AVALON – Philadelpha, Daytona Beach, Houston, and Avalon – all of these cities host professional pickleball tournaments through the Association of Pickleball Players (APP), but one of these things is not like the others.
Avalon is by far the smallest among them, and Scott Wahl, Avalon’s business administrator, along with tournament organizers and locals, says the APP Sunmed New Jersey Open brought big money and big exposure to the borough.
Although the APP does not require professional players to sign exclusive contracts, their tournaments bring together some of the most accomplished pickleball players in the world. The New Jersey Open in Avalon is no different.
“Some of the professional players came out in private jets,” Wahl said. “We had no idea what we were going to get ourselves into with a tournament of this size.”
Wahl feared that the pickleball crowds would place an undue strain on municipal infrastructure and services. To fight against this, the borough brought in extra bathrooms, ran a free jitney service to bring guests to and from parking, and made sure that the Avalon Rescue Squad was on standby for the five-day tournament.
The tournament was the first to be played on new pickleball courts that wrapped up construction on 8th Street and Dune Drive just days before the New Jersey Open came to town.
Amy Sherman, one of 210 volunteers who helped run the event, told the Herald that these new courts were finished “just in time” for the tournament.
“They literally wrapped up construction the Friday before the event,” she said.
Sherman, a Sea Isle City local, entered the New Jersey Open’s amateur bracket and snuck in some games while she was not volunteering. She has played pickleball for a decade but noted an exponential increase in participation since she first learned the sport.
Tracie Holmes, Avalon’s “Pickleball Ambassador,” said that when she first started organizing pickleball play in Avalon, there were 400 people signed up to receive notifications via the TeamReach app. That number has risen to 1,500 in Avalon alone. Cape May County, as a whole, has over 5,000 pickleball players, she said.
Dana Walker, another pickleball ambassador, retired with her husband to Cape May County from Philadelphia. Her Rio Grande pickleball group has over 1,000 members.
Ron Skotarczak, a Union County resident who owns a second home in Avalon, wiped the sweat off his brow while he chatted with the Herald between matches Sept. 8. He had just lost his first match of the day, but said he was “really satisfied” with his performance.
“The game was competitive and I feel good, especially since this is my first official tournament and I was playing against a pro,” he said.
Skotarczak is a player with a competitive rank of 4.5, just one notch below the lowest “professional” rating of 5.
Tom Webb, a representative from the APP, told the Herald that their tournaments bring up to $3 million dollars of inward investment when they come to a town.
“That figure is more accurate for a larger event, up to 1,500 entrants, but the minimum economic impact is $1.5 million,” he said, citing economic impact studies commissioned after their events came to town.
The tournament was broadcast live on CBS Sports, an anomalous event for the small borough. Webb said the televised portion of the tournament is “essentially a free ad for Avalon.”
Corporate sponsors, uncommon at Cape May County events, set up tents outside the courts while professional and amateur athletes competed in two distinct brackets. “Monster Girls,” models who work for Monster Energy, handed out free Reign energy drinks to players, many of whom were puzzled but willing to try a new beverage.
Some local businesses stayed open after Labor Day – the unofficial end of the summer tourism season – to capitalize on the tournament hype, which brought 450 entrants and many more spectators. Avalon’s Chamber of Commerce created a QR code that was scannable on-site that helped guests find their way around town. It showed visitors which businesses were open.
“Last year, I had a hard time finding a bagel on a morning after Labor Day,” Wahl said, “but this year, a lot more businesses have stayed open.”
Wahl said that this event is not a one-off.
“We are already in talks to bring it back next year,” he said.
He does not believe that the pickleball craze is a fad.
“I don’t think we have even hit the top of the bell curve on this,” he added.
But of all places in America, why did such a large tournament come to Avalon?
Wahl said that many professional pickleball players have second homes in Avalon, and that the time they already spend here, coupled with the fervent local pickleball community, piqued the APP’s interest.
“They approached us,” Wahl said.
Webb said that Avalon has been one of the best partners of any stop on APP’s worldwide tour.
“Avalon’s city officials, folks at the venue, law enforcement – they are standard-setting in the way they work with us. They are friendly, approachable, they represent your city in an incredibly positive way. And I genuinely mean that, I’m not just trying to speak up your town,” he said.
Avalon Mayor John McCorristin hopes that the tournament will return next year.
“Tournaments like the APP Sunmed New Jersey Open bring new visitation to town beyond the summer season and result in additional rentals and downtown economic activity that we may not experience otherwise,” he said.
“We are hopeful the tour will consider us next year, as we can build on the success of this year’s tournament,” he added.
Did you play in the APP New Jersey Open? Have a pickleball scoop? Contact the author at email@example.com or give him a call at 609-886-8600, ext. 156.