As pickleball continues its amazing ascent, a corresponding increase in prize money, sponsorship and celebrity amount to its key players being on the rise, too.
Rusty Howes started the Pickleball Channel and has grown along with the sport. After shooting a live spot at the U.S. Pickleball Open at East Naples Community Park, Howes is approached by an older couple.
“My name’s John, Rusty,” the gentleman says. “Can I get a picture with you?”
Howes is happy to accommodate his fan, and thanks him for stopping him. But at the same time, he is a little puzzled with his celebrity.
“It’s kind of silly,” Howes said. “My kids make fun of me. But every once in a while, people will ask for a photo or an autograph. It’s kind of weird. I never liked that when I was in Hollywood. I worked around a lot of famous actors and was close to very, very, famous people.”
Howes and his wife, Meredith, worked in Hollywood with famous figures like Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern. He sees the top pickleball players developing a level of fame.
“People like Simone Jardim, she’s an icon” Howes said. “She’s crushing it. When she first showed up, she was coaching tennis at Michigan State University. But definitely, a handful of these pros have fans. The pickleball fans who are diehards have their favorite pros now. And somebody might even pay a ton of money for a private lesson with one of the pros. So those things are starting to happen.”
Dave Weinbach is one of the most well-known of the professional pickleball players. The winner of 130 gold medals in pickleball, Weinbach is recognized throughout the grounds of the U. S. Open. Weinbach sees nothing but future success for the sport he loves.
“I think the future,” Weinbach said, “with the advent of all the new sponsors, means a lot more money is coming into the sport, which increases the prize money. Some of these top players can make a good living playing pickleball. I think over the next couple of years you’re going to see some of these top tennis players, who are ranked 200 to 400 in the world, who maybe aren’t making a great living traveling the world playing on the ATP tour, are going to transition to pickleball. Because it’s an easy transition, in singles for sure. They can make a better living in professional pickleball. So, my prediction is you’re going to see these young, pro tennis players, come over to pickleball, do really well in singles initially, the doubles game takes a little longer to develop because the shots are different – you have the third shot drop. The dinking. That doesn’t come naturally to a tennis player initially. But singles are a smooth transition because it’s about passing, volleying, serve, return. Very similar to tennis. So, watch out for the that the next couple of years.
“When Kyle Yates and I won the first U.S. Open here, we both got $1,500,” Weinbach recalls. “Now when you win some of our big PPA (Professional Pickleball Association) events, the prize money is $4,000 to each player. I think for the U.S. Open this year, the total prize money is $70, 000 to $75,000. It’s really accelerating. I think what’s going to happen over the next year is that we’re going to get more big-time title sponsors in pickleball. I think that’s the next step we’re going to see, big time money coming into pickleball. Title sponsors of not only events, but tours. Those people are going to have to write a check for a half million to a million dollars to do that. t’s really exciting for someone like me, who’s been around the sport from Day One, almost. To see the incredible growth of the skill level of the players. Of the money. The sponsors. The venues. It’s spectacular what’s going on. It’s no surprise. Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. It’s also the fastest growing sport in the world. And it’s really exciting for someone like me to be a part of it.”
Howes credits U.S. Open co-founders Chris Evon and Terri Graham for much of the growth of pickleball.
“Chris Evon and Terri Graham have always been visionaries,” Howes said. “They came from other sports. They said, ‘We want two big things: we want to create a pro bracket and we want single elimination.’ Of course, now everyone has adopted that.”
“Chris and Terri are pioneers in the sport,” Howes continues. “Let me be clear, there was a foundation before I showed up, before Chris and Terri showed up. We wouldn’t be here without the early days of pickleball ambassadors helping the sport grow. They’ve done so much to grow the sport.”
“Chris and Terri began and said, ‘Let’s treat this as bigger. We’re going to make a pro tournament on all levels. Not just pro athletes, but pro sponsorships, pro venues. For them to elevate what a tournament is – other tournaments around the world are copying the U.S. Open.
“This is the only tournament that we commit this many days, and this much coverage to,” Howes said. “This is the one you can’t miss. If you’re going to miss a tournament, don’t miss the U.S. Open.”