I first heard of pickleball when I was a senior in high school back in 2016. My mom, who played college tennis, had started playing in Palo Alto, CA after her knees got too bad to keep playing tennis. I played with her very casually whenever I’d come home from college, but never took the sport seriously. I didn’t see any other young people on the courts, and I was already focused on tennis as a practice player for my college team. Plus, whenever I’d check out the big pickleball tournaments online, they didn’t look particularly exciting.
Fast forward to this year – with college finished and the pandemic in full swing, I got back into pickleball and started playing almost every day after work. It was way easier and a ton more fun than trying to find tennis hits as a post-college adult living in a new city.
Then, a video of the 2021 US Open randomly popped up on my Youtube feed…. and I spent the next several hours down the rabbit hole of pro pickleball. I couldn’t believe how much had changed — the US Open was covered by CBS Sports, there were 2 professional circuits with tournaments across the country, prize purses had increased exponentially, and tons of brands were popping up with new paddle lines. Plus, the game level of the top pros seemed to have reached a whole new level. I was sold, and this summer I decided to give pro tournaments a try.
When I made the decision to start playing pro tournaments, I’ll be honest that I didn’t think it through very much. I naively assumed that I’d do pretty well (having never played against pros before) and then somehow more opportunities would follow. I moved to New York City in July, so I first signed up for the New Jersey and Philadelphia APP tournaments.
It turns out that entering the pro circuit involves a TON of challenges that most pickleball fans (my former self included) have no idea about. As I’ve quickly figured out, with the way tournaments are currently set up, it’s close to impossible for new players to break into the world of pro pickleball.
The first challenge comes with tournament selection and accessibility – there are two competing pro circuits to choose from, the PPA and the APP. For a new player, it’s not exactly clear what makes each organization distinct and which tournaments are best to start with. PPA tournaments generally have more prize money and bigger draws, but most of their tournaments are concentrated farther away on the west coast. Bigger draws also mean stiffer competition, which is tough for new players hoping to make inroads in their first tournaments.
Luckily, the APP held an east coast swing this summer and I signed up for two tournaments super close to New York. It was awesome to finally experience pro-level competition and I ended up placing decently well in singles both times, finishing in the final 12 in NJ and getting 4th place in Philly. I was pumped about solid showings in my first two tournaments, but I also quickly realized the second major barrier to entering the pro scene – money.
For me, the ultimate goal of trying my hand at pro tournaments is to do well enough that I can realistically travel the circuit throughout the year and compete consistently. I think any aspiring player has similar goals – whether it’s winning medals, making money, or getting sponsorships, the objective at the bottom of it all is making it financially sustainable to travel the country and continue playing more tournaments. Otherwise, I’d basically be paying $1,000 every few weeks to pursue a hobby.
Yet, after decent performances in my first tournaments, I was left with several hundred dollars down the drain and not much else to show for it. Tournament fees alone for pro divisions run at least $100 per event, and adding on costs for travel, lodging, and food means that a single tournament trip really does come close to $1000. As Rob Nunnery explained in more detail in the Cost of Going Pro post, it’s just plain unrealistic for anyone but the top few players to play tournaments frequently and not lose money.
The more I’ve learned about the pro pickleball world, the more I’ve also seen just how wide the disparity is in opportunities between the top players and everyone else. The handful of players who consistently medal at tournament events are able to recoup their travel costs or even make a small profit, but that’s 3-4 players out of dozens at each event. Those same 3-4 players are also the only ones who can earn the few paid sponsorships available. On top of that, many of the top players sign contracts for appearance fees with the PPA. This is a fantastic opportunity for those players and creates exciting tournament atmospheres for fans, but it means that the same players who usually win paid medals are getting paid to come to every tournament and win those medals… a pretty tough set up for an aspiring pro player.
Given this concentration of financial resources, I’ve also encountered more subtle disadvantages as a newcomer. If I want to maximize my chances of making money or even just having stronger tournament showings, I need to find top doubles partners for men’s doubles and mixed doubles events. But, that same handful of players who win medals is a small group with partners picked out months in advance.
Beyond tournament results, I’ve seen how important it is to try growing some sort of social media presence. With the barriers to entry when it comes to making money through tournament results, establishing an online presence is another way pro players try to make a name for themselves. I’m hoping this blog can be my first foray into the online pickleball world.
What I can control right now is working on my game and getting better. I’ve been drilling and playing almost every day (on the one real court that exists anywhere in Manhattan), and I’m playing the upcoming APP Atlanta tournament as well as the APP Next Gen Texas in November. It’s hard to financially justify traveling to more pro tournaments than that until I feel more confident about my game getting top results. My goal is to enter the 2022 season able to play a full tournament schedule without breaking the bank.
Written by Alex Neumann
Follow him on Instgram for a behind the scenes look at professional pickleball.