The APPL Story
The seeds were planted for what now has become the Arizona Pickleball Players League (APPL) in 2012. Greg Mather (president and founder of APPL) received a call from his good friend Dave Zapatka. Dave had been approached by a pickleball contact in Fountain Hills, AZ wondering if Dave had a few friends that would be interested in driving from where they resided, in Sun Lakes and Chandler, to Fountain Hills to play some competitive pickleball. Greg and Dave quickly accepted the offer as they often talked about how frustrating it was playing the same group of people in their area. Everyone knew everyone else’s game and what to expect when they played against each other. So they rounded up a few other guys and headed for Fountain Hills.
What ensued was an afternoon of exhilarating pickleball, experiencing players with different techniques and play styles with a social and competitive balance that they really hadn’t experienced before. It was on the way back that Greg, who was already running a local Tuesday Team Tennis league, and a co-captain for a successful USTA league tennis team thought players at other developing pickleball clubs must be experiencing the same frustrations he and Dave were and would certainly enjoy playing people at other clubs much like those involved in the tennis league did. Discussions with other local pickleball clubs confirmed that suspicion and shortly after, the first East Valley Interclub League (EVIL) was formed starting out as a men’s league with teams from Ahwatukee (ARC), Sun Lakes Cottonwood, Sun Lakes IronOaks, Solera and Trilogy.
After EVIL’s first season, other communities with developing pickleball programs expressed interest in joining EVIL. It was also requested that EVIL be expanded to include a women’s division. As a result, the second season kicked off with 6 men’s teams and 5 women’s teams. The league continued to grow with teams from other communities and other cities in the Phoenix Metro East Valley participating. Season 4 added a mixed doubles division and by Season 5 there were 5 teams competing in mixed doubles. Also in Season 5 the divisions were separated into 2 skill level groups in an effort to level the competitive playing field as players over the past 5 years were improving their skills and new players were joining their clubs and learning the sport and wanted to participate in team-based league pickleball. EVIL has grown every year since its inception and in Season 8 had 34 teams and over 400 players participating.
So where does APPL come in? As EVIL continued to grow, more and more pickleball players became aware of and interested in team-based league pickleball. EVIL remained a 50+ interclub league which required you to be at least 50 years of age and be a member of the club you were playing for. Younger players were interested in EVIL as well as players who didn’t belong to any particular community or club. At the same time, pickleball players were experiencing some frustrations with the existing and growing tournament structure. It was becoming harder to get into tournaments, more expensive, often required a long commute and would usually require a full day in order to play several competitive matches. It became clear. EVIL needed to grow beyond just an East Valley Interclub League.
Having considerable experience with USTA’s tennis league format where teams compete locally all the way up to nationally with a national finals, Greg felt it was crazy not to have a similar offering for pickleball players. In 2019 a small core team was formed and the Arizona Pickleball Players League was piloted. The pilot (called the Salad League) consisted of 6 men’s teams competing in a 4.5/5.0 skill group. Each team had rosters of 10 to 14 players from which 6 would play on match day. During the 3 month pilot several women players often observed and expressed an interest in forming a women’s division. It was happening the same way EVIL happened 7 years earlier, but more quickly.
Feedback after completion of the pilot was extremely positive. Not long after the pilot ended, Greg was contacted by a group in Casa Grande who wanted to bring an “EVIL like” format to the communities in the Casa Grande area. After a couple meetings to explain APPL and how the intent was to expand throughout Arizona and ultimately nationally, the Casa Grande group became a part of APPL and two regions were defined; The Casa Grande region with one regional league (SAPPL) and the East Valley Region with 2 regional leagues (EVIL and Red APPL). EVIL remained in tact and Red APPL’s participation requirements were 18 years or older without the requirement to be a member of a club. In other words anyone could form a team in a skill group and compete in the league.
APPL was incorporated in late 2019 as a nonprofit corporation with the following mission statement: To provide infrastructure and leadership for the operation and expansion of amateur competitive team-based pickleball for men and women throughout the state of Arizona. The inaugural season kicked off in 2020 after a tremendous amount of work by a dedicated, all volunteer core team (the APPL Core). The first regional playoffs between winners of the Casa Grande skill groups and the East Valley skill groups was scheduled to occur the last week in March. Unfortunately our national health priorities required cancelation of what was to be an exciting and fun event.
APPL’s Season 2021 looks to be even more exciting. Expansion into the Tucson area is underway as well as expansion into the Phoenix West Valley area. Adding these 2 additional regions (Southern and West Valley) will bring the total to 4 regions with skill group winners in each region competing for the APPL State Championship. Inquiries are also coming in from other states interested in the APPL format and developing team-based league pickleball in their areas. At some point in the near future, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the A in APPL stay the same, but stand for America.