Credit: Emily Ackerman / Courtesy

Emily Ackerman, Cal Poly’s No. 1 doubles player, walked off the tennis court one last time following a loss in the Big West Championship on April 30. 

In the coming days, Ackerman looked ahead to graduation and joked that she is “retired.” Jokes aside, her competitive sport career appeared to be over.

Ackerman would still be around tennis, but never as a player again. She became a coach at the Paso Robles Sports Center.

With the itch to compete after graduation, Ackerman signed up for a few pickleball tournaments. Between conversations with her dad, she realized the possibility of a future in the sport given her enjoyment and natural talent in a similar racket sport game. 

She is currently the No. 5 ranked singles player in the West region, according to Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating (DUPR).

Ackerman isn’t the only athlete to follow this path. In recent years, pickleball has grown to be much more than just a sport grandparents play on the weekend. 

The sport is in a state of competing tours, million-dollar investments and battles with tennis for recreational space — and Cal Poly tennis grad and current pickleball pro Emily Ackerman is in the middle of it all.

Competing Tours

There are currently two tours in the pickleball world: The Pro Pickleball Association (PPA) and its mirrored counterpart the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP). 

The PPA has signed the biggest names in pickleball to exclusive contracts where they can only participate in PPA events. The APP has no such restrictions and thus, inherently, makes it easier for professionals to crack into the pro world.

What makes the professional pickleball tours even more complex is Major League Pickleball (MLP), which Tom Brady, Drew Brees and LeBron James, among many more big names, have invested in. 

MLP puts on events that the tours can host as a team-styled pickleball league. On Nov. 9, the MLP and PPA announced a strategic merger to unify the professional pickleball leagues. The merger is a huge step forward in pickleball’s growth.

“MLP is just one of the more fun events,” Ackerman said. 

Before every MLP event, there is a 12-team multi-gendered draft to make teams of two men and two women. These teams are redrafted at every individual event. With the merger, fans can watch top players compete in “one of the more fun” events in pickleball.

The MLP wrapped up the 2022 season with its final event in Columbus, Ohio in October. Now, the league is expanding to 24 teams for 2023. Other team owners include entrepreneur Gary Vee and former tennis professional James Blake.

To the naked eye, pickleball is in a state of two competing pro tours. However, the wealth behind the scenes is the main driver of the future of pickleball. 

MLP founder Steve Kuhn told SportsPro Media in December that they have up to $5 million in prize money available for 2023.

In January of this year, Carolina Hurricanes and Callaway Golf owner Tom Dundon bought the PPA along with Pickleball Central, the largest pickleball retailer in the U.S.

As the fastest-growing sport in America with two competing tours and the likes of LeBron James and Gary Vee putting millions in, pickleball has the resources to continue their upward trend.

What does the future of pickleball look like?

For the fans, regardless of if the tour is PPA or APP, they get to see more high-level pickleball. 

While the APP has seen time on ESPN, the PPA has had its mark on the Tennis Channel and, most notably for the sport, broke through with a two-hour live broadcast on CBS with the Skechers Invitational Summer Championship.

In golf, the PGA tour versus LIV Golf has created turmoil and lawsuits for players. Ackerman believes the youth of pickleball means the PPA and APP battle is not adversely affecting players.

According to Ackerman, most of the players that are contracted by the PPA chose to join because of the financial stability it provides. 

“Even though there is competition [between the PPA and APP], I think it’s building the sport because it’s bringing a lot of attention to the sport,” Ackerman said. “Once the sport gets bigger they are going to have to figure something out.”

At this stage, the opportunity to play professionally, win prize money and make a living off pickleball is still very new — and just a dream for most. 

Only the top players can play pickleball full-time with no other job, as most players are looking for paddle deals and sponsors to financially aid them.

Ackerman is one of these players currently paying out of pocket for travel, gear, hotels and registration in tournaments.

In December, Ackerman made the move from SLO County to the Los Angeles area to build her pickleball career.

As a tennis and pickleball professional at the Westlake Athletic Club, Ackerman’s move to LA means she’s surrounded by family, main doubles partner and mentor Wesley Burrows, and — most important for her career — other pickleball professionals.

The culture of pickleball

Pickleball country clubs have begun to pop up around the nation and are quickly becoming a hotspot for professionals.

These country clubs are not like the country clubs seen in the golf or tennis world. Dreamland in Dripping Springs, Texas and Chicken N Pickleball with multiple locations across the U.S. are two of the more notable country clubs, according to Ackerman.

Dreamland is an 86-acre recreational sports wonderland outside of Austin. It has a disc golf course, mini golf course, live music stage, beer garden and of course, plenty of pickleball courts.

The MLP has already hosted events at Dreamland and there will likely be more tour events held at locations like Dreamland.

Tyson McGuffin, the No. 5 ranked PPA player, calls Dripping Springs the “Pickleball Capital.”

McGuffin, one of the more outspoken pickleball players, embodies the sport. He is a tattooed, long-haired, mustached man that posts YouTube videos and podcasts about pickleball.

“A lot of the pros that play [at Dreamland] now have some sort of sponsorship with Dreamland,” Ackerman said.

Vivienne David, Ackerman’s partner at the APP Atlanta Metro Open, moved to Dripping Springs to further her pickleball career.

Chicken N Pickleball embodies the playful, easygoing energy of pickleball. Like the name suggests, the company combines food with sports. According to their website, their newest location contains a restaurant, 11 pickleball courts, shuffleboard courts, a bar and entertainment space, an outdoor game yard and a game room with ping pong and TV screens.

On tour, Ackerman says pickleball events feel different than the tennis events she had been surrounded by her whole life, which is evident by venues like Chicken N Pickleball.

“Pickleball is just way more relaxed and I hope it stays that way,” Ackerman said. “Tennis is super cut-throat, 99% of the time you are on your own. In pickleball, everyone knows everyone.”

Tennis versus pickleball

With that being said, it’s hard not to compare the two sports. On a recreational level, the real estate battle for more pickleball courts means tennis is getting the boot.

San Luis Obispo has only seven permanent public courts in the city and four temporary courts, which are lines painted on top of a tennis court at French Park.

“On a Sunday afternoon at the IronOaks Country Club in Sun Lakes, Ariz., pickleball’s ascension is on full display,” John Walter said in his Sports Illustrated article on pickleball. “Nine of the club’s 10 pickleball courts are in use, each with four players. Just one of its 10 tennis courts is inhabited by two players.”

Pickleball’s popularity is true nationwide.

When Walters interviewed Ben Johns, the No. 1 player in the world, he said, “it’s simple real estate…you can fit four pickleball courts on one tennis court.”

The necessity for more courts is evident.

Tied to her roots, Ackerman backed tennis’ growth as well. According to Forbes, over 22.6 million people played tennis in 2021, an increase in about one million players compared to 2020.

Brian Greenwood, a recreation, parks and tourism administration professor at Cal Poly is researching tennis and pickleball for San Luis Obispo County Parks & Recreation as an outside consultant.

“When there is an explosion in participation like what we’ve seen with pickleball, participants are obviously looking for places to play, and tennis courts become the most natural location,” Greenwood told Mustang News.

But Greenwood pointed out that tennis also saw a “major boost” in participation during the pandemic.

“That obviously creates a perfect storm of controversy by way of recreational conflict, not only in San Luis Obispo County but nationwide — which is why we’ve been hired to try and help,” Greenwood said.

The City of San Luis Obispo 2021 General Plan Annual Report stated that several parks would be developed in the Orcutt area of town — and would include both pickleball and tennis courts.

The annual report also featured a picture of children playing pickleball on the front cover – a recognition of the popularity of the sport.

The fastest-growing sport in America is here to stay.