The inaugural Minto US OPEN Pickleball Championships, held in Naples, Florida, in 2016, brought in 808 athletes (ranging in age from 12 to 89) from seven countries and 39 states. It also attracted 10,000 to 12,000 spectators and generated a whopping $2.5 million in economic impact for Collier County.
The event, held at East Naples Community Park, used 48 pickleball courts as well as the Zing Zang Championship court, where high-level matches and finals were played. It also received national media attention, being broadcast on CBS Sports Network, and is already planning its next event (April 23-30, 2017). And in the past few months, the event has broadened, with producer Spirit Promotions offering US OPEN Pickleball Academy camp experiences, to satisfy the demand from those who want to learn the sport, play better or even compete at a higher level.
Sports Destination Management: The inaugural event was huge. Was it everything you hoped for?
Terri Graham: It far exceeded our expectations. We knew what we had was good, but we weren’t expecting things to grow the way they did. The event started out as a little snowball and day by day, that snowball was growing.
SDM: When did you realize it was going to be as big as it was?
Graham: When people started showing up; it was incredible. The tournament wasn’t supposed to start until Wednesday of that week, so we thought we would set up the weekend before. But by Friday night, people started coming to the park, and by Saturday afternoon, the parking lot was filled. This was before matches even started. Then, the media started showing up. We had 30 media members – all kinds of different people representing all the networks as well as all the publications, plus publications I’d never even heard of.
On Saturday night, the stands were full and it was time for the National Anthem. We had a nine-year-old girl who was singing it. I was standing off to myself and I looked around and saw the color guard and saw people with tears in their eyes, and I just said, Wow. Oh, wow. It was an incredible moment. That was the point for me. All I could think was, 'Look what we did.'
There were plenty of other moments; I remember at one point looking around during mixed doubles and seeing the VIP tent was rocking and everyone was having a great time – but for me, it was the National Anthem. That was when I knew.
SDM: Is there anything you plan to do differently next year?
Graham: All the things we were thinking about at this year! We had all these people coming in early, so we could have had early registration – and we’ll do that next year – and we could have had some food trucks for them – which we’ll be doing next year as well. Saturday and Sunday were our two hottest days, and so we’ll do more for shade coverage next year. It was really hot on and around the championship court.
SDM: Will you need to add more courts?
Graham: I think we’ll go with the same amount of courts; our focus will just be on adding more shade.
SDM: And you had outstanding economic impact, not just for a first-time event but in general. $2.5 million is outstanding.
Graham: The cool thing is not just how much it brought in but the fact that it brought it into Naples during its offseason. People got really good prices on hotels, rental cars and airfares. If we’d had the event in February, those costs would have been doubled. Collier County is ecstatic about it. They had hired a consulting agency out of Chicago to come down and do a report on sports tourism. The report basically said, “Look at what was done with pickleball here and try to emulate that.” That, to us, was the ultimate compliment.
SDM: How do you think the event was received by those present?
Graham: We did a survey, and found out that 87 percent of the people who responded were satisfied with the event.
SDM: Did the event run into any problems?
Graham: Not problems, just hiccups, really. Of course, our parking lot was full before the event even started so we said, ‘Okay, we’ll use the overflow parking.’ That filled up so we had to use overflow-overflow parking. We probably had a few thousand cars parking each day. There were shuttles going back and forth constantly.
SDM: What kind of a staff were you working with to put on everything?
Graham: There were three of us that put this together; then we had over 200 volunteers. It never would have come together without them.
SDM: Your sponsor was Minto Communities, which is an over-50 housing developer. That’s the target audience for pickleball. Minto must have been thrilled.
Graham: Minto sold four homes that weekend alone and had over 100 legitimate leads. They are returning as our sponsor.
SDM: And now, Spirit Promotions has launched the US OPEN Pickleball Academy, also at East Naples Community Park. That sounds like a great opportunity.
Graham: Yes – it’s a camp that includes clinics, instruction and tournament play, as well as video analysis of stroke technique. But it also has yoga on the beach, nutrition information and social activities in the evening. There's a sunset cruise the last night. We want people to know they can go to Naples for a three- to five-day academy and make a vacation out of it.
SDM: So it’s not pickleball only?
Graham: No, if all you want to do is eat, sleep and play pickleball, this isn’t for you. There’s a ton of pickleball, but it’s also about making your life better, using a holistic approach.
SDM: Where did the idea come from?
Graham: Simone Jardim, our US OPEN singles champion, was having a conversation with me, and she happened to mention she was thinking of doing something down here. We started brainstorming, along with (Spirit Promotion partners) Jim Ludwig and Chris Evon and we came up with a really good plan. The academy directors are Chad Edwards, Simone Jardim and Jim Ludwig. The first event was held October 7-10.
SDM: Do you anticipate expanding on it?
Graham: It’s something that we definitely see offering year-round, at least once a month. Pickleball is in its infancy and people are dying to get instruction. There are some really good pickleball camps popping up, but there’s still a huge demand. We’re going to be working with a couple hotels who have partnered with us on the US OPEN. I suspect in a year we will be doing academies for up to 100 people at a time; we are also considering offering one-day events for people who are local.
SDM: Collier County must be really excited as well.
Graham: It’s something that will bring more people into Naples, which is great. What this city is doing for this sport is second to none.
SDM: Which of course begs the question: What was it that originally drew you to Naples for this event?
Graham: We decided on Naples because the community and the local visitors bureau were very supportive of growing the event with us. They saw our vision and immediately put into place a plan that would upgrade East Naples Community Park into the mecca of the world of pickleball. They went above and beyond our initial goals and they have become a very important partner in developing an area that will support the demand of pickleball players and spectators for our event.
The tournament was successful because of our volunteers and our title sponsor Minto Communities. We were able to achieve the impossible in the very first year because of these two important factors of our event. We could not have put on such a world class event without so many great volunteers and the support from Minto. Also, Naples is paradise and everyone should visit paradise at least once in their lifetime!