From New Club to National Champs: The Rise of UVA Pickleball

December 4, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

For a quick assessment of the growth of the University of Virginia’s pickleball club, just scroll through the team’s Instagram account. 

Well beyond the posts that tout its recent national championship victory and the others advertising its merchandise is the origin of this rags-to-riches story. 

On Oct. 20, 2020, the club – through @pickleballclubatuva – introduced itself with a photo of two students playing the sport on a rainy court at the Snyder Tennis Center. 

“We’ll post updates here regarding socially-distanced and safe groups as well as photos showcasing our AMAZING pickleball skills,” the post reads. “#NoOneOutPicklesTheHut”

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More than three years later, a punny hashtag is among the many elements no longer needed to attract interest in the club.

On Nov. 19 in Atlanta, UVA won the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating Collegiate National Championship. The title-match win over the University of North Carolina concluded the three-day tournament against teams from 35 other universities.

The Cavaliers were awarded $15,000 for winning the championship.

“The club has just been skyrocketing,” third-year student Alexandra McDonald, a club member and key piece to the title, said. “We’ve had so many people reach out. And the interest has exploded. After everyone saw us win the national championship, we’ve gotten thousands of DMs on Instagram from people wanting to join the team. They’re asking, ‘When are tryouts?’”

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Third-year student Conor Burns, the club’s president, said the members received congratulations from UVA President Jim Ryan after winning the title. 

Since its founding during the COVID days of 2020, the UVA pickleball club has seen a rapid rise in popularity that correlates with an increased nationwide obsession with the sport. Pickleball, often described as a combination of badminton, ping-pong and tennis, is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, according to a report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, with participation rising by nearly 160% during the last three years.

UVA’s pickleball club, which now boasts more than 600 members, is the biggest of its kind in the country, Burns said. 

"It only started with five people [in 2020],” Burns said. “Why there’s so much demand now, it’s attributed to the growth of the sport and the unique atmosphere of the club. People in the club are coming from all levels and are able to play and meet other people on Grounds.” 

A pickleball team member going to the stands and hi fiving a fan

Supporters of UVA’s pickleball club were amped up after the Cavaliers won the national championship in Atlanta. (Contributed photo)

A UVA student of any kind – whether an undergrad or in graduate, medical or law school – is eligible to play on the team as long as they are taking six credit hours. 

Burns and McDonald, both high school tennis players, are part of the co-rec 24-member tournament team that travels and competes in events. There’s also a 75-member social team (with plans to increase to 225 members next semester) that mostly practices with the tournament squad while being involved in other club events like mixers and outings. 

Both the tournament and social teams were determined during a 10-day tryout period earlier this fall. As for the hundreds of others in the club, they’re invited to practice among themselves for two hours on Friday afternoons on the Snyder Tennis Center courts near central Grounds. 

“It’s a big production, as you can imagine,” said Burns of the McIntire School of Commerce, who added he spends upward of 16 hours a week practicing with his teammates or handling club logistics. 

Burns said it’s no coincidence a talented tournament roster emerged from such a crowded tryout. 

After finishing fifth in last year’s national tournament, the Cavaliers added, among others, McDonald to the team. McDonald, an Arlington native who is majoring in both cognitive neuroscience and psychology, is also a member of UVA’s club tennis team, which won a national championship last spring.

A pickleball player action photo during a match
With a slew of high-profile tournaments on the spring schedule, UVA’s pickleball club was back on the practice courts not long after winning the national title. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

She, along with Burns, David Bieger, Eli Mautner and UVA Law student Lauralei Singsank, were UVA’s representatives in Atlanta in the top division of the national championship matches – comprising men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles matches, as well as a singles tiebreaker match against UNC.

The Cavaliers, who qualified for the tournament through success in a regional event, were seeded fifth and took down No. 12 Virginia Tech, No. 4 Texas Christian University, No. 1 Utah Tech and the third-seeded Tar Heels en route to the championship. 

A cash prize, a reward for the winners of many college club pickleball tournaments, is what separates pickleball from other club sports, McDonald said.

“With tennis, I just got a tiny glass plaque,” she said. “So [the money] definitely changes everything. It makes everyone more competitive and fighting even harder for those roster spots.”

Four of the pickleball players holding up their national championship trophy
Club president Conor Burns, far right, helped put together a championship team that included Lauralei Singsank, Eli Mautner and David Bieger. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Burns said the $15,000 earned from the national championship was dispersed among the five competing in the top division and the club’s general funding pool. The prize money total for the tournaments UVA is entering in the spring is around $100,000, he said. 

Though still young, the club is anything but small. 

“Everyone is just more motivated than ever,” Burns said. “There’s a lot of prize money on the line, people are putting a lot of time in, and I think that people are just really committed and eager to do well as individuals, but also for the team and the school.”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications