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How the University of Virginia's Pickleball Program Became a Blueprint for Collegiate Growth

by Jason Flamm on

Last fall, the University of Virginia bested 36 other universities to win the DUPR Collegiate National Championships.

This weekend, the Cavaliers will have four representatives competing in the DUPR Collegiate Individual National Championships.

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Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with a few of their players and board members to discuss what it is about UVA that sets their pickleball program apart from all the other universities playing pickleball competitively on campuses across the country.

How the UVA pickleball program began

As the story goes with many pickleball players today, when COVID shut everything down, there were only a few things left to do. Learning to play pickleball was one of them.

A student at UVA decided to hold an open call during the 2021 school year to see if anyone was interested in joining a pickleball club. According to Scotty Reynolds, who was one of the early members to join, only about 15 people showed up, and half of them didn't know how to play.

"I went to the first interest meeting, and it was in one of the classrooms in the Brown Library," says Scotty, the club's PR Chair. "It was really fun, but it wasn't very competitive ... then it just really grew from there."

That day started the obsession, and over the next couple of years, UVA Pickleball would grow into what it is today: a general club with over 550 players, 200 social team players, and 24 tournament players (which is 2-3x the size of most universities).

UVA is the biggest Collegiate pickleball program in the nation (based on participation) and their numbers continue to grow.

University of Virginia Pickleball

Of course, the club's growth wasn't accidental. Instead, it was the hard work of several people, including current board members Reynolds, Conor Burns (the previous President), and Ryan Flanagan (the incoming President), as well as those who came before them.

How UVA built itself as a brand

"When we're looking at the top 10 colleges in the collegiate scene, there's really not many schools that have a large brand value," Conor Burns says. "I believe that's what sets UVA apart from other universities. Even if we don't do well in tournaments, that's a huge differentiation for us."

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Burns went on to list the different aspects of UVA Pickleball and how they are able to be among the most sponsored Collegiate programs in the nation.

Some of those include:

  • A competitive tournament team that's 3-4 times the size of most tournament teams
  • Their organizational approach and how they structure their leadership team
  • They work with Top Notch Management – the only Collegiate team in the nation represented by any sports talent agency

They also have help from UVA Law students looking over contracts and pitching in wherever is needed to ensure their program thrives and does what's in the best interest of the school and its members.

"I don't think other schools have this," says Conor. "This is kind of almost a business in terms of the organization that's taking place and the implementation."

Thanks to these attributes, UVA Pickleball became the first school to have a full team sponsorship before last year's nationals.

That sponsorship came to fruition thanks to Gearbox's interest in sponsoring one of the high-level players, Lauralei Singsank (who has since graduated from UVA with a law degree but will be competing in this weekend's tournament).

Singsank was able to leverage that relationship into a uniform sponsorship for the main tournament team throughout last year's championship run.

Current sponsors

The list of sponsorships UVA has welcomed into their club is a who's who of pickleball brands.

Their current paddle and uniform sponsor is ProXR. They supply all the paddles and uniforms and help with the tournament team's travel expenses.

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Head is their shoe sponsor.

Vulcan, the official ball sponsor of the PPA Tour, also supports UVA's program with monetary sponsorship.

Their nets are provided by Har-Tru and they exclusively use Lobster ball machines.

They are even about to make an announcement soon to introduce Roar as their official hydration partner.

How UVA Pickleball chooses its sponsors

When asked how the school decides which sponsors are the right fit, Conor reiterated that it's all about the value the sponsor brings to the team and the team can bring to the sponsor.

"It starts with an initial conversation with [the president] of the club and our manager to make sure the partnership makes sense," Burns said. "If I have to agree to certain conditions, I have to make sure our team is willing to perform with or use this product."

Each collaboration UVA builds is carefully thought through and voted on by the tournament team members before the potential sponsor is brought on board.

UVA understands the significance of these sponsorships and how they go beyond their college. They also believe their team and program are setting a precedent.

"Everyone realizes beyond themselves, there's a bigger picture," Burns said. "But, frankly, the future of pickleball and how sponsorships work is being set by us. If they (the sponsor) want this to continue beyond us, it's going to depend on the success of the partnership."

Clearly, their sponsors agree with them, as ProXR had this to say about their relationship with UVA:

Our partnership with the University of Virginia Pickleball Club has been a resounding success, significantly elevating the presence and excitement of pickleball within collegiate sports. The synergy between the University of Virginia's high-caliber team and ProXR Pickleball’s top-quality products has truly set a new benchmark for excellence.
This collaboration is not just about playing a sport; it's about fostering a community and nurturing the future of pickleball on college campuses.

Where UVA plans to go from here

The future of UVA Pickleball seems to be in very capable hands and because of the system they've built, the program should flourish for years to come.

But, this doesn't mean they aren't trying to do even more for the students within the program.

"Tournaments and travel expenses add up, and it's our goal to help every one of our members alleviate those costs," explained Ryan Flanagan. "Right now, we are doing our best to do that through our NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) and sponsorship deals, but we hope to connect more with our UVA Alumni and build this bigger and better every single year."

If you'd like to learn more about UVA Pickleball or how you can get involved, contact them through the UVA Pickleball website.

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Jason Flamm

Jason Flamm

Jason is a writer from St. Louis. He’s been a coach in several sports and is currently working on his pickleball coaching certification. He loves to teach and share his passions.

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