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Major League Pickleball’s first event of the year lands in Mesa

The Valley is in for a big sporting month, with the Super Bowl and Waste Management Open just two weeks away, closely followed by spring training and the World Baseball Classic.

But don’t forget about the newest major league sport — pickleball.

Yes, pickleball, the game your grandma plays at her retirement home, has exploded in popularity since the pandemic. In 2021, pickleball had 4.8 million players in the United States alone.

Last weekend, 24 teams from around the country competed over four days in Mesa at Major League Pickleball’s first event of the year, with the teams split into two competition levels. The league features a promotion-relegation system similar to that in European soccer. Teams consist of two men and two women. Most players come from a tennis background.

Sarah Ansboury is a player and captain for the AZ Drive, a team in the league’s second level. She’s been playing pickleball since 2014 and remembers the sport’s early years.

"When we first started, it was, I was telling, one of our teammates, he said, you don't even know what we went through those first couple years playing and like, there's no money. It was like just trying to get more attention on the sport and all that. And so it's great now that it got us a little while, you know, it took a minute to get here, but we're here now, so that's what matters," said Ansboury.

Others like Brian Levine, Major League Pickleball’s CEO, are new to the sport.

"Personally, I mean, I had an experience in an introduction to pickleball that I think many people did where I started playing at the very beginning of COVID and, you know, I was having the same issues many people were in terms of isolation and lockdowns," said Levine. "I live in south Florida, met a lot of people doing it and it was a tremendous outlet from a social perspective. It was a competitive outlet, I got into great shape without even trying to get into great shape. There’s a positive energy about it, and I think that proliferates to the pro level as well, and you feel it in the stands here."

Ansboury is glad to see the sport grow to a point where it’s no longer just a hobby.

"I've had to sacrifice my game a little bit, you know, for a few years, so I can do my other stuff at, you know, job, which is still around pickleball, but it's still not being on the court and training every day," said Ansboury. "So it's nice that now, you know, at least for me, I'm able to spend more time training, uh, because now a little bit more is on the line and, you know, I'm making a little bit more money than I was a couple years ago."

Ansboury and the AZ Drive did not make it very far in this tournament, but it was a great weekend for West Coast pickleball as the Bay Area Breakers and Los Angeles Mad Drops finished at the top.

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Nick Sanchez is a senior producer for KJZZ's The Show. He joined the station as an intern during the spring of 2022, where he developed a passion for audio storytelling in the Valley.