VISUALIZING OUTSTANDING VOLLEYS
Fine-Tuning Your Serve
Where Should I Hit the Ball?
The Wheels are in Motion
By Sarah Ansboury with Lee Whitwell
It’s no secret that the sport of pickleball has raised the stream of consciousness in this country to new heights. What was once the game with a silly name has now evolved into a full-fledged sport, with amateurs and pros alike dominating time on courts throughout all 50 states. The recently completed Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships realized considerable gains in the number of participants, sponsorship dollars, purse for the professional players and spectator awareness. The old adage “The sky’s the limit” is an appropriate motto for the sport that came to be on a makeshift backyard court on Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle, Washington.
The one common thread since its infancy has been the outreach focus of many participants who view the sport with an undeniable passion. More recently, it has been the leadership and forward thinking of the United States Pickleball Association’s (USAPA) Ambassadors. Established to be the direct conduit from the governing body of the sport to the interested participant or volunteer, the Ambassador Program has now blossomed into a welloiled machine that numbers nearly 2,000 pickleballers across the country.
The USAPA is divided into 11 regions in the U.S. covering all 50 states. “We look to recruit Ambassadors with great enthusiasm for the sport, but it’s not necessary to be a tournament player,” said Claudia Fontana, Director of Ambassadors for the USAPA. “An ambassador should have the basic knowledge of the game and be able to share that excitement, and be willing to volunteer their time to help promote the USAPA organization and of course teach the game of pickleball to their local, and in some cases surrounding, communities. They should have good communication skills with those they deal with, from other local Ambassadors to their District Leaders, and are willing to share opportunities with other local governments, clubs or organizations.”
Using the analytic of 15,000:1 ratio, the USAPA is diligent in assessing the needs of respective communities to establish and then maintain a reasonable amount of coverage for its ambassadors. “At this time the door is swinging our way and the applicants and interest are coming to us regularly from all across the nation,” added Fontana.
One of the early pioneers in the establishment of the USAPA was Earl Hill. A member of the Pickleball Hall of Fame, Hill was instrumental in the start-up of the organization. He also knew that to be successful, an outreach program was needed to grow the sport: ambassadors in communities throughout the country.
“I had it in my mind that our ambassadors would do a lot more than hand out applications to prospective players,” recalls Hill, an original board member of the USAPA. “They would be expected to start pickleball in their local communities. Someone mentioned that we should have one for each state. I told them no, we should have as many as wanted to be an ambassador. And the state/ regional structure would come later.”
After about four years, the USAPA had over 200 Ambassadors, each working independently, but reporting directly to Hill for direction. He quickly realized he couldn’t handle all the attention and looked no further than to what the United States Tennis Association was doing. It established regions throughout the United States and Hill knew instantly this was the way to go for pickleball: “By then I knew many of the leaders in the group, so I mapped out how we could also set them up. I contacted a person to be a regional director and eventually our regional structure came to be.”
““Our Ambassadors come in contact with so many people on a daily basis. Who doesn’t love to talk about the sport? Without our Ambassadors we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
There are many facets to the role of being a USAPA Ambassador but according to Fontana, the common denominator has always been the social aspect of pickleball.
“There are so many ways that our ambassadors share and promote the USAPA and pickleball,” she explained, “from the handshakes on the court, to pickleball parties and the inviting enthusiasm that an Ambassador displays, which continue to bring the curious onlooker off the couch to the playing court. Our biggest population of players is the local recreational player, who is not playing for a medal but to be out on the court for what pickleball is known for, the socialization. We truly believe that pickleball is bringing communities together like no other sport is, or has done in decades. People who never played a sport in their lives are coming because they are socializing and creating ‘Pickleball Communities.’ It’s amazing how it works, and we continue to hear it, time after time.”
CJ Jermstad, now a USAPA Vice Chairman, led the Ambassador charge for the organization for many years and continues to this day to be one of the more recognizable faces in the sport. Starting out as a local Ambassador in Grand Haven, Michigan, Jermstad—who never met a day she didn’t like—quickly became the Great Lakes Regional Director, followed by her appointment on the USAPA Board of Directors as Ambassadors Chair. She has seen firsthand how pickleball can touch the hearts of its players, some after just one game.
“I once had a conversation with a gentleman in a rural community. He explained to me he was a dairy farmer and had learned the game while on vacation,” recalled Jermstad. “He wanted to introduce pickleball to others in his community, so we discussed ways for him to grow the sport in his area. He had marked off one court at a nearby church and invited a few people in his community to join him so he could show them how to play. He called me a month later saying he had outgrown the church and was trying to find creative ways to have more playing time. He had so many people wanting to play.”
From a church parking lot to an abandoned concrete pad where basketballs once bounced, pickleball is gaining considerable momentum, thanks largely in part to the loyal work of its ambassadors. “As a volunteer organization we depend on the people who give of themselves. We continue to work to inspire, educate and encourage our Ambassadors to be positive and renew their commitment to why they became Ambassadors for the USAPA,” said Fontana. “We continually gather information from them to find out what they do in their neck of the woods. We have implemented an annual survey that helps us gather that information so we can determine what is working and what the challenges are around the nation. This important information will continue to help us grow and learn as an organization.”
“Our Ambassadors come in contact with so many people on a daily basis. Who doesn’t love to talk about the sport? Without our Ambassadors we wouldn’t be where we are today,” added Jermstad. Fontana concurs: “We don’t have actual numbers, but I know that every one of our pioneer Ambassadors to the current corps has each touched hundreds of players, if not more. The web of extension is so incomprehensible to me. Logic tells us that if one Ambassador invites two people to the courts, those two players invite two or more players and so on and so on—the legs of growth are almost countless. Directly or not, it was most likely an Ambassador who started the pickleball excitement rolling.”
And the excitement surrounding the sport continues to roll on. The USAPA receives more than 30 applicants a month seeking to become an Ambassador. “All you need to do is fill out an application online. Simple and easy,” said Jermstad. Not all individuals can be placed due to existing Ambassadors in their area, but the organization works to place qualified people in areas that are in need. Fontana added, “Now with our new USAPA Recreation Program, which is helping develop youth, college and recreational programs, local Ambassadors will have even more tools to help promote and share with the communities and clubs they work with.”
Coinciding with the continual growth of the USAPA Ambassador Program is the meteoric rise in participatory numbers in pickleball. Where does Fontana see the next wave in the sport’s popularity? “Our next level of growth, as we are already starting to see, is in the youth programs—working hand in hand with our Recreation Department and getting the sport into more schools and intramural programs at all education levels. From the schoolyard playground, to Parks and Rec summer programs, to the ever-growing adult clubs and nonprofit organizations around the country, I don’t see it slowing down; if anything, it’s speeding up and we are working to stay ahead of the growth.”