This summer, the Carvana PPA Tour made a splash when it became the first pickleball organization to sanction events offered in the U.S. legal sports wagering market.

The debut enabled pickleball enthusiasts to bet on Ben Johns, who has emerged in recent years as the Novak Djokovic of pickleball. Johns, a winner of more than 80 titles on the tour, is ranked first in men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles. At one point in 2019, Johns maintained a 108-match winning streak in singles and went undefeated in mixed doubles for 22 straight tournaments.

In August, FanDuel began offering odds on Pro Pickleball Association matches, beginning with the Vulcan Kansas City Open Presented by Chicken N Pickle. Bettors at FanDuel have the option of wagering on a litany of markets, including match winners, correct match scores, total points, and head-to-head offerings. Befitting his reputation, Johns dominated throughout the week, capturing a triple crown with titles in singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles.

“The launch of pickleball betting has been massive for the sport’s continued growth,” PPA Tour founder and CEO Connor Pardoe told Sports Handle.

Mainstream appeal

The launch of pickleball betting marked the culmination of an exhaustive two-year process that began in 2021 when the tour forged a partnership with Genius Sports that granted the provider exclusive data rights to PPA matches.

Since August, FanDuel has accepted wagers on two other PPA tournaments: the Baird Wealth Management Cincinnati Open in September and last month’s Guaranteed Rate PPA Championships in Las Vegas.

FanDuel is not taking action on this week’s Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships in Dallas. The tournament is run by USA Pickleball, the national governing body for the nation’s fastest-growing sport. As a result, the PPA Tour does not have the data rights for an event that is being billed as the “largest pickleball tournament” on record.

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Still, the tournament is receiving a considerable amount of fanfare. On Tuesday night, 2022 Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and Anna Leigh Waters defeated Johns and former Wimbledon semifinalist John Isner in an exhibition match. At one point, Scheffler outdueled Johns with his dexterity at the net. The exhibition was one of seven matches held during the Celebrity Pickleball Showdown, which also featured a tilt between former Dallas Mavericks teammates Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd.

Further partnerships with major books

This week’s tournament is being held roughly a year after sports celebrities such as Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Michael Phelps invested in pro pickleball teams. In September, Major League Pickleball (MLP) and The PPA Tour agreed to a strategic merger, backed by a $50 million investment from several prominent private equity firms. Nowitzki owns a stake in the MLP’s Dallas Pickleball Club, along with Mark Cuban, Chandler Parsons, Isner, and several others.

Speaking at the Sports Business Journal’s Dealmakers conference last fall, Cuban pointed to gambling as one of the largest growth drivers in sports.

Pardoe expects the PPA Tour to expand rapidly in the near future to several other top betting apps. Pardoe listed DraftKings, BetMGM, and PointsBet as potential partners for the tour.

As Djokovic can attest, perfection for Johns or any other star athlete is nearly impossible. Since FanDuel went live with pickleball betting, Johns won eight of nine tournaments on the tour’s three divisions, winning at a clip around 95%. But Johns suffered a stunning defeat on Thursday, falling to No. 16 seed Christopher Haworth 11-4, 11-4. Had FanDuel offered odds on the match, Haworth may have commanded double-digit moneyline odds in the range of +1000 to +1200.

Had Fanatics set lines through PointsBet’s patented PointsBetting apparatus, a bettor could have made a killing on Haworth at $100 a point. Hypothetically, if PointsBet set the spread at Johns -16 points, a bettor who backed Haworth would have made around $3,000.

The potential for offering exotic betting markets is tempting, as it provides loads of entertainment for pickleball aficionados watching from home. But for now, the PPA does not have immediate plans for rolling out in-game wagers, single-game parlays, or futures.

When books post lines on sports such as tennis and golf, the operators have years of historical data sets to train their algorithms. If Djokovic takes on Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open, a provider such as Sportradar has data from the latter’s upset over Djokovic in the 2016 U.S. Open final, or even back to Wawrinka’s defeat 17 years ago in Croatia. The data sets are a critical tool for in-game betting, helping providers instantly spit out feeds that can account for Djokovic’s proclivity to rally from a two-set deficit.

In pickleball, though, it may take several years to accumulate data on Johns’ ability to rally from a 9-1 deficit against Haworth.

Speaking on this spring’s PicklePod with Zane Navratil, Pardoe articulated the numerous inputs required for developing a robust algorithm. The data engine needs to account for how Navratil, a top-20 player, fares in individual sets against Tyson McGuffin, the tour’s third-ranked singles player. The algos may require additional data on if McGuffin is a “slow starter,” Pardoe explained, or if Johns “rolls out of bed” for an early match.

FanDuel purchases the PPA’s data feeds from Genius Sports’ BetGenius, a company spokesman told Sports Handle. At the moment, FanDuel does not conduct any of its pickleball trading in-house, he noted.

Match integrity at the forefront

In light of the steady flow of match-fixing scandals in lower-level pro tennis, the PPA Tour worked feverishly to come up with robust safeguards for match manipulation. The tour enlisted Sportradar to establish a sports betting integrity framework as a method for educating players on the pitfalls of wagering on league events. The PPA Tour also has a portal on its website that allows players to self report any suspicions of nefarious activities.

“I believe that we’re ahead of the game when it comes to integrity,” said Justin Mader, who serves as gambling operations manager for The PPA Tour.

So far, the tour has not received a single report of suspicious betting activity, Mader told Sports Handle.

The PPA has yet to adopt a computer vision system such as Hawk Eye for tracking line calls in tournament play. While the tour continually invests in new technology to enhance the quality of play, the tour is researching a variety of options for a line-calling system, Pardoe said.

Although the PPA has not released metrics on wagering handle or gross gaming revenue, Pardoe is optimistic that betting on pickleball will become an increasingly popular practice with its “current and future fanbase.”

“It added a new dimension to fan engagement with respect to our tournaments, and created a thirst of knowledge about our players’ respective games and stats,” he emphasized.

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