If you’re a fan of watching professional pickleball, then chances are you’ve seen a pair of two wonderfully dressed fellas hyping up the crowd with their flag-waving, cheerleading, and hilarious signs. These are The Hype Guys.
Canton O’Donnell (AKA Dragon) and Erik Iverson (AKA Nighthawk) are on a mission to change what it means to watch pro pickleball by bringing more energy and excitement to the sidelines. We had a chance to chat with them about why they started The Hype Guys, some of their favorite tournament moments, and why they’re so, well, HYPED about pro pickleball!
Tell me a little bit about how each of you first got started with Pickleball.
Dragon: I got into pickleball right in the middle of COVID. My mom reached out to the whole family while we were home for a long weekend because she’d gotten really into it. I thought she was crazy, and then I ended up going and playing, and ended up getting hooked.
I kept playing, and as the height of the pandemic came to an end, I moved down to Austin for work at the time. From there, it seemed like every single person I met from Austin was from the pickleball courts. I was able to get on the court, get ingrained in the pickleball community, and make some new friends.
Nighthawk: I graduated in 2022, and then right afterwards moved to Austin on my own for a job and lived alone. Starting a whole new chapter of my life and not having any coworkers to meet in person in a new city halfway across the country, I felt like I needed something else.
I would call my dad every so often, and I knew that he was into pickleball. He joined a men’s league back in Minnesota, and he was telling me how he was climbing the ranks. He told me he got to number one at some point, so I was just like, ‘Okay, enough of that. I’m going to go see what I can do on the pickleball court.’
Honestly, I think the first time I played I was hooked. Like Canton (Dragon) said, I swear everyone I meet in Austin is from the pickleball courts. Sooner or later, you just grow those bonds. Me and Canton are now going to be roomates, and we started this whole journey together just from meeting one day in Austin on the pickleball courts.
When did you guys first meet, and why was pickleball the thing you bonded over?
Nighthawk: It was a super hot day, probably midday, nobody else was there and finally a third and fourth person rolled up so the four of us were just playing. I think we all started a group chat, and from there, one of those guys moved away, but me and Canton went toe-to-toe with each other’s pickleball obsession.
We were the only one’s who could match the other’s insanity for how much we love the sport. It just grew from there.
Dragon: We were at the South Austin Rec Center, and we both just so happened to try and get some games in. I think we were just sitting around waiting, eventually jumped in and started playing, and the rest is history.
We then started playing like once, twice, or three times a day together.
What was the first pro pickleball event you attended as the Hype Guys?
Nighthawk: PPA Austin was the first tournament that we went to. I was playing, Canton wasn’t for scheduling reasons, and we had a really good time.
We met these two other fans, Crazy Kathy and her friend Pam. They were these ladies from out of state who traveled for the tournament, and they were just having the time of their lives in the stands. They were hooting and hollering, getting involved with Championship Court matches with their voices, and it was infectious.
That was our first glimpse of what it could be like to have that kind of fun at a pro pickleball event, and that kind of fed into how we approached our next tournament in Dallas two months after that, where we went all in.
Dragon: For the one in Dallas, we weren’t the Hype Guys yet, but we were like, ‘Hey, we know that pickleball is fun, we love spectating, so let’s go play in the tournament.’ We did terribly, so we moved more into the fan/spectating side of things and we really went after it.
There were two main elements. The first was when Ben Johns tweeted, “Why is no one tailgating?’ So we tailgated on Championship Sunday with a sign that read, “You honk, we drink.” The second part is that we talked to the DJ, and Ben and Anna Leigh, in their post-match interviews, got on board for Pink-Out Sunday.
On that Sunday, when we were walking in with our hot pink outfits, a big flag, and a bunch of signs, this young gal, we wish we knew her name, was on the phone and said, “Hey, the hype guys are here, what should we do?” That’s where the name comes from.
Why were you compelled to become, as you put it, Pickleball Crowd Engagement Specialists?
Nighthawk: Coming into it, I wasn’t really ready to engage the crowd as much. But then Canton started engaging the crowd, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to have a go at this.’ Over the few days, we just got better and better at it and grew much more comfortable with riling up the crowd.
We did a lot of the wave, and it turns out that the PPA loved it – everyone loves the wave, and it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser. We then built a few tactics. The cameraman told us how to get on camera with our signs, and there were a bunch of little tidbits that we picked up over the course of that tournament.
There were so many people that came up to us and told us how much they enjoyed what we were doing. When we would go off to the bathroom or walk around the rest of the venue, it was 100% love for what we were bringing, and I think that was overwhelming for us.
About a month before PPA Dallas, we were brainstorming ways of getting more involved with the pickleball community, whether it’s a business route or another way to spend more time, make an impact, and give back to the community. Then, we stumbled upon this and realized that this was going to be our route.
What are some of the favorite things you’ve done as the hype guys? What are your biggest moments at PPA and MLP events?
Dragon: At the PPA Denver tournament, I knew that it was going to be in Denver which is my hometown, and the Denver Nuggets had just won the National Championships. So, I started making calls to try and get their mascot Rocky to the event, and with the help of the PPA, we managed to get Rocky to show up on Championship Sunday. So that was a cool moment where a big idea came to life and was a lot of fun.
I also like to call out VIP. They’re typically a little quieter in the VIP section and don’t get as much engagement, so kind of chirping them a little bit like, ‘We’re all pickleball fans, you guys can get loud too and join the fun.’
Nighthawk: One of my favorite things is to come up with a pun for whoever is playing on Championship Court, in support for that player. For example, Megan Dizon was on the court so I yelled, “Let’s go Megatron!” And I think the announcers overheard that and made a comment about it on the stream. Connor Garnett = The Con Man. Or one time he hit a net cord winner, so I went, “That’s why they call him Connor GarNET!”
Dragon: Over half the signs we create are probably in the moment, right there at the tournament. Those are typically the best ones that the commentators make a comment on or the players want a picture with.
A golden item from the Denver tournament was the “Where’s the Kiss Kam?” for Kamryn Blackwood.
Beyond the hype and fun you guys bring to the events, what draws you to pro pickleball? Why do you think it will continue to rise in popularity?
Dragon: For me, what draws me to the pro scene in particular is just the accessibility of the pros and how friendly they are. They market the whole thing as play with the pros, and it’s just so true. Even before we were known, like at the Austin tournament, we could walk down and chat up Ben Johns or whoever we wanted, and that was just a super cool experience.
With how this has all taken off on the crowd engagement side of things, we’ve been lucky to see just how early on we are in the pickleball movement in the grand scheme of things. So to be able to be a part of that and help shape what the crowd atmosphere will be for our future and potentially future generations is really cool.
What’s really cool to me is what Major League Pickleball has done with Pickleball Cares. They’re really trying to make pickleball not just a sport, but also a community and a lifestyle that truly does change people’s lives. Whether it’s just getting healthy, getting outside and making new friends, just loving the sport, or all three – It’s just such a unique thing that I haven’t seen in any other sport I’ve participated in.
For me, that’s the coolest thing about pro pickleball is that who knows where it’s going, and it’s kind of a unique ride and thrill to be a part of it.
Nighthawk: I definitely want to echo about the intimacy of the pro pickleball scene because it is at the point where it’s honestly an extension of the pickleball community in the amateurs. Back in Austin, I think I was walking through Championship Court to go to the bathroom during the women’s doubles finals, and I was just like, “Let’s go Vivienne!” because Vivienne Davis was there and I gave her a high five.
So, it definitely feels like the pros are all so loveable once you get to know them; that draws me in for sure. I think seeing the level of pickleball that they can reach in all these pro matches is so incredible to witness in person. Seeing it on TV is cool, but seeing it in person is a whole other level of amazing.
I feel like by spectating in person, I’m learning visually, and I get 1% better every tournament I go to just by watching them play. One of the biggest allures of pickleball is that it’s so accessible, anyone can play, and you can hop right in and get good pretty quick.
So you see some of these shots that they make and you think, “Damn, maybe I can make that shot?” Like, you see some amazing play in the NFL and think there’s no way you could ever do that, but in pickleball, you’re like I’m going to try that one when I get home.
Of all the pros you’ve met, who are some of your favorites that you’ve met? What interesting moments have you shared with the pros?
Dragon: Connor Garnett’s gotta take the cake on that one. We had the opportunity to do a 2v1 against him at MLP San Clemente, and he’s just this super down-to-earth guy that’s fun to talk to and you can tell he’s just a genuine human being.
He’s also someone that we know builds off of our energy it feels like. Whenever he’s on the court, we’re yelling about his wicked two-handed backhand, and he’ll look over and give us the biggest cheeky smile or point at us.
Tyson McGuffin is another one; that’s a pretty electrifying moment when he’s doing his chest bump and points – well, he’s probably pointing at the entire crowd, but it sure feels like he’s pointing at us.
Nighthawk: Yana Newell, at both MLP San Clemente and PPA Denver. She saw us first and ran up to us and surprised us with a big smile and a, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing?’ and that really spoke volumes that she was excited to see us too.
That’s the best part, they’re all just amazing people. I will say, though, now that we know a lot of the players, it becomes really tough to cheer for one team when they’re out there playing. I feel bad cheering for one team and not the other one, so I guess we just have to make sure we’re even in our support.
Will we see the Hype Guys make a pro tournament debut in the men’s doubles main draw anytime soon?
Nighthawk: If there’s a team that disqualifies in the main draw, and they can’t find anybody else to fill it, we might come out of our PPA retirement. But yeah, after Dallas, we got pounced off 3-5 in the first round, and then we realized that we better use our time wisely and go cheer instead of waiting around for our matches all day long.
The time’s too precious. So, we like to play rec all the time, but at the PPAs, we just don’t have the time to play.
How do you hope to grow your brand and further engage with the pickleball industry?
Dragon: Honestly, it’s to be determined – there are just so many avenues I feel like. We kind of need to determine what our thought process is on what content we do want to be putting out there, whether it’s a podcast, YouTube videos, Instagram shorts, or all of the above.
The main thing we want to shed light on is The Hype Squad. Wherever we go, we don’t want to be the only wild and crazy ones cheering, we want to build it to be an entire section of fans. As seating in stadiums grows down the road, maybe there could be a specific section or zone dedicated to the rowdy crowd, kind of like Austin FC, the soccer team, has down here.
We’re going to be very active in reaching out through local community boards to find the local players and fans where these tournaments are going to be and invite them in to build a network of pickleball enthusiasts in each location. Everytime we come, it will get bigger and bigger and bigger; and we won’t be the only ones in the spotlight, as much as we like the spotlight, the sport is about the community.
Nighthawk: I think that the core essence of our grand vision is to change the game by bringing more hype. So we just want to be ambassadors for the sport and shepherd the fans into allowing themselves to be more rowdy and express their excitement more freely.
Where will we see the Hype Guys next? What PPA and MLP events do you have locked in so far for the rest of 2023 and beyond?
Dragon: Right now, Kansas City is the next PPA event and then we are aiming to do all of the MLP, but we will for sure be at the Atlanta one to launch Season Two.
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