New Jersey’s All State Pickleball League Brings Competitive Play To Everyday Players In The Garden State

By Bob Reinert
Red Line Editorial

What began with an idea between three friends could one day blossom into a national pickleball league that bridges the gap between recreational and highly competitive tournament players in the sport.

For now, cofounders Stephen Conger, Michele Dabal and Tracie Holmes will settle for — to their knowledge — the first statewide pickleball league for the average player. The All State Pickleball League resides in New Jersey, using public parks and private facilities to bring the sport to those more interested in weekly league play than high-level, high-stakes tournaments.

The conversations about starting a statewide pickleball league began in May 2022, Conger said.

“We spent significant time throughout the summer meeting and planning and trying to get this thing off the ground and make it work,” he said. “We targeted fall for our first inaugural season.”

The concept met with immediate success when the league opened in fall 2022.

“We ended up having … 66 teams and probably almost 700 players throughout the state of New Jersey competing in either the 3.0, 3.5 or 4.0 divisions,” Conger said. “And then from there, we had a playoff for all the division champs at Mercer Bucks Pickleball Club.”

An impressive start, no doubt, but Conger and his colleagues were just getting warmed up. As the spring season gets underway, the league is expected to top 100 teams and 1,000 players.

“We basically almost doubled,” Holmes said. “Which, to me, it says the format is successful and the league is successful. People are hearing good things about it and wanting to join.”

And, according to Dabal, lack of court space has actually held back growth.

“We could have probably another 20 teams if we had court space and people that wanted to just put their neck out a little bit to be a captain,” Dabal said.

Part of the draw is that the league has become a USA Pickleball club member and offers insurance. The league’s operating costs are covered by annual fees of $30 per player.

“We’re not in this to make money,” Conger said. “We think we’ve identified an area that is lacking. For us, it’s more about the player experience.”

As Conger pointed out, all three founders have extensive experience with pickleball, including as active participants in the league.

“I’m also a certified coach, Michele is a certified coach,” Conger said. “All three of us are also USA Pickleball Ambassadors.”

Holmes used her extensive experience with the U.S. Tennis Association to fashion schedules and a format for the league.

“I ran several youth leagues,” she said. “And then I worked for USTA for about 15 years as a league coordinator running their leagues in Philadelphia and south Jersey. And then I also ran a private club league.”

Conger added that the cofounders couldn’t do this statewide league without help, however. Team captains serve a role “almost like the team coach,” he said, “and without them, there wouldn’t be a league.”

The team captains recruit players whom they are certain can play throughout a 10- to 12-week schedule. Each team is capped at 12 players who are slotted in divisions based on skill levels.

“We don’t have our own facilities, so we’re relying on public parks or private entities who are willing to host teams and let other teams come in and compete,” said Conger, adding that team captains usually secure the sites. “We’re able to get certificates of insurance through the (USA Pickleball) club membership and get that location covered.”

Currently, the directors are preparing for the upcoming spring season.

“We’ve had some good carryover, and then a lot of new teams coming in,” Conger said.

Having already made minor forays into the Philadelphia area and Delaware, the league is poised for future growth out of the Garden State.

“We’ve done a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Conger said. “We surveyed all the players, all the team captains at the end of the season, and overwhelmingly, the response has been positive.

“We have talked about the possibility of, in a sense, being a nationwide league in terms of having one league in each state and then the winners of states progressing to regionals, progressing to nationals. We’ve laid out that groundwork and what it would kind of look like from our end.

“None of us think that this wave of pickleball enthusiasm has even peaked yet, let alone is receding,” he added. “We think we’re still sort of riding that wave closer to the shore.”

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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