If you’re reading this post, you probably already know that pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport. The game has evolved from its recreational roots to its competitive roots. The competition is intense, both on and off the pickleball courts. The world of competing professional pickleball organizations is complex. Well-to-do investors jumped in and allied with one organization or the other.
The growing popularity of the sport and the communities that have sprung up around it have created the need for rules, regulations and organizations to govern and develop the game. Professional leagues, associations and governing bodies have become part of the pickleball landscape. However, not all organizations play well together. As organizations compete for prominence and dominance, arguments and deals ensue, leading to power shifts.
As they say, it’s complicated!
Here’s a general look at what’s going on in the world of professional pickleball organizations.
US Pickleball (USAP), formerly known as the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), it is now the oldest and most established pickleball-related organization in the United States. Their website reads:USA Pickleball is the national governing body for the sport of pickleball in the USA and provides players with official rules, tournaments, rankings and promotional materials.“
USAP promotes the development and growth of pickleball in the United States and has published and updated manuals for recreational and tournament play. Annually updated USAP manual it has been adopted by most amateur clubs and recreational players for both tournament and recreational play. Events such as the National Championship Series use the USAPA Tournament Player Ratings” (UTPR) a system for evaluating and putting players into tournament play.
However, when it comes to USAP’s influence on professional pickleball organizations, things get complicated.
Professional Pickleball Association (PPA)
In the last two years, PPA has become a well-known professional pickleball tour operator. The PPA is not affiliated with the USAP and therefore does not require its professional players to be USAP members. The PPA’s strategic relationship with MLP and its wealthy sponsors has successfully attracted many of the top professionals in the game. Top PPA players can enjoy higher cash prizes and entry fees in exchange for exclusivity and commitment to play a certain number of tournaments each year. PPA tournaments do not strictly follow USAP rules. The PPA allowing “allowing” to serve is a notable departure from USAP rules.
The PPA already boasts annual cash prizes that exceed $5.0 million. Prominent known PPA sponsors include Carvana, CIBC, Hertz, Baird Wealth Management and others. Pickleball’s popularity is not lost in the big media. ABC, Fox, CBS, ESPN, YouTube, and Tennis Channel are some media outlets that air or stream selected PPA pickleball games. The PPA uses Pickleball’s dynamic universal ranking (DUPR) to rate your players. The PPA player standings shows who’s who in pickleball. The fact that some of these players have exclusive deals does not bode well for competing organizations like APP.
Pickleball Professionals Association (APP)
Founded in 2019, The APP is an official USAP pickleball pro tour partner. All APP tournaments are sanctioned by the USAP and are played under its rules. The APP organizes and runs tournaments involving professionals, senior professionals, amateurs and collegiate players. While the APP does not have exclusive deals with players, USAP membership is a requirement to play in APP tournaments. In 2022, annual prize money in APP tournaments totaled $2 million. However, the recent PPA-MLP strategic partnership and exclusive deals with top players could mean a decline in talent for future APP tournaments.
APP sponsors are more focused on pickles, z row manufacturers, retailers and other majorities. To use a tennis analogy, the APP may be more like the ATP Challenger Series than the Grand Slams or Masters 1000 tournaments.
Major League Pickleball
In the current model, Major League Pickleball (MLP) is all about team play. Like other major leagues like the NBA and MLB, team owners pick the best professional pickleball players for their four-team teams using hose design format. The MLP has 24 participating teams, with the top 12 ranked teams playing in the Premier League and the rest in the Challenger League. Each unit consists of two men and two women and plays custom format matches that include women’s doubles, men’s doubles, mixed doubles, and potential overtime singles, which the MLP calls DreamBreaker.
It’s safe to say that MLP caused a stir in celebrity circles. From successful tech investors to sports superstars, Hollywood stars and social media stars, MLP doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding investors to buy their expansion teams. With the PPA alliance, the MLP came out strong in 2023 and announced aggressive plans to further expand the league in 2024. MLP’s sponsors are the Margaritaville restaurant/bar chain and the Michelob Ultra beer company, owned by Anheuser-Busch.
MLP competes with APP and USAP for pickleball fans and their money. However, in a rare show of solidarity, MLP, PPA and USAP recently announced a joint effort implement paddle testing and compliance standards using modern equipment.
International Pickleball Federation
IPF, initially founded in 2010 as the International Pickleball Federation, is the global governing body for pickleball. USA, Canada, Spain and India were inaugural members of the IFP. Over the years, the IPF has attracted 60 countries to join its group to promote pickleball around the world. The IPF provides consistent rules and guidelines for sanctioned tournaments around the world. In addition to organizing and running international tournaments, the IPF also supports the development of players, officials, coaches and other pickleball functions around the world. The goal of the IPF is to gather enough fans and interest in pickleball for it to be included as an Olympic sport in the future.
However, the situation in the IPF is not rosy. In March 2022, nine major member countries of the IPF withdrew from the organization, citing “lack of confidence” in the current president and IPF operations. With the abandonment of the United States, Canada, Spain, Australia, the Czech Republic, England, France, Mexico and the Philippines, IPF may have lost considerable clout in the heart of Pickleball and other major markets around the world.
World Pickleball Federation (WPF)
WPF is another global pickleball governing body with similar goals and aspirations to the IPF. The WPF is a direct competitor to the IPF and organizes itself as various federations representing continents around the world. WPF raises awareness of pickleball internationally by seeking sponsors and elevating the profile of its professional players. In addition to hosting WPF-sanctioned international tournaments, it provides member countries with access to revenue-raising opportunities, teacher training, and computer programs for clubs and tournaments.
The misadventures of IPF can bring benefits to WPF. With 39 countries in the fold and counting, the WPF could potentially step in and take over the international role the IPF has played for the pickleball community. Most of the countries that left the IPF in search of a new home are now members of the WPF. It would bode well for WPF to remember that it is much easier to retain existing members than to try to recruit new ones. WPF’s recent decision to make it more of a member-based organization seems to be a step in the right direction.
Perhaps we haven’t seen the end yet
The world of competing pickleball organizations is constantly changing. Many competitions have not yet been fully played out. While the gold rush continues, Fortune 500 companies like Anheuser-Busch are entering the MLP mix. Pickleball organizations will be more profit oriented than ever before. The face of the game as a sport for seniors will have to recede into the background.
This is good for the professional side of the sport.
What about the recreation part? All right! Keep calm and carry on…