The 2021 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships got off to a rousing start with Saturday’s Party in the Park, with players getting in their final warm-ups and fans lining up for event t-shirts and pickleball supplies at East Naples Community Park. But the most exciting action starts this weekend as the clock ticks toward championship Saturday. Adding to the excitement is the decision by CBS Sports to televise the mixed, men’s and women’s pro matches live Saturday night from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM, a first for the pickleball world.
“For the first time ever, pickleball will be broadcast live on a national network,” said Terry Graham, co-founder of the event. “That’s CBS Sports Network.”
Even though the championship court has sold out, there is still plenty of topflight action for spectators to enjoy during the final days of the week-long tournament.
In deference to the COVID pandemic, the capacity of the main court has been reduced from 2,000 spectators to 500. But organizers have devised a way for those who don’t have a ticket to championship court to still be part of the action.
“The new fan zone,” said Chris Evon, the event’s executive director. “That’s a new area that has TVs in it and tables. It’s new this year. People can go and watch the live streaming on CBS. So, if you can’t get a ticket to the championship court, come anyway, you can watch in the fan zone.”
“The capacity of the championship court has been reduced from 2,000 spectators to 500,” Graham said. “We took out all the bleachers on one side and reduced the number of tickets on the other side. But the fan zone is a great thing. You have a bar out there. You have food trucks and an ice cream truck.”
There will be plenty of professional pickleball action on the remaining courts through Saturday night.
“All of the pros play on Friday and Saturday,” Graham said. “Saturday night is the Dick’s Sporting Goods Championship Celebration. The finals for the mixed, men and women pro doubles will be held then.
“I would encourage people to come Friday and Saturday,” Graham said. “You can see 59 other courts. The championship court is only one court – it’s the biggest court. There are 59 other courts that pros will be playing on all day long. Say the bracket is 64, we can only have one match on the championship court at a time. People can come, grab a hot dog, a beer, or whatever, and walk around. There’s shopping. It’s a fun atmosphere. As we say, it’s the biggest party in pickleball right here. It’s a great activity. And right now, outdoor is king. So, to be outside, air is flowing, it’s just a good environment. It’s a fun environment. We have live music.”
Dave Weinbach, the winningest player in U.S. Pickleball Open history, was honing his game during Saturday’s Party in the Park. Weinbach, 51, has won 12 U. S. Open Gold Medals. He sees pickleball exploding. And all of the top players are here.
“The top of the mens’ game has really gotten strong in the past few years,” Weinbach said. “We’ve had some new players who have really burst onto the scene. Professionally we’re seeing so much more interest in it because of the attention the sport’s getting on ESPN, CBS Sports Network…NBC Sports is going to get into pickleball, there’s no doubt in my mind. CNBC just had a piece last night on national cable television, a five-to-six-minute piece about the growth of the sport and why it’s growing so much.
“It’s incredible the amount of interest in pickleball,” Weinbach enthused. “Some of my matches on YouTube have over 600,000 views. One of the best ones was CBS Sports’ broadcast of the first U.S. Open men’s final. It was really the first mainstream coverage of pickleball. And to Chris and Terry’s credit, they got CBS Sports Network to cover the finals. The men’s championship match from that year has close to one million views on YouTube and other media outlets. It’s really neat to see that many people watching high level pickleball.”
Weinbach is teaming up with Steve Deakin in the men’s professional draw that features the best players in pickleball.
“The U.S. Open is certainly a top three venue in professional pickleball,” Weinbach said. “The players love coming here. There is just an aura of energy and excitement and passion around this place. There’s not a lot of center courts in the country that have that level of excitement and enthusiasm and passion. I look forward to coming here every year.”
“This is the premier tournament event of the whole year, worldwide,” Graham said. “This sets the bar for everything else. We have all of the big names in pickleball here. We’re going to have 2,200 players. That’s what we had in 2019. We decided to keep it at that level for this year. We’ve reduced the number of spectators in championship court. We’ve made some concessions on it. We’re seeing an increased demand for the tournament. We could have had 2,600 to 2,700 players, but we decided against it for this year. From a spectator standpoint, it’s crazy how fast this tournament sells out. We had more demand from the vendors – more sponsors wanted to come in this year. The word’s out. This is on people’s bucket list. Coming here and playing in this event. And that’s for all levels.”
Last year’s U.S. Open was cancelled because of the COVID pandemic. But the pandemic hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirit moving forward.
“It was the right thing to do,” Graham said. “We’ve moved past it. Despite what happened last year, pickleball grew 20 percent. We now have 4.3 million pickleball players in the world. That’s pretty amazing. Just a few years ago there were only two million. So, in two years the number has more than doubled. Even though it was a terrible year for many reasons, it was a great year for pickleball. You could buy a net and put it in your driveway. And people did. So, more and more people got introduced to the sport. We said we were going to hold the U.S. Open in October or November, but we really cranked it up in January. We were COVID cautious but not COVID scared. We feel very comfortable. One good thing is we are an older crowd. Sixty percent of our players are 65 or older. And those are the people who have been vaccinated. I’d guess that 65 to 70 percent of the people here have been vaccinated.”