Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Phelps help spread pickleball fever

Many fans who filled the stands at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa’s Center Court on Friday night came out to catch a glimpse of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Phelps facing off in a celebrity pro-am pickleball match.

While there, they also saw some of the best players in the Professional Pickleball Association in action. These 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 star game between 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 with and against the two famous athletes in a series of matches throughout the night.

“To be able to watch these men and women here competing at the highest level is ridiculous,” Phelps said. “It’s so impressive to watch them. The skills, the technique, every little thing they do is awesome to me.

Fitzgerald described it as “a great sport” and said: “I loved the competition. It keeps you active. I hope more people will play it.

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The participation of athletes like Fitzgerald and Phelps testifies to the sport’s spectacular upward trajectory. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Topline Participation Report, the pickleball 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 a year – are from older demographics, more people in the 8-34 age group gamble as “casual” gamblers. , or people who practice sport 1 to 7 times a year.

And pickleball courts are popping up everywhere, with some cities and towns reallocating unused tennis courts to take advantage of the craze.

Pickleball is also growing rapidly at the elite level. The USA Pickleball National Championship Tournament has grown from over 400 players in the inaugural event in 2009 to over 2,300 players in 2021.

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps was part of a Professional Pickleball Association event at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa’s Center Court. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

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 dedicated to pickleball.

Connor Pardoe, the PPA commissioner, described it as a boon for the sport to have the support of Dundon, who helped the Hurricanes break a decade of playoff drought in his first season as owner.

“The changes are going to take a bit of time, but it means a lot to the sport to have someone like that who really wants to step in and see the sport unfold the right way,” Pardoe said. “I think we are on the right track.”

PPA players are also excited to have Dundon on board.

“I think what he does and what his vision is is great for the sport,” said Jessie Irvine, the No. 4 ranked PPA women’s doubles player. “It’s the right direction. It will make things more professional, more legitimate. And at the end of the day, that’s what we need for the sport to grow.

Fellow tour member Pat Smith agreed.

“With his knowledge as an NHL franchise owner, I think he’s absolutely the right person to do this,” Smith said.

Dundon’s investment isn’t the only sign that interest in the sport and potential for the PPA is growing. The tour has recently received support from several major sponsors and television networks.

In July, Fox Sports committed to televising at least 12 PPA events, eight of which are coming to the schedule this year. The tour also signed a deal with Tennis Channel which kicked off in September with the PPA Orlando Cup 2021.

The Desert Ridge event marked the debut of Carvana’s tour. The Tempe-based used-car retailer signed an agreement with the PPA on Jan. 6. Over the past four months, the tour has also accepted sponsorships with Guaranteed Rate and Select Medical.

Pardoe thinks the long-term future of the PPA will be bright if the tour can build on the personalities of its best players.

“It was really fun to see where these players have gone from two years ago to now, really 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 youngsters 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. “It’s kind of what we all hope 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 has made a fan of another NFL athlete.

Cardinals catcher Christian Kirk, who started playing pickleball last year, according to Fitzgerald, said Friday was the first pickleball game he has ever attended.

“I love how quickly he’s been able to grow in the community around him,” said Kirk, who described the pros as “real athletes who really take pride in their craft.”

He said: “What they are able to do on the pitch is just amazing.”

Would he attend a future celebrity pro-am?

“Certainly,” Kirk said.

He conceded that might not happen any time soon.

“My game also needs to improve a bit so I can get on the court,” Kirk said.

Story by Nicholas Hodell, Cronkite News

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