Many of the fans who packed the stands at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa’s Center Court Friday night came to catch a glimpse of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Phelps squaring off in a celebrity pro-am pickleball match.
While there, they also saw some of the Professional Pickleball Association’s best players in action. Those pros hope special events like Friday’s match will accelerate the already rapid growth of the sport, which combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis.
The featured match between the 23-time Olympic gold medalist Phelps and former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Fitzgerald was part of the PPA’s 2022 season-opening event, the Carvana Desert Ridge Open. Both praised the sport and its pros, who rotated playing with and against both celebrity athletes in a series of matches throughout the night.
“Being able to watch these men and women out here that compete at the highest level, it’s ridiculous,” Phelps said. “It’s so impressive watching them. Skills, technique, every little thing they do, this is awesome for me.”
Fitzgerald described it as “a great sport” and said, “I loved the competition. It keeps you active. I hope more people play it.”
The participation of athletes like Fitzgerald and Phelps speaks to the sport’s dramatic upward trajectory. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Topline Participation Report, pickleball’s player base grew by more than 20% from 2019 to 2020.
Even though most of the sport’s “core” players – described as people who play pickleball eight or more times in a year – are in older demographic groups, more people in the 8-34 age group are picking up the game as “casual” players, or people who play the sport 1-7 times in a year.
And pickleball courts are popping up everywhere, with some cities and towns repurposing unused tennis courts to take advantage of the craze.
Pickleball is also experiencing rapid growth at the elite level. USA Pickleball’s national championship tournament has grown from more than 400 players in the inaugural 2009 event to more than 2,300 players in 2021.
The 2022 Carvana Desert Ridge Open also marked the PPA’s first event under new ownership. In January, Tom Dundon, owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, bought a majority stake in the PPA and Pickleball Central, the world’s largest online retail store exclusively devoted to pickleball.
Connor Pardoe, the PPA commissioner, described it as a boon for the sport to have the backing of Dundon, who helped the Hurricanes break a decade-long playoff drought in his first season as the owner.
“The changes are going to take a little bit of time, but it means a lot for the sport to have someone like that who really wants to jump in and see the sport done the right way,” Pardoe said. “I think we’re on the right track.”
The PPA’s players also are excited to have Dundon on board.
“I think what he’s doing, and what his vision is, is great for the sport,” said Jessie Irvine, the fourth-ranked player in the PPA women’s doubles rankings. “It’s the right direction. It’s going to make things more professional, more legitimate. And ultimately, that’s what we need for the sport to grow.”
Pat Smith, another member of the tour, agreed.
“With his knowledge in owning an NHL franchise, I think he’s the absolute right guy to do that,” Smith said.
Dundon’s investment is not the only sign that the interest in the sport and the PPA’s potential is growing. The tour has recently received backing from multiple major sponsors and television networks.
In July, Fox Sports signed on to televise at least 12 PPA events, eight of which are upcoming on this year’s schedule. The tour also signed a deal with Tennis Channel that began in September with the 2021 PPA Orlando Cup.
The Desert Ridge event marked the tour debut of Carvana. The Tempe-based used car retailer signed a deal with the PPA on Jan. 6. Over the past four months, the tour also has agreed to sponsorships with Guaranteed Rate and Select Medical.
Pardoe believes the long-term future of the PPA will be bright if the tour can build on the personalities of its best players.
“It’s been really fun to see where these players have gone from two years ago to now, really just becoming household names, creating fans, creating stories behind them,” Pardoe said. “I think that’s really what we’re looking for, is to really be able to tell the story of pickleball and showcase the talent that we have on tour.”
Irvine would like to see more young people exposed to pickleball.
“Eventually, I think the goal is to kind of get it into schools, high schools, colleges,” Irvine said.
She also has an even bigger long-term goal in mind.
“The endgame, I think, is the Olympics,” Irvine said. “That’s kind of what we are all hoping is that eventually it will be an Olympic sport.”
Meanwhile, if the PPA wants another celebrity to help raise the profile of the tour and the sport, Friday’s event made a fan out of another NFL athlete.
Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk, who started playing pickleball last year, according to Fitzgerald, said Friday was the first pickleball match he had ever attended.
“I love how fast it’s been able to grow in the community that’s around it,” said Kirk, who described the pros as “true athletes that really take pride in their craft.”
He said, “What they’re able to do on the court is just nothing short of amazing.”
Would he take part in a future celebrity pro-am event?
“Definitely,” Kirk said.
He conceded that it might not happen anytime soon.
“My game also needs to get a little better for me to be able to step on the court,” Kirk said.
Story by Nicholas Hodell, Cronkite News