Humble Beginnings

Humble Beginnings

Melissa McCurley, now part of the executive leadership team at the APP, continues to give to the sport of pickleball

Deborah Lew
|
February 16, 2024
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On past holidays, it had been potato sack races, ping pong, checkers, darts, and other games - but on Christmas Day in 2007 Aunt Evelyn brought a pickleball set to Melissa McCurley’s family Christmas in Texas…and nothing was ever the same again.

Eventually Christmas pickleball turned into Thanksgiving pickleball and “so late” pickleball they installed shop lights in the driveway to play on into the night. All the while, McCurley believed that they were the only ones who knew what pickleball was.

Greg playing pickleball and Melissa taking video on Christmas, 2007.

That all changed in 2010 when a girl on McCurley’s tennis team in Phoenix, Arizona announced that her dad was a national pickleball champion, and McCurley couldn’t believe her ears. She was sent to check out the national pickleball tournament that November in Buckeye, Arizona and she realized that she and her family, were not alone on the pickleball island after all. There was, in fact, life, and a lot of it.

After living away from her mother for 21 years as she attended college at Arizona State University, joined the military and became a hospital corpsman in the Navy - including a stint with Operation Desert Storm - and climbing the corporate ladder at Electronic Data Systems, which was part of Ross Perot’s Information Technology Services Company, she convinced her mom, Linda, and her stepdad, Bruce, to move to Arizona with her…for the pickleball.

In February of 2011 after selling their home in Texas, Linda and Bruce moved into an active adult community in Surprise, Arizona, where there was pickleball court after pickleball court, and shortly thereafter, Linda started playing tournaments with a regular partner. After her promotion to global service delivery executive at EDS, McCurley was working 100 hours per week and didn’t have as much time to play pickleball as she would have liked. But one day, Linda needed a last-minute tournament parter, so McCurley stepped in.

“We won a silver medal that day and the tournament director did let me know, when he was presenting the medals, that my mother usually won gold,” McCurley recalls, chuckling.

Medal color aside, that day turned out to be an important one in McCurley’s pickleball path, as it was then that some of Linda’s pickleball acquaintances invited McCurley to play pickleball on Sundays with them. She accepted, and when she arrived at the courts to play, she met a woman by the name of Jettye Lanius, whose husband, Bob, had created a tool called pickleballtournaments.com. Jettye knew that Melissa was in information technology and because what started out as a hobby was turning into a business, asked if Melissa would take a look at what they had built.

Three months later, in the summer of 2014, after evaluating the system, Melissa and her brother, Greg, decided to buy pickleballtournaments.com.

“There were others that were interested in buying it, but it was important to them that they put it in the hands of somebody that they felt was going to be able to carry it forward,” explains McCurley. “Sure, they didn’t know me and I did not know them, but one thing I knew was that what they had done was basically plant seeds that would ultimately allow pickleball to explode to the place through competition that it is today. And that was an important legacy for me to care for properly.”

Melissa and Greg signing the contract to buy pickleballtournaments.com in 2014.

At the time, there were 93 tournaments on the software, and approximately 15,000 users. There were only three tournaments nationwide that those under the age of 50 could even play in, the top two players in the country were in their 60s, and there were two paddle manufacturers.

When she and Greg decided to take on pickleballtournaments.com, McCurley went to her boss and told him what she wanted to do.

“I couldn’t have been prepared for what his response was,” McCurley recalls. “He said he wanted me to be successful, so he asked if I would stay on part-time as a consultant while he paid me my full-time salary. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe it.”

For the first three years, McCurley continued to work with American Express, her client at the time, while traveling all over the country on her own dime, renting her home to make ends meet, and living out of a motorhome, all to teach people how to run pickleball tournaments on the system. Ultimately, Melissa’s tenacity, dedication and commitment built a brand reputation for a platform that now runs over 1200 tournaments a year, and boasts 400,000 users globally. This year, in 2024, Pickleball Tournaments celebrates its 20th anniversary.

The US Open in 2023 - 5155 matches was a record for most ever in a tournament, which still holds today.

One of the most poignant moments from McCurley’s career came in 2017. Pickleballtournaments.com had grown exponentially in a short amount of time, investors were coming out of the woodwork wanting to buy or merge with her business, and McCurley felt like none of them were the right fit to carry forward an entity which, at the time, was the foundation of the entire sport. But at Nationals in 2017, McCurley went to bid farewell to Anna Copley, one of the founders of Pickleball Central, and Copley asked her if she had a minute to chat with the Pickleball Central CEO about the possibility of an acquisition or merger.

“That was a game-changing moment for me and for Pickleball Tournaments because I knew that with all the things and the people that were coming at me wanting to be a part of it, they were the right company for me to merge with - they share the same core values as I did on serving the sport and they had come into the sport in 2006 so they had already been on for 11 years,” McCurley shares.

The following month, in December, McCurley flew out to Seattle, where Pickleball Central was based, and after presentations were made by both sides, in February of 2018 the merger was done - Pickleball Tournaments and Pickleball Central were one.

McCurley’s desire to serve the sport of pickleball comes from her innate desire to give in general.

“I think for me, it’s part of my makeup to want to serve, to want to help - to take the skills and talents that I have been blessed with, and share them in a good way for others,” McCurley maintains.

There are certainly a plethora of skills and talents to share, as building and executing an elite worldwide pickleball tournament platform is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of McCurley’s contributions to the sport. She was the first female pickleball broadcaster ever when she made her debut on CBS Sports Network; she was the first co-host of a syndicated pickleball show; and she co-created pickleball’s first algorithmic data-driven rating system. She has been awarded numerous honors, including the Pickleball Industry Service Award from Racquet Sports Industry; the Hardest Working Person in Pickleball by the Tournament of Champions, the first professional tournament; the Most Influential Person in Pickleball by multiple sports media outlets; the US Open Impact Award by the US Open; and a 2023 nomination to the Pickleball Hall of Fame, just to name a few. She is a 5.0 pickleball player in her own right and has taught pickleball in camps and clinics all over the United States and in Canada. She has also served in an advisory capacity to every major pickleball tournament operating entity, both commercial and non-profit.

“Life is bigger than you are, and the more you give, the more you get back,” says McCurley, a self-proclaimed ‘old soul.’ “Pickleball has taught me that this life is not what you try to control, but what you try to contribute. And do so with a pure heart that truly, truly, genuinely wants to make a difference and serve others.”

The return on investment has indeed been significant for McCurley, but perhaps none more so than in 2022 when the APP named the first senior pro team event the Melissa McCurley Cup.

“The biggest and most amazing day in my life and pickleball was the APP honoring what I’ve done for the game by creating the Melissa McCurley Cup,” McCurley concedes, holding back tears. “I came in to see how much fun people were having, and the opportunity to tell my story for the first time in that manner, and to be able to celebrate the seniors that were playing a team event and that event being named after me - it’s the most amazing thing that’s probably ever happened to me.”

It would be easy to imagine that this is why McCurley chose to eventually make her way to the APP team, but that wouldn’t exactly be truthful.

In 2021, Pickleball Tournaments and Pickleball Central were sold to Dundon Capital Planning, after which McCurley chose to stay on for another two years. She retired this past October, but anyone who has read up until this point knows that someone going 1000 miles per hour doesn’t just dial it back to a mile an hour without some conflict. Naturally McCurley had her choice of suitors beckoning her to come out of retirement.

Ken Herrmann, founder of the APP, was one such suitor.

“I have known Ken since 2018, and he actually showed up at a tournament that I was running in Owensboro, Kentucky in 2019,” McCurley chronicles. “He called me and said ‘Melissa, can I get in? I want to get into singles.’ He’s like ‘I’m driving six hours from Chicago.’ Well, I’ve never met him, right, so I said ‘sure.’ So he comes, he plays, and he comes up to my desk and he starts telling me about this pro tour thing that he wants to do and it’s called Mid South Southern or something like that. But then he goes ‘is anyone else doing this?’ And at the time, it was no - nobody is doing this.”

That day in Owensboro, McCurley went on to counsel Herrmann on what to do and what not to do in order to raise his pickleball rating, and that’s how their relationship began. Shortly after that, with an obviously well-advised name change, Herrmann launched the APP Tour. Pickleballtournaments.com then signed with the APP Tour to provide all of the registration and tournament desk management services.  

Fast forward five years later to 2024. Taking into account all of this history, and the fact that Herrmann was unwilling to take “no” for an answer, McCurley became the APP’s executive vice president of competition.

“Ken and Intersport, the people that are part of the organization, they have the same and share the same vision and core values that I have, as it relates to how to best grow the sport, and doing things the right way, for the right reasons, doing right by people,” emphasizes McCurley. “That is something that’s very important to me. So it made it an easy fit and the right home for me to continue to contribute to pickleball.”

While the thought of getting to spend her retirement on the waters near her home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, catching shrimp and crab for her omelettes and garlic butter noodles was appealing, it would probably be a challenge to find someone who is surprised McCurley is once again back in the pickleball game. This includes McCurley herself, who is looking forward to what lies ahead in her new chapter with the APP.

“I want to be able to provide that leadership presence that empowers and enables the organization to do great things in a way that makes people excited to come to work and makes people excited to come and be a part of the events that we offer for people to play pickleball, to be introduced to pickleball, and for people to have a path to enter pickleball and perhaps make it a career as a professional one day in the future,” expresses McCurley. “Right now, we are all - including the pro players that are playing - we are all pioneers of this sport. And everything that we’re creating today is going to create opportunities for people tomorrow. And who gets a chance to do that? We truly are getting an opportunity that only comes once.”

If anyone is an example of taking advantage of opportunities, it’s McCurley. She didn’t however, do it alone. She had the help of supportive friends and family, who arguably became just as immersed in the pickleball scene as she did. Linda was on the road with her daughter for 10 years, helping to run pickleball tournaments just to see McCurley succeed. Linda now plays pickleball every day, competes on a regular basis, and won a silver medal at Nationals in 2017. She and Bruce, who is also an avid pickleball player, live not far from McCurley, so there are weekly mother-daughter pickleball sessions, which take them back to the days when they were winning tournaments together, including a bronze medal at Canadian Nationals. Currently, Greg teaches pickleball in Nevada, and McCurley’s sister and cousins also still play. Not bad for something that started out as a driveway pastime.

Not to knock a good sports game in the driveway, for some of the most famous champions of all time were born from humble beginnings of hockey, basketball, baseball or soccer in their parents’ driveways.

Now, add Melissa McCurley and pickleball to that list.

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