The year was 2020. As the world sought new ways to stay social safely, who knew that pickleball would emerge as such a strong national pastime? 

The Madison Area Sports Commission did. 

“We were on hiatus from hosting IRONMAN Wisconsin, a world-class event we’d welcomed since 2002,” says Brandon Holstein, Senior Sports Account Manager at the Madison Area Sports Commission (MASC). “As much as we missed bringing thousands of their athletes and fans to our capital city, it gave us time to explore what sports were trending — and where Madison’s offerings may have been lacking. We knew pickleball was rising in popularity and the Professional Pickleball Association had just been established, so we got to work.” 

Pickleball officially started in 1965, but it wasn’t being played in all 50 states until 1990. And although the sport grew steadily, it was another 18 years before the USA Pickleball Association published the Official Tournament Rulebook. In 2022, a major milestone took place: the first-ever Pickleball World Championships drew major media coverage. Which was perfect timing for launching the inaugural Madtown Pickleball Open (MPO). 

Starting from Square One 

On July 14, 2022, the first players took to the courts at Wyndham Hills Park in Sun Prairie. “It may have been beginner’s luck, but launch day could not have been better,” says Holstein. “It was picture-perfect weather, and Mayor Rhodes-Conway was there to welcome media and athletes alike as we officially opened four brand-new courts for four great days of competition and camaraderie. In that moment, all of the heavy lifting to get this tournament off the ground was 100% worth it.” 

In the beginning, there were new community leaders to meet. Key partnerships to make. Format decisions and pricing to set. Every aspect was a balance of leveraging what the team already knew about running tournaments — and learning what they didn’t know. 

Holstein recalls, “The biggest challenge was getting comfortable just taking the risk and trusting our gut instincts. It gave us great insight and respect into what our clients do every day when managing key events that they host in our city.”  

With nearby Sun Prairie signed on as a host and SSM Health as a Presenting Sponsor, the 2022 Madtown Pickleball Open welcomed 250 players, who were also able to make registration donations to the MASC Youth Grant program. In total, MPO has contributed more than $25,000 to this Destination Madison Foundation program, which connects youth in need with sports programs that build lifelong health benefits, teamwork and leadership skills. 

Serving up Success 

By all accounts, year one gave the green light to build on the event for 2023 — and beyond. 

“Pickleball is a game for everyone,” says Holstein, “which perfectly matches Madison’s mantra of ‘all are welcome’ in every sense — and that includes sports.” The simple premise of “grab a paddle, grab a partner” reinforces accessibility and the response has been recordbreaking: in 2023, registrations grew by 50% to 375 players. The Madtown Pickleball Open has quickly become the largest outdoor pickleball tournament in Wisconsin, and organizers will welcome 400+ players to the 2024 tourney.

The Secret to Signature Events 

Heading into year three of the tournament, Holstein and his team now acknowledge it’s more than “beginner’s luck” that’s buoying this tournament. Adding the Madtown Pickleball Open to its existing slate of Signature Events reinforces MASC’s reputation for chasing goals, working hard, being collaborative and getting creative. 

“Our plans right now to grow and scale the MPO are to push boundaries, stay innovative and keep building partnerships,” he says. “All of that with an eye on investment in our local sports community. We want every kid to have the opportunity to participate in sports, whether they prefer pickleball, more classic competitive sports or want to try their hand at whatever the next emerging sport may be.” 

Which begs the question: what is the next emerging sport that MASC plans to add to its Signature Events lineup?  

“We’re always watching trends and looking ahead,” says Holstein. “Cross country, flag football, futsal and spikeball are just a few we’re monitoring for Madison.”