UTR Sports Hosts its First Golden Ticket Qualifier in World’s Largest Indoor Pickleball Facility

UTR Sports Hosts its First Golden Ticket Qualifier in World’s Largest Indoor Pickleball Facility


MACON, GA. – The Belk department store blouses and shorts disappeared long ago from this 166,000-square-foot space at the Macon Mall, once the largest in the state of Georgia.

The economic realities of online shopping, which have shuttered department stores and malls across the country, didn’t spare the former economic hub that saw Belk depart in 2012.

But better days could be on their way for the Macon Mall, 75 minutes southeast of Atlanta, and UTR Sports recently played a big part in the revitalization effort. Alongside USA Pickleball (USAP), UTR Sports hosted the UTR Sports Macon Open Golden Ticket tournament from May 29 to June 2.

The five-day national pickleball tournament welcomed more than 500 players – totaling 892 registrations – all vying for spots at the 2024 Biofreeze USAP National Championships, which will take place November 10-17 at the Arizona Athletic Grounds in Mesa, Arizona.

The prestigious tournament in Macon was the first Golden Ticket event that UTR Sports has hosted and the first large, national tournament to be held at Rhythm and Rally, which boasts 32 courts across two levels and the title of “world’s largest indoor pickleball facility.”

Enthusiastic leaders and players from across the country enjoyed the event.

“You win a Golden Ticket that punches your ticket to Nationals, so this is a big deal,” Mike Nealy, CEO of USAP, told UTR Sports.

USAP, the national governing body of pickleball in the U.S., and UTR Sports announced a historic partnership in April to establish UTR Sports as the technology, software, and rating/rankings partner of USAP for their tournaments, leagues, and recreational activities, including the prestigious 2024 Biofreeze USAP National Championships.

Woman competes and smiles at the UTR Sports Macon Open Golden Ticket

“We can't run all the Golden Tickets that we need to feed Nationals, and so we needed partners. It was a natural fit to extend our partnership into the event itself,” Nealy said.

Mark Leschly, CEO and Chairman of UTR Sports, shared in that excitement for hosting the Golden Ticket qualifier and establishing the new partnership.

“We’ve been looking forward to this for about a year and a half now since we decided to go into pickleball,” Leschly said. “We jumped in first with a rating system, been cranking away on that, really optimizing that, working closely on that. And then we have a wonderful partnership with USAP. And this is it – the penultimate Golden Ticket event in Macon, Ga. The facility’s unbelievable, two floors of this.”

Mark Leschly, Mike Nealy, and Chase Hodges watch pickleball action at the UTR Sports Macon Open Golden Ticket event

Thirteen Golden Ticket Qualifier Events are part of the journey to the 2024 USAP Nationals. Next month, UTR Sports will host its second of two Golden Ticket Qualifiers, another opportunity for pickleball players to secure their place in Nationals.

The UTR Sports Denver Metro Open Golden Ticket will take place July 10-14 at the Marquardt-Miles Outdoor Pickleball Courts in Arvada, Colo. Registration closes at 11 p.m. (MDT) on June 26.

“We're still in inning one and two here in terms of the opportunity where we can deliver and provide, but we're super thrilled,” Leschly said.

Leschly even competed in the Macon event, securing a Golden Ticket with his son Lane Leschly in the Men’s Doubles 6.0 UTR-P 19+ division.

Chase Hodges, UTR Sports Vice President, added: "This has been an incredible event for us, five days of high-level pickleball for amateurs. The partnership with USA Pickleball has been tremendous. For us to be here at the world's largest indoor pickleball facility, with over 500 players... a lot of players playing multiple events. I truly think it's been a first-class event, and we've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the players."

Players first competed in a round-robin, which usually featured three matches, before entering the playoffs (elimination phase) for gold, silver, and bronze medals.

“The level was tough, really tough,” Erika Von Heiland Strader said after finishing with a silver medal in Mixed Doubles 5.5 UTR-P 40+, 50+. “Good experience. I'm just trying to get more experience every day.”

Von Heiland Strader (right), who lives in Atlanta, competed in badminton in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and 1996 Atlanta Olympics. After retiring, she underwent a double knee replacement but picked up pickleball nearly two years ago and has become enamored with the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.

“I'm absolutely addicted. I play probably three hours a day, sometimes 10 days in a row," she said. “What I love about this sport is that you have high-level athletes from every sport merging into this nice pickleball community. And so it's very hard to read the different styles, which is awesome, right?”

High-level athletes, as well as beginner-level players, were all competing at Rhythm & Rally’s world-class facility that, not long ago, was just an abandoned mall.

To General Manager John Roberts, the UTR Sports Macon Open Golden Ticket event was validation of the vision city leaders had when they decided to transform the space and partner with Rhythm & Rally.

“This has been a dream,” Roberts said. “Watching y'all work and the amount of personnel you brought in, in addition to signage. The tournament software has run smoothly. It's been a great experience, and hopefully the start of a lengthy relationship between facility and provider.”

Pickleball players compete at UTR Sports Macon Open Golden Ticket tournament in Macon, Georgia
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