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Smashing expectations, Virginia pickleball has risen to the top

The team clinched a National Championship last semester, and they aren’t stopping now

<p>Few believed that Virginia had a chance against the consensus top team in the country, but the Cavaliers pulled off the upset.&nbsp;</p>

Few believed that Virginia had a chance against the consensus top team in the country, but the Cavaliers pulled off the upset. 

The Virginia pickleball club is one of the most popular and fastest growing clubs on Grounds. With over 500 members and a tournament team that is entering the semester on the heels of a National Championship win, the team is a national sensation. The president and vice president of the club discussed their experiences with the club in a recent interview with The Cavalier Daily. 

The president of the club is third-year Commerce student Conor Burns. He only began playing pickleball relatively recently, having gotten into the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic. Burns played soccer in high school and, like several others on the team, has a tennis background. 

The club’s vice president, second-year College student Braden Ciszek, has been playing the sport for over 10 years. He was born and raised in New York, but his mom is from Seattle — where pickleball was invented — and he learned about the game from her. She has been playing pickleball since the 1980s, and the two still play on their backyard basketball court.

When Burns first became involved with the club during his second year, there were only about 60 members and it was largely informal, with few collegiate pickleball teams to compete against. Entering this year, however, the collegiate pickleball landscape has changed dramatically.

“Now tryouts are extremely competitive, especially for the tournament team,” Burns said. 

The club’s spike in numbers underscore pickleball’s ever-growing popularity. Pickleball is the United States’ fastest growing sport for the fifth year in a row, with 48.3 million adults having played at least one game in the past year according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals. The sport’s accessibility makes it appealing for everyone. Pickleball can be played by people of all ages, allowing students to play with their younger siblings, parents and even grandparents. One big contributor to the broad appeal, Burns says, is its flexibility. 

“You can play the sport however you want to play it,” Burns said. “If you want to just play around, if you want to play with friends, if you want to play at the super competitive level, it has all those levels available.”

With the sport’s quick rise and similarly to other collegiate sports, the impact and importance of Name, Image and Likeness deals is growing. NIL deals are agreements between student-athletes and third-parties, such as sporting brands, and Virginia pickleball has struck two of these deals, which Burns said has contributed to the club’s continued growth. 

The first partnership is with ProXR, a major company in the pickleball equipment industry. The club has committed to an exclusive sponsorship deal, with the entire 24-person tournament team exclusively using ProXR paddles. Additionally, the club is set to sign an exclusive deal with Head Pickleball — another major company in the pickleball world — and will exclusively wear the company’s shoes.

“I think that’s a big milestone for our teams,” Burns said. “In terms of where the money is in pickleball, and for our success.” 

On top of these corporate sponsorships, the team is also talking with the Professional Pickleball Association — one of the most prominent professional pickleball leagues in the country — about participating in one of their tournaments in North Carolina. This would be the first time the PPA would have a college team at one of their events.

Beyond the flashy brand deals, the club has also found a way to balance competition with camaraderie. This semester, the club’s two competition teams have grown to 175 members, with the rest of the club’s 500 members comprising the social club. The two sets of teams practice together multiple times a week, allowing those on the social team to face tough competition while letting those on the tournament team embrace the social component.

“It’s a very nice wake-up moment for me,” Ciszek said.” To step back and be like, yeah, this is great, playing pickleball with a bunch of people who are here to have a good time. I don’t have to stress about every point.”

After placing fifth at the 2022 National Championships — and after a year’s worth of practices and tournaments — the team pulled out the title-match win over North Carolina in November 2023 to bring home the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating National Championship. Few believed that Virginia had a chance against the consensus top team in the country, but the Cavaliers pulled off the upset. 

“I think we played more tournaments than any other college, and so I think that practice, all those weekends we were away, really paid off,” Burns said. “In the end when we won, I was just like ‘This was all worth it.’”

With the sport’s massive rise in popularity, combined with the amount of talent on the team, the pickleball club makes an effort to provide resources for players who want to continue playing after graduation. Although Ciszek said that there aren’t a ton of players on the team with ambitions to become professionals, he made the comparison to golf, emphasizing the networking opportunities within the sport. 

“We’ve talked with professional organizations,” Ciszek said. “We’ve actually had people come in and talk to us about what the path looks like for going pro.”

Focusing more on the present, however, Virginia has big plans for the upcoming semester and will be hitting the road even more than they are used to. The Cavaliers are heading to tournaments in North Carolina, Cincinnati, Ohio and even as far as San Diego, Calif. The San Diego tournament, in particular, stands out as a promising opportunity. 

“I’m really excited for that one,” Ciszek said. “It’s the first collegiate tournament for a new organization [Association of Pickleball Players] that is trying to set up in the collegiate space, and they’re opening up with this massive San Diego tournament.” 

Leading all of college pickleball, the Virginia pickleball club is smashing expectations and has no intention of slowing down. With a number of high-stakes tournaments coming up this semester, they have an opportunity to solidify their status atop of the collegiate pickleball world and continue their growth as one of Virginia’s most unique club sports. 


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