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How The APP is Driving Pickleball's Innovation

How The APP is Driving Pickleball's Innovation

In the past few years, pickleball has become the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with 48.3 million adult Americans playing at least once in the 12 months to March, 2023.

Phil West
|
May 23, 2023
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Those who have dug into pickleball’s origins know about its humble beginnings via USA Pickleball’s detailed history of the game. A Washington state Congressman (Rep. Joel Pritchard) and a Seattle-based lawyer and businessman (Bill Bell) – on vacation with their families on Bainbridge Island near Seattle in 1965 — created the sport to liven up their weekend, and in the process created what is now a truly global phenomenon. 

In the past few years, pickleball has become the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with 48.3 million adult Americans playing at least once in the 12 months to March, 2023. The APP has been at the forefront of the sport’s immense growth and its ongoing innovation since its inception in 2019 as the first pro and amateur pickleball tour anywhere in the world — even, as the APP founder Ken Herrmann reveals, toward an especially ambitious goal of making it a demonstration sport in the Olympics as soon as possible. 

“One of our goals is to get pickleball into the Olympics, and in order to do that, we have to grow the sport internationally,” Herrmann said. “So as the International Federations and the APP work together, one of the best things we can do is continue to promote the sport by bringing tour events into more countries worldwide, and then bring some of the top pros from the U.S. along to compete, to be a motivation and inspiration for their fellow players in those countries.” 

Herrmann estimates that pickleball is being played in close to 90 countries around the world, with pickleball organizers in England, Spain and Sweden coordinating with the APP on events to grow the game to the levels needed for the International Olympic Committee to take notice — and to elevate the level of play in the U.S. and everywhere else in the process. 

From its inception, the APP has provided a home for professional pickleball players to compete at the highest level. The APP’s groundbreaking 2023 TV deal, forged with sports broadcasting mainstays CBS Sports and ESPN, gives the APP a firmer foundation and a broader reach than ever before, and larger participation numbers than ever for its APP Tour events indicates the growth and development of the sport, driven, in part, by the APP. 

And yet, the APP is not just geared toward the best of the best, opening its tournaments to amateur pickleball players who seek opportunities for competition outside their local circles, and even allowing high-ranking amateurs the ability to compete in qualifying tournaments for the chance to face off against the APP pros on tour. The APP prides itself on offering the same standards of attention and care to its amateur competitors as its pros, a core theme of the organization that resonates well with the people who compete in the APP events.

One of the innovations that helps amateurs develop their game is the creation of the APP Academy, under the direction of top pro, Andrei Daescu. Launched in January 2022 in conjunction with an APP Tour stop in Boca Raton, Fla., Herrmann says that the APP Academy “was launched to help give aspiring amateur players the opportunity to get on court with some of the top APP pros. It's been a big hit so far … It’s not just a chance for the amateurs to learn from the best players out there, it also more engagement opportunities for the pros with the grass roots of the game, and a way for them to meet their fans.” 

While the APP Academy clinics are geared more for enthusiasts looking to improve their game for their hometown competitions, rather than those with UTPR rankings of at least 4.5 who could potentially angle for spots in the APP competition, they’re helping elevate the overall level of the game via a direct passdown of knowledge from pros to amateurs. 

Another innovation that’s providing a bridge and making pro pickleball more competitive is the APP’s Next Gen program. The APP Next Gen started in San Antonio in November 2021 as a way to get aspiring young pros, ages 16 to 23, into competition, determining their readiness for the pro circuit. Now on a three-stop-per-year schedule, the tournaments — offering prize money for winners — also showcases the APP’s partnership with Chicken N Pickle, which hosts the annual events in San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City. Additionally, the APP recently launched the APP Next Gen National Team, the first-ever youth team, representing the USA, a group of young players who will receive enhanced coaching programs, and the opportunity to compete as a team abroad.

“Players that have gone to great fame right now, like a JW Johnson or Jorja Johnson or Dylan Frazier, they've all come through the APP Next Gen program,” Herrmann said. “And then we also get them wild card slots in the APP Tour stops to allow them to get themselves in the pro ranks. So as far as a development standpoint, that's how the APP is reaching its arms around these young aspiring pros, and offering a circuit for these players to gain valuable match-playing experience, and, if they reach the latter stages of the events, prize money.” 

Herrmann says that there’s also an APP collegiate program in the works, to be rolled out later in 2023, developing younger players through an additional route alongside the APP Next Gen pathway, but with an eye toward the next generation of pickleball stars. 

The APP has a number of other exciting programs in the works, including an international team event, a women-only World Championship tournament slated for 2024, to highlight those players in their own showcase event, and a tournament for players 50 and over, the 2024 APP Champions Cup. 

According to Herrmann, these will add to the “marquee events that we can build some excitement in and enthusiasm around.” There’s certainly plenty of buzz around pickleball these days, and the APP is generating much of that through growing the game at all levels, keeping an eye to the future, and even paving the way for the sport to become global in the truest sense of the word.” 

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