Competitive Pickleball After 50: National Pickleball League Gives Senior Players a Platform

The first of its kind National Pickleball League, NPL, gives older pro pickleball players the chance to compete.

Competitive Pickleball After 50: National Pickleball League Gives Senior Players a Platform

There’s an expression you’ll hear at pickleball courts around the world: “I just got beat by a grandpa/grandma,” or something to that effect.

Sometimes, it’s said with an ageist attitude, as if the younger player could not possibly believe they were defeated by someone older than them. But mostly, it’s uttered in respectful awe of the smart, capable playing they just witnessed (and fell victim to).

Until the first competitive leagues gave younger athletes a springboard to pickleball stardom, the sport was known as a “senior activity” – again, often said with disdain and ageism.

“Why would you want to play that old person’s game?” was another common refrain from those who had no idea of the sport’s physical demands at all levels of play.

Now, the scales have tipped in the opposite direction:

  • Millions of people in the United States alone have taken up playing pickleball more than once per week
  • Several professional leagues have cropped up, drawing competition from tennis and other sports
  • Some of the most well-known players in the game are below the age of 30; several are less than 20 years old

With the youth taking over high-level pickleball, a couple top-ranked players in the Champions division (ages 50 and above) wanted to ensure those in their age range could still play competitively.

Enter: NPL

Beth Bellamy is a pickleball legend in her own right, having earned 43 golds at the senior level in 2022 alone.

But now, she has another legacy: co-founding NPL with Rick Witsken and Michael Chen.

“We really liked the idea of the league as something different from the many regular individual tournaments that we had been playing,” Beth says. “We knew that players 50+ would love the idea of being on a team.”

It also was important to the three of them to create the kind of first-class events that they enjoyed attending:

  • Full service venues
  • All matches indoors to avoid rain delays
  • A daily schedule that ended at a decent hour to leave room for socializing

“I really didn’t know what I was getting into or what it would entail (which was probably a good thing!), but I was excited about the possibility of creating additional opportunities for Champions (50+ players),” Beth says.

Paul Bamundo, who’s since joined as CEO, may be able to share the sentiment of not knowing what he was getting into.

Apparently, a friend texted him last year while he was at a Jackson Browne concert, asking if he was interested in being the CEO of a pickleball league.

NPL's next event is this weekend! Live stream it here.

“I just said ‘sure’ and went back to watching the concert,” Paul says.

“But when I was introduced to Michael Chen, I told him how I wanted to grow something for years to come and put my stamp on it.

“They went through a long search, but when they came back to me and some other finalists, I told him that I wanted to come to the October [2023] championships. He got back to me suggesting I book a hotel and flights, but I already had.”

“Those championships were really impressive, especially for a year-one effort. I felt I could help professionalize the league more, and they brought me on.”

All About Location

Of course, a league that exclusively plays indoors faces one considerable challenge: where to host events.

While indoor venues keep popping up in every state in the USA, few of them offer enough space and courts to meet the needs of an NPL event.

Most that do are based in the Midwest, which is why most of the events on this year’s NPL calendar are in that region.

“A huge piece of the puzzle was that Chicken ‘N Pickle agreed to hold each of our events for our 2023 season,” Beth says.

“They were incredible partners and we are so grateful to them for helping us get the league off the ground!”

National Pickleball League Structure

NPL offers a team-based structure, but it’s different from any format we’ve seen in other tours:

  • Men and women play together on the same team
  • 12 total teams are comprised of 14-16 players on each team (7 or 8 men & 7 or 8 women)
  • Player drafts take place in April after tryouts
  • Team owners and GMs determine their own rosters
  • Regular Season involves 5 events in 5 different cities
  • In 2024, teams will compete for $150,000 in prize money

“The democratization of pickleball is impressive when you consider NPL’s structure,” Paul says.

“We’ve got the best 50+ players in the world. Dayne Gingrich, Beth Bellamy, Rick Witsken, Jennifer Dawson, Dave Weinbach…it’s awesome to hear from players that they like the format better than anything they’ve done.”

Heisman Trophy Winner Danny Wuerffel

Of the many memorable faces within NPL’s 2024 team rosters, football fans may recognize one from his storied career with the Florida Gators, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, and more.

Danny Weurffel finished his collegiate career by completing 708 of 1,170 passes for 10,875 yards with 114 touchdown passes, the best in SEC history and second-most in major college history.

Danny left college as the Heisman Trophy winner and was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 1997 NFL Draft.

But what happens to athletes when it’s time to retire from their main sport?

That’s the question Danny had to answer in 2004 when he made the decision to stop playing professional football. At only 34 years old at the time, his body was still in great shape.

But he chose to pursue activities to occupy his mind – and heart.

In the ensuing years, Danny started working with Desire Street Ministries, a nonprofit focusing on spiritual and community development around New Orleans

He also started the Danny Wuerffel Golf Classic, a charitable tournament in Florida.

Before pickleball, Danny lived an incredibly noteworthy, accomplished life. Then coronavirus struck, and he found himself in a familiar situation to many in the sport now.

“I first got into pickleball during COVID with my son,” he says.

“Like a lot of people, there wasn’t much you could do, but we were able to go to the park and play this new, little game. We both fell in love with it and have never looked back.”

A few short years later, he found a new athletic calling, and was soon drafted by the Denver Iconics. Danny had just turned 50 years old.

“Lots of times in life, turning 50 can be discouraging as you’re getting older and your body is falling apart,” he says.

“However, pickleball makes turning 50 fun as you get to enter into a new era of competition. The first NPL tournament was in Chicago. It was awesome.”

“Pickeball has been a great addition to my life in my efforts to make the world a better place.”

The Impact on Players & Fans Alike

Danny isn’t the only player who’s found a competitive purpose in his involvement with NPL.

“We have had many players tell us that this experience has been life changing for them,” Beth says.

“To be a part of a team again, to have their own goals of improving and succeeding both personally and along with their team, and to have all of the fun we have at our events and parties is something a lot of players didn’t see as a part of their futures.”

Similarly, NPL’s growing fanbase – not all ages 50+, mind you – see themselves and their individual strengths in these players.

“The thing that comes to me from both viewers and players is that we are relatable,” Paul says. 

“I’ll watch the younger pros from other leagues and be impressed, and obviously our players will never play like that 17-year-old phenom. But we love hearing that people like watching us because they can learn something. In this age range, it’s all about skill level.”

Learn more about NPL and meet its teams on their website.

NPL's next event is this weekend! Live stream it here.

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