The National Pickleball League (NPL) recently hosted a huge Draft Combine event at the Chicken N Pickle in Oklahoma City, OK. Champions Division (50+) players from all over the country united for the first time to compete and celebrate the league’s first season.
Senior pro pickleball players officially have a league of their own in the NPL: a team competition tournament format dedicated to giving a greater platform to the sport’s senior player base. 2023 is the league’s first season, and the Draft Combine gave players their first taste of what the league will have to offer.
During the two-day combine, players were able to participate in a round-robin style tournament to secure themselves automatic placement in the upcoming player draft. The league is composed of 6 founding teams which will each draft a roster of about 12-20 players.
Beyond the exciting, competitive nature of the event, the combine also was incredibly focused on the community aspect of the league. The NPL is able to support its players with an incredible $100,000 in prize money throughout the season, and it is equally devoted to building relationships with its players.
League owners and founders Beth Bellamy, Michael Chen, and Rick Witsken have made it clear that they want the NPL to represent senior players from all walks of life. NPL tournament events will feature high-energy, pro-level competitions; through these exciting matches, players will be united together through the sport that they love.
“It’s really special, and that’s what our desire is. It’s more than just pickleball, but creating life for people over 50, creating hope for people over 50 … Having these Champion Pros rally around the NPL and draw excitement where we can come together around pickleball.”Michael Chen, NPL Co-Founder
The combine event perfectly exemplified that sentiment. Not only did players meet on the courts, but they also got the chance to socialize through various meet and greets, lunches provided by Chicken N Pickle, and a combine player party and dinner. It’s exciting to see how quickly the community has formed and rallied behind the league.
One of the Combine Champions, David “The Professor” George, explained that the NPL was founded at the perfect time in his pro pickleball career. George first started playing pickleball in 2021 when he decided to put down the tennis racquet and pick up the paddle. After playing local tournaments in early 2022, George realized that he wanted to take his game to the next level.
At his pro debut tournament at APP Indianapolis in 2022, George met Rick Witsken for the first time. After hearing that Witsken was co-founding the NPL, George was one of the first people to sign up for the league.
When asked about his experience at the Draft Combine, George couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. Beyond securing himself a spot on one of the league’s teams, he was also encouraged by the immediate sense of fellowship he felt amongst the players.
“The Draft Combine was an unforgettable event. The competition and camaraderie were amazing. The fact that the leadership team and the owners were present and involved was so important for everyone, especially myself. They took real interest in me and my pickleball journey.”David George, NPL Pro Player
By winning his final match, George knew he was officially an NPL pro player. After being presented his award, he had a chance to play alongside his mixed doubles partner, Jen Gallwas, against Rick Witsken and Natalie Shaw in what he described as being “an extremely rewarding if slightly surreal experience.”
Another combine player was Julene James, a lifelong athlete who first picked up pickleball in 2020. She is currently ranked #12 in DUPR Senior Singles and has medaled in several APP and PPA Senior Pro events.
James shares George’s newfound love of the NPL following the combine event. She’s already made some great connections because of the NPL, having recently partnered with Tien Nguyen at the APP Mesa Open, who she met at the Draft Combine.
“It was great to see those I already knew from past tournaments and so fun to meet new people. Made so many new connections! The tournament itself was super fun and high-level play. The venue was amazing. Beth, Rick, and Michael were all super friendly and excited. Julie Weston so nice! It was great to meet all the team owners and get to know them and their stories on how they got involved.”Julene James, NPL Pro Player
James has enjoyed playing team sports her whole life, and she’s now incredibly excited to bring that passion to the NPL. “The draft combine made me realize how much I’ve missed being a part of a team experience,” said James. She believes that bringing a team competition format to the senior player population is exactly what pickleball needs.
Players who participated in the combine all left with one thing on their mind: “Is it draft day yet?” The next step for the NPL’s inaugural season will be its player draft on April 14, where players will be drafted to one of the following six NPL teams:
- Naples JBB United
- Austin Ignite
- Boca Raton Picklers
- Denver Iconics
- Indy Drivers
- OKC Punishers
The 2023 NPL Draft will also be celebrated with an in-person draft party at the Hyatt House Ballroom in Naples, FL on Friday, April 14. Be sure to check out the NPL’s website for more information about the draft event.
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