The National Pickleball League (NPL), pickleball’s first team competition league for Champions Division (50+) players, recently hosted their first player draft which concluded with a huge draft party and team announcement on April 14 in Naples, FL. Team owners for the league’s six teams went to war, with each of them selecting 18 players, and now all team rosters are set to go for the league’s first season.
Following the success of the NPL Draft Combine event, we knew that the draft itself was going to be filled with excitement. Over 200 of pickleball’s best senior pro players registered for the opportunity to be drafted, presenting team owners with many difficult decisions as they made selections for their rosters.
We had the opportunity to talk with two NPL team owners about their draft experiences: Carl Foster, owner of the Boca Raton Picklers, and Bob Strommen, owner of Naples JBB United. Both Strommen and Foster are highly connected in the world of pro pickleball, and both of them commented that they haven’t experienced anything quite like the NPL when it comes to senior pro competition.
Bob Strommen is the managing partner for the Naples Pickleball Center (NPC), one of the most prestigious pickleball venues in the nation with the title of “Pickleball Capital of the World.” Strommen helps manage the massive 80-court facility which hosts thousands of people every year, including the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships which is one of the biggest tournaments of the year.
Since Strommen first acquired management of NPC in 2020, he’s strived to build a world-class pickleball facility. Through this journey Strommen has brought on some of the best pro players in the world to run clinics and play in tournaments, including one of the top senior pros, Eva Welsher, who introduced Strommen to the NPL as it was forming.
“One day, she and I were sitting on the park bench just talking about what’s going on in the APP, PPA, MLP, and all of the dynamics that were going on in the game. She said that there was a new league starting called National Pickleball League, and it’s 50 and older designed to give tribute and legacy to those that really were involved in the game years ago who are still actively great players.”Bob Strommen
That same day, Strommen called up Michael Chen, Co-Founder of the NPL, and let him know he wanted to be the first team owner in the league. Without any of the details about the NPL ironed out yet, Strommen inherently saw the value that NPL could give to its core group of senior players and really give tribute to the sport itself.
In fact, Strommen used this sense of legacy and tribute to come up with the name for the team, Naples JBB United, as it represents the game’s creators: Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum, and Bill Bell. At the draft party, Strommen said that the camaraderie of all of the senior pros who were there to support the NPL really echoed that feeling of tribute.
“They were there to support the league, to have fun, and be part of the first draft of the first senior-only dedicated pickleball league. The energy, fun-factor, engagement, camaraderie … it really had an atmosphere of fun, engagement, support. They were happy for other people who got drafted and it was just really a cool environment. Rather than groans when someone didn’t get announced, there was just an outstanding applause, yelling, and cheering.”Bob Strommen
Strommen explained that the draft itself was an incredibly rewarding process. He tried to find players that resonated with NPC’s values, which helped him build a roster for Naples JBB United that he knew could come together as a team.
NPC’s Board Member and Pickleball Hall of Famer, Jennifer Lucore, helped Strommen throughout the drafting process. Beyond finding players who wanted to celebrate the legacy of the game, Lucore helped Strommen find skillful players who were all about the living spirit of pickleball.
“When we got done, we were just kind of amazed at the people that we picked were really consistent with our values and that underlying philosophy. It was fun, a little stressful, exciting; it gave us a little glimpse of what the big leagues like the NBA and NFL have to go through.”Bob Strommen
Carl Foster has been working in the world of sports broadcasting for most of his life. For the past 25 years, he’s been the voice for the Delray Beach Open ATP Tennis event. In 2019, he brought his broadcasting talents to the world of pickleball when he produced a pickleball highlights show for the first time, and he’s been hooked on pickleball ever since.
Now, Foster hosts the APP Delray Beach Pickleball Open, which is going into its 3rd year in 2023, and produces the Inside WORLD Pickleball TV Show. After hearing about the NPL from Michael Chen, Foster and Rick Retamar decided to commit to buying a team; and thus, the Boca Raton Picklers was founded.
Not only did Foster attend the Draft Combine as a team owner, but he also produced an episode of Inside WORLD Pickleball, covering the event in its entirety. Foster has witnessed that same camaraderie that Strommen felt and believes that the NPL has what it takes to do right by its player base.
“Everything’s been done first-class so far, we’ve enjoyed meeting the other owners now, creating a little family together and pickleball is such a great culture and great community of people. No negativity, it was positive, exciting, giving people a chance to compete again at 50+ and everyone was just amazingly excited at the draft party.”Carl Foster
Foster explained that he built his draft strategy around finding players who seemed like they could contribute to unifying the team as a group. His past experience of owning a tennis team with Billie Jean King back in the 80s taught him that one of the biggest parts of team sports is building that chemistry with your teammates.
While all of the NPL tournaments will be hosted at Chicken N Pickle venues across the country, Foster wanted to try and build a team with a core player base near Boca Raton if possible so that players could have the chance to practice ahead of events.
“We still wanted to have a camaraderie of players here that we could practice with, and they could get to know each other because that is important in the team concept. Them going out there and not just meeting up six times over the year and never play with each other; it’s tough to build chemistry with that, so that was sort of our strategy.”Carl Foster
Foster’s witnessed senior pro pickleball grow immensely over the past few years. From what he’s seen in the NPL’s beginning stages, he’s confident that the league is moving in the right direction.
“I think we’ve got a good starting format. I think Rick, Beth, and Michael have spent a lot of hours putting this together, and as top players I think they understand what the other pros are looking for. So, I think we’ve got good leadership, owners, and we’ve got some excited players.”Carl Foster
The 108 players who were drafted to the NPL now look forward to kicking off the season at the first tournament event, which is set for June 3rd at the Chicken N Pickle in Dallas, TX. Stay tuned to the NPL’s website for more information about the league as it starts its first season.
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