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How a fast-growing sport found itself in a pickle in India
Pickleball has a unique problem in India (and the world): too many cooks in the kitchen
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It’s not often that a sport gets a rousing endorsement from Bill Gates. “I am a Pickler,” the former Microsoft cofounder declared in a July blog post on his website. Gates’ reference was to pickleball, a sport that he began playing almost five decades ago, in his native state of Washington.
For the uninitiated, Pickleball is a mish-mash of table tennis, tennis and badminton, with some goofy terminologies to boot—‘kitchen’ and ‘dink’ come to mind. The sport is played in a badminton-size court with a wiffle ball (perforated plastic ball with holes), net, and paddles, and players in close proximity to one another. Here’s a neat 16-minute video explainer.
Gates’ endorsement wasn’t untimely. Earlier this year, Washington governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that declared pickleball as the “official state sport”, in recognition of its origins in Bainbridge Island sometime in 1965. Inslee’s act also reinforced how far the sport had come from the days when three families, including a Washington state legislator—Joel Prichard—started playing the sport in their driveway. One of the hotly-contested theories is that the sport was a hat tip to Prichard’s dog, Pickles.
Today, pickleball is deemed the fastest-growing sport in the United States with 4.8 million players. A bulk of the surge in players was between 2019 and 2021. Prominent equipment manufacturers such as Prince and Wilson (tennis) and Joola (table tennis) want a piece of the action. Wall Street is also in on the craze, while a professional league called Major League Pickleball has attracted investment from former tennis player James Blake and hustle guru Gary Vaynerchuk, among others.
While not exactly as big, India too is seeing a quiet (the irony being the sport’s noisy problem) uptake in the sport. According to estimates, there were about 300 players in India in 2018. Today, that has grown to anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 (some even say 10,000). And one of the governing bodies, the All India Pickleball Association (AIPA), wants to scale that up to a million players over the next five years. Just last month, Mumbai-based Sunil Valavalkar was elected to the presidency of the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP), one of the two global governing bodies for the sport.
That sounds rosy until you realise that pickleball doesn’t have its Indian house (or kitchen, if you will) in order.
Pickleball Comes to India
Valavalkar is pickleball-obsessed for a reason. After all, the sport’s arrival in India traces back to his fortuitous trip to a village in Hope, in Canada’s British Columbia province, as part of an Indo-Canadian exchange programme in 1999. That was courtesy Berry Mansfield, Valavalkar’s host in Canada.
“Mansfield would play pickleball in his driveway, much like how we used to play gully cricket in India. He’d erect a net and start playing. Much of my initiation into pickleball happened in Mansfield’s driveway,” Valavalkar tells The Intersection. “We’d play pickleball in the morning, badminton in the afternoon, and tennis in the evening.
Between 1999 and 2006, Valavalkar’s interaction with the sport was what he describes as a “dark period”, and a “time away from pickleball.” But once again, it was on foreign shores that the Mumbai man fell in love with the sport again. This time in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Valavalkar was attending a tennis coaching clinic sponsored by his brother. Tennis, as we learnt, has a close relationship with pickleball.
“I wasn’t playing as well during the clinic and the coach there started yelling, “sideways and swing”, something I’d faintly heard during my time in Mansfield’s driveway. I just started thinking, “Oh my god” and that to me, was a revelation,” he gushes.
“That was when I truly fell in love with pickleball. Ved laagli mala (I became mad about it),” he tells this reporter in Marathi.
Having been sold by pickleball, Valavalkar now wanted to introduce it in India. So he returned with a bagful of paddles and balls. This was sometime in January 2007. But the initial days were hard due to “resistance” and “ridicule”.
Nevertheless, Valavalkar went on to train his then 10-year-old daughter Ruta and eight-year-old niece Abha in a society in Mumbai’s western suburb of Goregaon. “We made demonstration videos, and we’d go to clubs, gymkhanas, and societies like door-to-door salespersons. As much as there was ridicule, there was also interest and curiosity,” he says.
A three-person team evangelising an unheard of sport came with its share of problems. So Valavalkar’s solution was to form the governing body AIPA through the most unusual route— as a Section 25 company (not-for-profit).
The Registrar of Companies didn’t take it seriously at first because nobody knew about pickleball. But Valakalar persisted. After reams of bureaucratic paperwork, AIPA was finally registered on December 12, 2008.
An Army Of Players
Now armed with a registered body and a visiting card, Valavalkar went hammer and tongs in promoting the sport. He first hit up Patkar College in Goregaon, seeking to train the National Cadet Corps (NCC). He’d train 20-25 people, create demonstration videos, and then take it further to build awareness. Next in line was St. Thomas school in Goregaon, where Valavalkar organised 20-day summer camps between 2008 to 2012.
Media attention soon followed. “We’d participate in events and any other forum that’d give us a chance,” he says.
By September 2012, Valavalkar started looking at scale. How could he take pickleball to the national level? His solution: a session with the Sports Authority of India, where he gathered grassroots activists from 22 states at his own expense to explain the pickleball concept and boost the sport’s visibility.
The plan worked. Valavalkar organises a national-level tournament in 2013, with players from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Pondicherry, and even Sikkim vying for pickleball honours at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai. “We had a budget of ₹7 lakh. It happened over four days, and all expenses were taken care of. It was a big starting point for pickleball and AIPA,” he shares.
All of this unfolded at an interesting time for pickleball. Globally, it was seeking to organise under the Arizona-headquartered International Federation of Pickleball (IFP). India would be a founding member alongside the US, Canada, and Spain.
The Global Chaos
It is not unusual for a sport to have multiple governing bodies. Take tennis, which has the International Tennis Federation, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Women’s Tennis Association. Pickleball, fresh with the spurt of growth it witnessed during the pandemic, is also headed this way.
The IFP, formed in the early 2010s, was charged with global governance for pickleball. This meant creating and maintaining rules, organising tournaments, and evangelising the sport.
But an American gymnast named Seymour Rifkind had other ideas in 2017: he formed the World Pickleball Federation (WPF) as a rival to the IFP. “I don’t think any of them had a vision for where the sport could go. If they aren’t interested in doing it, then I have the skill set,” Rifkind was quoted by Sports Illustrated (SI) in May 2022.
The origins of Rifkind’s split with IFP go back to his cult-like status in pickleball, where he developed a not-for-profit trainer certification programme for the sport. But as the SI story details, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) turned him down and went with someone else, citing money as a reason.
In 2022, the global split worsened with nine member countries withdrawing from the IFP. This included the USAPA.
“They’re looking to commercialise the sport, change its rules, and make it more TV-friendly,” claims Valavalkar, now the IFP president. “It is now a battle to protect the game’s soul.”
In 2018, the WPF started recruiting countries once affiliated with the IFP. Thus began a confusing acronym fest in the world of pickleball. And India was now at a crossroads.
Then, There’s Three…
Arvind Prabhoo and Rajath Kankar were working closely to popularise pickleball in India. Mumbai-based Prabhoo started getting involved with the sport sometime in 2018 through the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, an organisation that his father established. Kankar, who is from Bengaluru, heads the Karnataka State Pickleball Association (KSPA).
Today, they find themselves on different sides of the divide. While Prabhoo heads the IFP-affiliated AlPA, Kankar is the secretary of the rival Indian Pickleball Association (IPA), which is affiliated to Rifkind’s WPF. Both bodies claim the backing of 16 or 17 Indian state associations. In most cases, except for open tournaments, IPA players don’t compete in AIPA tournaments, and vice-versa.
The origins of the split, as confirmed by both Prabhoo and Kankar, go back to when AIPA was registered as a Section 25 company, with shareholders and directors. All of this came to a blow during a stormy meeting in 2020, where both parties made their case. “We insisted on governing pickleball by registering as a society under the National Sports Code,” Kankar tells The Intersection.
“When that didn’t happen, all states came together and formed the IPA. We felt the AIPA’s Companies Act registration was a problem in its recognition as a sports body. Also, we felt that one state had a dominant presence, which was not fair,” he adds.
Much like any sporting federation, association, or board in the country, there was a back and forth over undemocratic practices. Prabhoo, however, is conciliatory. “I believe both organisations are run democratically.”
Prior to the split, there was a brief via media: the formation of… wait for it… another federation called the Amateur Pickleball Federation of India (APFI), helmed by Prabhoo. “The idea was to fill a gap in the governance of pickleball. While AIPA had international affiliation and legacy and would maintain that, APFI would serve as the governing body for India. It was registered as a sports trust according to the charitable trust code,” Prabhoo explains. Kankar was named as general secretary, while Prabhoo was president.
It seemed like smooth sailing given the sport’s global fissures, until a member named Manish Rao broke away to align with the WPF as director. Rao was also director of the Maharashtra state association. Since the AIPA and APFI were aligned to IFP (confusing? we get it), Prabhoo gave Manish Rao an ultimatum to choose between Maharashtra’s de-affiliation from AIPA and his WPF directorship.
“The gentleman made his choice and we were left with none—but to de-affiliate Maharashtra,” Prabhoo says.
The Mumbai-based Rao clarified to The Intersection, that his intentions to join the WPF as a director was merely exploratory, and at an individual level. “I was with the IFP for 2018, and in 2019, I was their social media director. They’d been wanting to work with me for a while. I chose to join them as a director in 2020.” Rao also served as the CEO of the WPF, before stepping down.
The final split, according to Rao, came at an emergency meeting in February 2021 to discuss his alleged rebellion and Maharashtra’s deaffiliation. The meeting was called by Kankar, then the APFI general secretary, with its legal validity questioned by Praboo. The meeting proceeded without Prabhoo’s presence, and several state associations decided to split to form what is now the IPA. “Honestly speaking, all of this is a farce,” says Rao of both his ouster, and the events that followed.
Cut to 2022, both AIPA and IPA say they’re working steadfastly to promote the sport. The IPA recently organised an Indian Premier League-like tournament named the Southern India Premier League. The association also is due to hold its second “nationals” in Madhya Pradesh in October. The AIPA and APFI, on the other hand, are scheduled to host the Bainbridge Cup, pickleball’s premier international tournament sometime later this year, a first in Asia.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Indian players selected by both associations were pitted against each other at Phuket, where the Asian Pickleball Championships were held this year. Both tasted glory: while AIPA-selected players (competing as AIPA India) won 29 medals, the IPA players (competing as Team India IPA 1 and IPA 2), won 36 medals, according to Kankar.
“We were cheering for each other despite competing. We didn’t care. As long as they were Indian players, we were rooting for them,” says Prabhoo.
For Sunnidhi Jain, a 12th grade student from Chennai—and a former state-ranked badminton player—pickleball has gone from being a curiosity to an obsession.
It helped that she had a background in a racquet sport. Today, Jain plays the sport at least thrice a week in Chennai’s Nanganallur area. The city currently has about 60-70 active players, according to Tamil Nadu Pickleball Association president Purushothaman Ganesh. Pickleball’s popularity has also expanded to places such as Kanchipuram and Coimbatore.
“I think I can go professional since I’ve moved up the rankings in the Under-19 category,” Jain tells The Intersection, while adding that the backing she received from her school and friends was instrumental in her rise.
Then there's Petulia Balaji, a former airline employee and a freelance travel consultant, who at 57+ years is the oldest player in Chennai. A javelin thrower in her school days, Balaji was instantly mesmerised by pickleball.
“The sport encourages anyone over the age of 30 to play. But beyond the sporting part, it is the community, family-like feeling that drew me even more,” she tells The Intersection. “It was a great way for someone like myself to keep fit. I try to play every day for at least an hour or two.”
Even though Balaji is a board member at the IPA-affiliated TNPA, she feels that multiple bodies is a bad look for pickleball. “There is a need for a united federation to grow the sport,” she says.
Jain, the younger pickleball player, concurs. “Hopefully things will move soon and we’ll have one body.”
Rao, the former WPF CEO is more hopeful about a single body soon. “There seems to be some movement with the unified pickleball task force, and their negotiations with the WPF. The IFP was once powerful, but very soon might be relegated,” he added.
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