If you have experienced tournament play for any length of time, you have, no doubt, learned that pickleball tournament formats vary widely from tournament to tournament. Some players and tournament directors prefer round robin or pool play, while others prefer double-elimination format. Like it or not, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to “game-day” when it comes to game format. Let’s take a closer look at the various pickleball tournament format options available for tournament directors.
Tournament Events – Gender Doubles, Mixed Doubles and Singles
Virtually every tournament will offer gender doubles (men’s and women’s) and mixed doubles. While gender doubles require both partners to be of the same gender, mixed doubles require one player to be male and the other to be female. Many tournaments – if the demand calls for it – will also offer men’s and women’s singles events.
Local tournaments (while not sanctioned by USA Pickleball) may also offer skinny singles events and doubles in which partners can be of either gender (both male, both female, or one male/one female). These events will be much more infrequent – but may be ideal for those smaller tournaments where pickleball is just getting off the ground.
Tournament Events Broken Down by Age and/or Skill Level
If the tournament is large enough, events will likely be broken down by age and/or skill level.
Events by Age
One option for creating competitive tournament brackets is to group players/teams according to age intervals. This way players will only be competing against players of similar ages. These age breakdowns could be something like 19-34, 35-49, 50-64, 65+. Ages can be broken down into whatever intervals the tournament director decides.
For example, if one partner is 53 and the other is 32, the team should be registering in the 19-34 bracket – not the 50-64 bracket.
Events by Skill Level
Another option for creating competitive brackets is to group players/teams according to skill level – irrespective of age.
For example, if one partner is rated 4.0 and the other partner is rated 3.5, then the team should register for the 4.0 event – not the 3.5 event.
Events by Age/Skill Level
Many (perhaps most) of the larger tournaments will have both an age and skill level breakdown. For example, a bracket could be created for 3.0 (19-34), 3.0 (35-49), 3.0 (50-64), 3.0 (65+), etc. For these larger tournaments, having this age and skill breakdown allows for more reasonably sized draws. If the tournament size allows it, these tournaments seem to be most fair as players will be competing against similarly skilled players in their own age bracket.
Pickleball Tournament Format Options
There are several tournament format options (game format options) for the Tournament Director to decide. The option selected should, ideally, be the one that gives the players the most play within the constraints of time (always an issue) and the venue (court availability).
Double Elimination Format
This double-elimination pickleball tournament format has traditionally been one of the most popular.
In this tournament format, a player/team must lose twice before being eliminated from the tournament. For your initial match – and while still in the “winner’s bracket” – most formats are 2 out of 3 games to 11, win by 2. Once a player/team loses for the first time, they are dropped into the consolation bracket (most frequently played as single games to 15, win by 2). Players or teams are then eliminated from the tournament after a loss in this consolation bracket (their second loss of the tournament).
That’s because the winner of the consolation bracket will play the winner of the winner’s bracket for the championship. If the winner of the consolation bracket defeats the winner of the winner’s bracket (in a 2 out of 3 games format), then a final tie-breaker match to 15 points is played to determine the gold (first place) and silver (second-place) medals. The loser of the consolation bracket final will receive the bronze (third-place) medal.
Single Elimination with Consolation Format
The single elimination with consolation tournament format is identical to that of the double-elimination format with the exception that once a player/team loses their first match and drops down into the consolation bracket, the best they can finish is with a bronze (third-place) medal. The consolation bracket winners do not play the winner bracket winners like they do in the double-elimination format.
While the double-elimination format has been used exclusively by the APP Tour, the PPA Tour has recently begun experimenting with the “single elimination with consolation” format for the gold-medal pro matches (the winner bracket finals) being played on “Championship Sunday.”
The U.S. Open is also a well-known tournament that uses the “single elimination with consolation” format.
Pushing the envelope even further, the PPA Tour has experimented with the gold-medal pro matches by making them 3 out of 5, instead of the traditional 2 out of 3. They are able to do this because the PPA is a non-sanctioned tour.
Round Robin Tournament Format
The round-robin tournament format – very common for small bracket sizes (6 teams or fewer) – occurs when all players/teams play each other at least once. Round-robin matches are typically played as single games played to 11 or 15 points.
From time to time, particularly with a 3 or 4-player/team bracket, a double round-robin will be the format of choice. A double round robin simply means that every player/team will play every other player/team twice.
According to the official rulebook, winners in round-robin formats are determined by the number of matches won. In the event of a tie, tiebreakers are determined by (1st tie-breaker) head-to-head matches won, (2nd tie-breaker) point differential of all games played, and (3rd tie-breaker) head-to-head point differential.
It’s not unusual in round-robin formats to have medal bracket play immediately follow the round-robin – with the round-robin results determining qualification and/or seeding. Perhaps the top 2 teams from the round robin will play for gold/silver while the 3rd and 4th place teams from the round robin would play for bronze. Another option is to have the top 4 teams from the round-robin battle it out in single or double-elimination bracket play. Or, alternatively, you could use the round-robin results for seeding and invite all teams into bracket play after the round-robin has finished. For non-sanctioned tournaments, there’s really no limit to the format used.
Pool Play Tournament Format
The pool play tournament format is very similar to that of the round-robin. In pool play, players are divided into two or more pools. Each player/team then plays every other player/team within their pool to determine the qualifiers that put the players into a single-elimination or double-elimination bracket playoff.
This format is great when you want to give players/teams the opportunity to play every other player/team, but there are just too many players/teams to do so a single round-robin. Once pool play is done, perhaps the top 2 or 3 teams are taken from each pool and then these player/teams battle it out in single or double-elimination bracket play.
Tournament directors have considerable flexibility in their selection of tournament formats. With Major League Pickleball successfully debuting in November 2021, team pickleball events and leagues will, no doubt, become more and more popular as well. Which format is selected should be the result of careful planning – factoring in players preferences as well as considering the constraints of time, venue, and court availability.
Now I would like to hear from you. Do you have a favorite tournament format?
See you on the courts.
Todd is the talent behind PickleballMAX. He knows pickleball and demonstrates it on the court as a 4.5 – 5.0 player. In addition to creating content and running the PickleballMAX business, Todd is IPTPA Level II certified. As an instructor at the Ohio Pickleball Academy, he instructs students and runs adult and youth clinics. He also manages tournament desks throughout the tri state for tournaments ranging from 100-500 participants.