The National Pickleball League (NPL) is the premier professional pickleball league for Champions Division players. The league’s 2023 NPL Draft Combine is set for March 24-26, marking the beginning of their inaugural season.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Report, pickleball has seen a 39.3% growth in its player base in the last two years alone. With 4.8 million players in the United States, pickleball has seen some monumental changes as the sport continues to grow in popularity.
Some of the sport’s biggest changes have been seen at its professional level. In the last few years, we’ve seen many pro pickleball leagues expand, find the national spotlight on television, and garner a huge new fanbase.
Among all of this exponential growth, it’s only natural that pickleball’s Champions Division, consisting of players 50 years and older, would also find the need for a professional league. Later this year, the senior pickleball community will finally have that in the NPL: a Champions league made by Champions Pros, for Champions Pros.
The NPL will consist of 6 founding teams who will start the season by drafting 12-20 Champions Level players each. These teams will then participate in 5 regular season events beginning in June, leading to a big championship tournament in mid-October.
We met with the NPL’s founders, Beth Bellamy, Michael Chen, and Rick Witsken, and discussed what the league will bring to the world of professional pickleball.
Witsken and Bellamy are two of the best Champions Division players in the world, both of them having won several tournaments in other professional leagues. Chen also plays pickleball at the Champions Pro level and plans on continuing his pro pickleball career with the creation of the NPL.
Through their collective experience of playing at the pro level, Bellamy, Chen, and Witsken realized that there was a definitive need for a team competition league for pickleball’s senior pros. That’s when they knew they needed to start the NPL.
“There was a desperate need for Champions Level players to have team play in a league format. Many of us talked about it and were very excited about that kind of format … It was becoming apparent that for the visibility of Champions Level players, we needed to have an independent production to properly showcase the skills and talents both on and off the court of our players.”Rick Witsken on the reason for starting a Champions Division league
Upon setting out to create the NPL, they quickly gained phenomenal support for the league from many other Champion’s Division pros. Eva Welsher, Jennifer Dawson, Scott Crandall, Natalie Bagby, John Sperling, and many more star players have already committed to being on the league’s roster for the 2023 season.
Bellamy and Witsken knew they were onto something when so many of their pro-level colleagues went all in with the NPL with no questions asked. They began realizing that many of the sport’s senior pros believed that the NPL could give back to the community and create a platform to represent the senior player population.
“We’ve received such unbelievable support from our group of fellow top Champions pros that we needed to sign on to sort of get this thing going. We had 5 out of the top 5 ranked women in the world and about 8 out of the top 10 signed on immediately without knowing much about it.”Beth Bellamy on the amazing player community in the NPL
The NPL wants to return the support that it receives from its players by focusing its own values on the community aspect of the game. Each NPL tournament will be centered around the players’ shared love for the game of pickleball by allowing them to celebrate that connection in a pro-level environment.
Beyond championing their community through establishing a team play league format, the NPL will also support its players through considerable cash prize support. The league recently announced that it will have $100,000 in prize money for the 2023 season, which is 200% more than the accumulated entry fees for its players.
The NPL believes that players who have dedicated their time to pursue pickleball at the professional level deserve to be financially supported for their achievements.
Players who are committed to the league will all participate in a live player draft which will take place in April before the season begins in June. Preceding the draft, there will be a pre-season Draft Combine event held at the Chicken N Pickle in Oklahoma City.
Chicken N Pickle will also host all NPL events at their locations nationwide. The atmosphere at the Chicken N Pickle venues will grant players the perfect balance of engaging in competitive professional pickleball while also enjoying a fun social environment.
“It’s not just about the competition. We’re going to have 16-20 players on a team, so the team’s going to be a community … If you lose, you still feel like you can win if your team wins. On top of that, we’re going to have a whole great social event that whole weekend.”Michael Chen on what he loves about the NPL format
Each of the six main events during the 2023 NPL season will take place in a different city across the nation. From Dallas to Kansas City, the NPL strives to bring exciting pro pickleball tournaments to fans all over the country.
The NPL is also hopeful that it will expand its format to more and more cities across the United States. While the league currently supports six teams, they welcome the opportunity to continue growing their organization.
“One thing that really excites me is connecting with cities and the embracing of these teams professionally … I really do believe that cities will rally around the team … I just believe in the expansion of teams, and cities, and models, and home and away, merchandise. To me, we’re just at the starting point in my mind.”Rick Witsken on the NPL’s potential
Recently, the league announced its first official team: Naples JBB United. The Naples Pickleball Center (NPC) officially signed on with the NPL as one of its founding team owners.
The partnership will be a mutually beneficial move for both the NPL and NPC, as the NPC hosts some of pro pickleball’s biggest events and is often considered to be “The Pickleball Capital of the World.” As the pro draft approaches in April, be prepared for more exciting NPL team announcements!
With the incredible support from its players, a format that encourages the growth of the community, and partnerships with some of the biggest names in pickleball, the future looks very bright for the NPL. Champions Division players officially have a league that they can call their own, and the upcoming 2023 NPL Season is only the beginning.
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