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Sports Strength

What is Pickleball? Everything You Need to Know About the Sport of the Future

Pickleball, once the bailiwick of retirement communities and high school gym classes, is now the fastest growing sport in America. Since 2020, pickleball’s player base has increased by nearly 40%, with the lionshare of that growth coming amongst younger players. While the game started as a humble lawn game and is named after some guy’s dog, it has recently become a relatively big business with a robust professional tour. Last month, Tom Dundon (the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes and the front-man for the now-defunct Alliance of American Football) purchased the Professional Pickleball Association. Similarly, another upstart promotion, Major League Pickleball, has a coterie of big-deal investors that’s headlined by tennis legend James Blake and Marc Lasry, the co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.

 In other words, pickleball will soon be a big deal, if it isn’t one already. Here’s everything you need to know about the sport of the future. 

What is pickleball?

Pickleball is essentially the midpoint between tennis and ping-pong. Like tennis, it’s largely played on outdoor courts—a pickleball court is roughly the size of the deuce and ad boxes on a tennis court; like ping-pong, the game is played with paddles instead of racquets and the ball is made of plastic (a pickleball is essentially a wiffleball with a more uniform and predictable perforation pattern). It’s a lot of fun.

What are the rules?

The number one rule is to enjoy yourself! But seriously, the rules are simple—hit the ball over the net and don’t hit it out of bounds. Besides that, the rules are mainly mechanisms to make games and rallies more fun. Namely, the ball needs to bounce on both the serve and the return before any volleys are allowed and there’s a no-volley zone directly in front of the net on both sides.  

Scoring-wise, the most unique rule is that you can only score points when you or your team is serving. If the server wins a rally, they earn a point; if the returner wins the point, they then get to become the server. On the professional tour, each “game” is won by the first player/team to score 11 points and each match is won by the first player/team to win three “games.”

Who are the best players?

Ben Johns, a 22 year-old college senior, is probably the best pickleballer in the world, ranked as the number one men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles player in the world. He’s the George Mikan or Johnny Unitas of pickleball, the sport’s first superstar who introduces the game to a broader audience. Outside of Johns, other notable men’s players are Collin Johns (Ben’s brother and doubles partner) and Tyson McGuffin, the #2 men’s player and the tattooed bad-boy of pickleball.

On the women’s side, Catherine Parenteau is the top-ranked competitor. A former college tennis player at the University of Arkansas and Michigan State University, Parenteau transferred her focus to pickleball in 2016 once she ran out of college eligibility. Interestingly, Parenteau was introduced to pickleball by Simone Jardin, the head tennis coach at Michigan State who herself moonlights as an elite pickleballer.

What are the biggest pickleball competitions?

Honestly, it’s still kind of hard to say. At this point, pickleball’s structure is similar to that of pro boxing, lacking a single, centralized governing body. Of the three professional pickleball tours, the Dundon-backed Professional Pickleball Association and the Austin-based Major League Pickleball seem to have the most juice. The PPA is probably the sport’s closest analogue to the ATP or PGA and oversees the Champions Cup, the PPA Open, the Toronto Cup, the PPA Championships and The Masters, which are considered the five “majors.” Outside of the “majors,” the Tournament of Champions in Brigham City, Utah and the US Open are considered to be marquee events.

Alternatively, Major League Pickleball seems like a combo of a pickleball super-league and hype house. Whereas the PPA events are open to anybody who qualifies, MLP consists of only 32 of the best players (including Ben Johns and Catherine Parenteau) and has the biggest purse of any tournament. MLP also hosts all of its events at its homebase in Austin, Texas, giving it the capacity to produce its own social content and promote the sport. 

Where can I watch?

The biggest events are available on ESPN+ with the finals of those tournaments even broadcasted on ESPN or ESPN2. Beyond those events, the PPA and MLP both livestream their tournaments on Youtube; the next PPA tournament is the Riverland Open, which takes place from March 10th-13th.

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Sports

What Is The Professional Pickleball Association?

High-level players are turning to the Professional Pickleball Association in significant numbers.

While many picklers choose to play recreationally at their local court, others set their sights higher.

For that reason, the PPA is one of the governing bodies that oversees professional growth.

The PPA hosts a number of events each year where players can compete for points, prizes and more.

[ MORE: Desmond Ridder is ready for ‘Demon Time’ ]

ONE37pm takes a closer look at the PPA and how it’s growing the sport.

What is the Professional Pickleball Association?

The PPA offers players the opportunity to compete at top venues and take home massive prize money.

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All events are streamed through their YouTube page. Additionally, events can be televised on CBS Sports, FOX Sports and Tennis Channel.

What Events Does the PPA Host?

This year, the PPA will be hosting 13 events between April and January 2023.

The season kicks off in April with the Red Rock Open.

This week, the PPA rolls on with the Invisalign Open 250 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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The organization’s majors for the year include the Acrytech Atlanta Open (Atlanta, GA), Baird Wealth Management Open (Cincinnati, OH), Guaranteed Rate Championships (Las Vegas, NV) and the Hyundai Masters (Palm Springs, CA).

How Much Can Players Earn On Tour?

The PPA uses a pay-per-round method, which gives players payment for winning each match beyond the Round of 32.

For example, when a player wins its Round of 32 and Round of 16 match, but loses in the quarterfinals they will still be paid out.

Major events pay the most money, roughly $160,000. Meanwhile, lowest-level tournaments, known as PPA 250s, still pay over $120,000 to the entire field.

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Sports Strength

Ben Johns is the Present (and Future) of Pickleball

Ben Johns, the top-ranked pickleball player in the world and one of the most accomplished athletes in the world, is a materials science major at the University of Maryland. By weekday, he studies advanced crystals and other monomeric soft matter materials; by weekend, he hoists trophies alongside his older brother, Collin, on the Professional Pickleball Assocation. This is an incredibly specific, smaller-scale Hannah Montana story, a thrilling double life, albeit one without the high-sheen Disney Channel packaging. 

For the uninitiated, pickleball is essentially a miniaturized version of tennis—the court is confined roughly to the size of a tennis court’s deuce and ad boxes; the ball is a modified wiffle ball; the players use paddles rather than racquets. Invented by former Washington congressman Joe Pritchard in 1965 as a impromptu family-friendly activity, pickleball has become America’s fastest growing sport, increasing its player base by 39.3 percent over the course of the pandemic; as of 2021, USA Pickleball estimated that about 4.8 million Americans play the game at least once a year.

As the national champion, Johns has become the de facto ambassador for pickleball. Like seemingly all great athletes nowadays, Johns is a serial entrepreneur with a growing portfolio of ventures ranging from Pickleball Getaways (a travel agency that runs pickleball-centric beach vacations) to a cryptocurrency index fund. But really, his primary extracurricular focus seems to be on promoting and amplifying the reach of the game; recently, he launched a Pickleball 360, instructional video company, and co-hosts The Freestyle Boys, the world’s preeminent pickleball podcast.

If the fame and attention that goes along with being the face of an increasingly major sport is going to Johns’ head, you’d never be able to tell. Even as he wins six-figure purses on the PPA and has a signature line of gear at Franklin Sports, Johns is endearingly regular; he’s a normal, nice, patient guy who just happens to be exceptionally good at this one thing. 

Last week, ONE37pm sat down with Johns to talk about balancing school with pickleball, his career, and the future of the sport at large. 

ONE37pm: How did you start playing pickleball?

Ben Johns: I first got into it when I was a junior in high school. It was around 2016 and I was in Naples, Florida, which was one of the first hotspots for the sport at the time. My brother was on the pro tennis tour at the time and I played tennis too, so I was his hitting partner. There were pickleball courts right by where we practiced, so I decided to just give it a go one day because it seemed like a fun game and I liked it enough that I kept coming back. You could say more that the game really found me. 

ONE37pm: At what point did you realize that you were abnormally good at this?

Ben Johns: During that first year that I was playing at home, I noticed that I was good, just results-wise. But I think the bigger thing was less about realizing that I was good and more about seeing the trajectory of the game itself and what was possible. 2019 was really when I started talking it seriously as a professional sport.

ONE37pm: Was there any specific moment when it first hit you that you were going to become a pro pickleball player?

Ben Johns: It hit me how big pickleball could be when I signed a contract with Franklin Sports in 2019. So once I saw that a very large sporting goods company was invested in pickleball and specifically me at the time, it opened my eyes to where the sport could potentially go down the line. Around the time I signed the deal, I kinda realized that I probably wasn’t going to become a material scientist [laughs].

ONE37pm: What do your friends and professors and other students think about your pickleball career?

Ben Johns: To be honest, I don’t really bring it up. If a competition interferes with an assignment or class or something, I’ll tell my professor that I’ll be out of town for a sporting event, but everybody has been very accommodating. My friends definitely know about it and think it’s cool, but I don’t think most people know much about it besides that I’m absent from class sometimes. 

ONE37pm: Why do you think pickleball has grown so much?

Ben Johns: The biggest thing is simply that the game is fun and accessible—you can play it without too much prior experience and be able to have rallies and play competitive points with your friends. Also, you can see yourself improving naturally as you play more and that’s very rewarding. 

Beyond that, there’s a really great, diverse community. Even just on the Pickleball Getaway trips, you see so many different people and different kinds of people and they’re all brought together because they love pickleball. Lots of older people have played pickleball for a while, but a lot of the recent growth has come from younger people. 

ONE37pm: How has the growth of the sport changed it?

Ben Johns: Competitively, there’s a lot more depth—there are more people playing at a high level and trying new things. The cool thing about pickleball is that we’re all still figuring it out—it’s only become big over the last few years, so everybody is still trying to discover the best way to play. 

Recently, there have been former tennis players from the ATP joining the PPA and they have introduced different strokes and ways of playing. For example, more and more guys are using a two-handed backhand, which is surprisingly a very effective shot, even if it wouldn’t seem like it should work on a small court with a light ball. 

ONE37pm: What do you think is the future of pickleball?

Ben Johns: When I first started playing, I never would’ve guessed that it would get to this level. Looking five or 10 or 15 years down the line, with the investment in the future of the sport, I can’t say for sure I know what it’ll look like, but I’m excited to find out.