. You may recognize some of the MLP team owners’ names — famous author and lecturer Brené Brown, Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry, and retired tennis pro James Blake count themselves among the growing ownership group.
But don’t get it twisted — MLP is not the only pro pickleball league in the picture. In fact, there are some decently high-profile pickleball feuds that make the future of the sport seem pretty uncertain — and I’m not just talking about arguing with the tennis diehards over who gets reign of the local courts.
Outside of the MLP, which is a league-style association, there exist two tours, as well — the Association of Pickleball Professionals and the Professional Pickleball Association (no, not the same thing, though it may sound like it). The MLP is “allied” with the APP, but the PPA bans its athletes from competing in any outside tours or leagues. There are also two international governing bodies for the sport — the International Federation of Pickleball and the World Pickleball Federation. And they’re all grappling against each other for power in what may prove to be an incredibly lucrative venture if one gets in on the ground floor.
Among the national tours and leagues and international governing bodies, there is a unifying goal: Getting the sport to the Olympics, which would legitimize it and help grow its popularity beyond any pro league. However, in order for that to happen, there needs to be 75 countries with national governing bodies participating.
The United States has the USAP, which helped to found the IFP, but then left the IFP over irreconcilable differences just a few months ago, thus removing 90 percent of IFP membership. They may end up in the WPF who, along with the IFP, has been on a mission to recruit as many countries as possible into their respective federations. The first to reach 75 countries will likely be the one that lasts, and therefore the one that gets all that good revenue that comes along with governing a major sport.
There are also open personal feuds between executives at WPF and USAP, as leaders have different visions for the future of pickleball and refuse to compromise or concede. There are now two Halls of Fame for pickleball, which does seem like two too many, but alas.
In the thrilling but unstable construction of what they hope will be a new sensation, one appreciates the settled nature of the NBA, MLB, and NFL. They’re debating over designated hitters and salary caps, not trying to outdo rival leagues over petty disputes. They come with their detriments as well, to be sure, but they do teach the pickleball powers that be that in order to really succeed, you can’t have two separate professional leagues. Have as many divisions and conferences as you’d like, but they’ve got to fall under one umbrella.
The AFL and NFL had to merge, the American League and National League combined under one umbrella, and the APP and PPA are likely facing the same fate. Otherwise, the fighting will do them in, and take the sport and all its potential down with them.