Pickleball is exploding in popularity across Arizona, and courts are sprouting up everywhere, from quaint Pinetop to some of the more luxurious resorts in the area. The Arizona Pickleball Players League (APPL) exemplifies this incredible growth.
Founded in 2012 by Greg Mather as the East Valley Interclub League, The APPL now serves four main regions across Arizona during winter: West Valley, East Valley, Casa Grande, and Southern. A fifth region, White Mountain, is northeast of the Phoenix metropolitan area and offers summer play because of its location in the cooler northeast highlands.
With over 4,700 excited players logging 30,000+ games, APPL’s unique format sets it apart from other clubs and groups. Teams of 10 to 12 players compete against 8 to 10 different teams during the regular season. For each match, the captain brings three pairs to play opponents’ pairs twice in 2-hour contests.
“By the end of the two-hour match, we’ve played 18 games of pickleball. All of us (each pair) have played six games each,” Mather told Tyler Bednar of Cronkite News.
“ That’s a good two hours and very competitive. That’s a reasonable amount of time to play competitive pickleball.”
“How Exciting Is That?”
Scoring is also something that makes APPL stand out from the crowd. Teams play to 11 points and must win by 2. A win earns 2 team points. But scoring 6+ points in a game nets 1 point, keeping matches competitive and players invested.
“It goes down, quite often, to the last game of the last round, no matter who’s playing it. How exciting is that?” said Mather.
APPL welcomes all ages and skills with competition in three age brackets – 18+, 50+, 65+ – and six skill flights. Fair, fun competition for all is the goal.
This format creates great energy, according to champion player David Zapatka, winner of a State Games of America gold and three United States of America Pickleball National Tournament medals:
“I think team camaraderie is just a lot of fun instead of just playing as a single person or as a pair, you know. In doubles, to be on a team where you can root for your teammates, it’s just a lot of fun.”
Limited Court Space
The league’s growth could be hampered by limited court space as pickleball and APPL expand. But APPL strategically built relationships with venues ahead of the surge.
“Before I came into APPL, they already had these negotiated agreements in place,” said Alexa Erjavic, APPL Volunteer Relations Manager.
“I think it was a little bit of a ‘We’ll build it, and they will come, and then your park will become more popular.’ You’re serving your community anyway. If you think about it, it’s symbiotic for the people in the neighborhood who were using the facility anyway.”
Dedicated volunteers also buoy APPL’s success. Starting with just three volunteers in 2019, the corps has grown to 25 in 2023, with plans for 34 in 2024. Volunteers passionately support the league without reward.
With a skyrocketing fanbase, APPL looks to expand beyond Arizona, with other states wanting to replicate the team model. Mather envisions not just a state championship but regional and national championships ahead.
For now, excitement builds for the 2024 season starting January 2. Pickleball’s stunning rise across Arizona will continue, with APPL leading the charge.
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