Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America.
How fast? The number of people playing pickleball grew by 159% from 2019 to 2022, with 8.9 million players volleying on courts, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Now some of those new players hitting the courts include retired pro athletes from the likes of the MLB and NFL joining a new pro league called PBX Pickleball.
"When I first started playing — and I won't mention names — in Columbus, Ohio, but I was getting beat by people that I'm like, how is that possible? I'm getting beat by this 71-year-old dude with two knee braces on, gray hair — great guy, but I can't beat him," said former MLB pitcher Kent Mercker.
Mercker pitched in the big leagues for 18 years, mostly with the Atlanta Braves, where he threw a no-hitter in 1994 and won a World Series ring in 1995.
Mercker competed in last year's Pickleball U.S. Open in Florida and has joined PBX, which is backed by stadium and arena management giant Sports Facilities Companies, to compete on the new tour.
"It's been fun watching it progress naturally," said Todd Yancey, co-founder of PBX Pickleball and vice president at Sports Facilities Co. "I won't say which groups are saying which, but there's been already some shots out there about which sport is a better athlete versus the other sport."
Mercker commented on the sport's growth.
"This is bigger than us, and we need to be accountable, hold ourselves accountable, and go out there and kick some butt," he said.
Included among the dozens of other athletes already on board are World Series champions like Tino Martinez, Jeff Conine, Brad Penny and Kevin Youkilis; Stanley Cup champions Kris Draper, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland; football wide receiver Golden Tate; and many more.
"I think this is going to settle the age-old question of which sport has the best athletes," said Mercker.
Yancey explained that players won't be winning money in the competition.
"Most of that is geared towards charities because that's mostly what these guys want to do," he said.
They're out there for the competition and, you know, these guys are compensated in other ways too, throughout PBX."
The PBX Pickleball tour plans a handful of stops in 2024, and each will include pro-ams with local players of all kinds.
"The pro-ams are really where players off the street will get a chance to play alongside these guys, these retired pros," said Yancey.
"Players playing Major League Baseball players, and of course knowing those guys, you know they're competitive, so they're already going at it as who's going to win that one," said Yancey.
And anyone can get the chance to play with these athletes in another way as well: PBX Pickleball is offering dream weekend experiences.
"The Dream Weekend is really going to be a multiple-day experience. We're looking at like, four days, three nights, build something bigger with an experience and a destination," Yancey said.
The arrival of PBX comes just months after Major League Pickleball and the PPA Tour's VIBE Pickleball League agreed to a merger to unify the sport with a global, co-ed, team-based league that will play under the Major League Pickleball brand.
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