Becoming a professional athlete was not in Maureen Doyle’s immediate plans. She just wanted to play one of her favorite sports, pickleball.
“I was just looking forward to a weekend of some competitive play and some good pickleball games,” says Doyle, a Farmington resident.
It was Doyle’s doubles’ partner who first heard of a tournament in Oklahoma City in April. In fact, the few days of competition turned out to also be a combine event testing players’ speed, power, and agility for teams from the National Pickleball League, the first nationwide pickleball league for athletes age 50 and over.
At the end of May, while waiting for a flight to another pickleball event, Doyle received a text from a friend stating: “You got drafted!” A few short minutes later, she got a call from the team owner.
“I was totally shocked,” she says. “I’m so grateful and thankful they picked me, but it still feels surreal, even after our first tournament.”
Pickleball’s origins are generally trace to the 1960s and 1970s in the Northwestern area of the U.S. After slowly gaining support and popularity, the sport became widespread in the late 2000s and continues to attract new players at a rapid rate. In early 2023, USA Pickleball membership numbers reached the 70,000 mark, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
The sport is similar to other racquet sports like tennis, ping pong or badminton. Players volley a plastic ball with holes across a net using a wide wooden or plastic paddle to score points. Net height is relatively low to the ground with the court size equal to a badminton doubles court.
Doyle was drafted by the Oklahoma City Punishers, one of six teams in the inaugural season of the NPL. While details are still being determined for the league, the current system is for each 18-player team to compete in men’s, women’s, and mixed matches.
Based on wins and losses, teams will be slotted into standings over the course of five tournaments with the sixth to be a bracket style championship event. All tournaments, which are live streamed on the NPL’s YouTube page, are played on courts by league sponsor, Chicken N Pickle, a combo pickleball, restaurant and entertainment space.
“We really are treated like professional athletes by the league,” says Doyle.
Custom uniforms and backpacks, complete with nameplates of players, public events, sponsorships, and support from the team and league owners has gone a long way toward that opinion.
As for the NPL players themselves, Doyle says they are among the most competitive and active she has ever seen. Many are former professional athletes in other sports such as racquetball or tennis.
Beth Bellamy, one of Doyle’s Punisher teammates, won the girls doubles championship in Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and French Open in the 1980s, and played in over 300 matches at a professional level. Another teammate, Jamie Oncins, represented Brazil in tennis at the 1992 Summer Olympics. The collective competitive level experience on the team has raised Doyle’s skill as well, she believes.
“(With those players), there’s still a desire to play at that high level of competition that they are used to,” says Doyle, who prior to picking up a paddle six years ago, never played racquet sports. “Really, all of us want to play at that high level and compete. Playing against people who are better than you works to improve your own skill.”
Even at the competitive level, Doyle says there still is a sense of sportsmanship which resonates with all levels of pickleball players. She remarks that professional or experienced athletes from other sports often note that the pickleball scene is both supportive and cooperative.
While the reasons for the pickleball phenomenon are likely complex and somewhat unknowable, Doyle’s experience with the sport paints a positive picture.
“I think it’s an easy game to pick up and you can feel successful at it quickly. You’re going to find people at your level,” Doyle says. “Regardless of your own skill level, you will find other people to play with.”
“And I’ve seen lots of those build into friendships off the courts,” she continues. “I’ve had that experience with people I play with. Joining (the Oklahoma City Punishers), I’ve made 17 new friends.”
Across the country, pickleball has exploded in popularity. Data from USA Pickleball shows that the number of courts has grown from 12,000 in 2016 to 44,000 in 2022. In terms of courts per capita, New York is ranked fourth with 197 available per 100,000 people. California is at the top with 390 per 100,000, followed by Texas and Florida.
Given the popularity of the sport, the prevailing hope in the NPL is that it continues past the first season and expands to include even more locations in the country.
“There’s a lot of players in Rochester who deserve a chance to play at this level too. They have the skill and drive to be successful I think,” Doyle says. “We have a great community of people who are open and excited about pickleball and I hope they get their chance too.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].