Pickleball just keeps courting celebrity investors. Is it poised to become the new national pastime?
Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and International Tennis Hall of Famer Kim Clijsters are the latest all-star athletes getting in on the pickleball craze. They are part of an ownership group led by Knighthead Capital Management that has purchased an expansion team for the 2023 Major League Pickleball (MLP) season.
(Yes, there’s a professional pickleball league, founded in 2021).
“Of course, I’m excited at the investment opportunity,” said Clijsters in a statement. “But what excites me the most about becoming an MLP owner is that I get to help shape the future of pickleball, a sport I have come to love, with great people — who also happen to be some of my best friends.”
It’s clear that pickleball, often described as a combination of tennis and ping-pong, has been surging in popularity. Nearly 4.2 million Americans played the game in 2020, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports, which was an increase of 21.3% over the prior year alone. But recent events suggest there’s still room for considerably more growth.
NBA greats LeBron James, Draymond Green and Kevin Love also recently joined an ownership group buying an expansion team in Major League Pickleball. Other high-profile pickleball owners include Milwaukee Bucks co-owner and billionaire investor Marc Lasry, lecturer Brené Brown, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk (aka Gary Vee), as well as former tennis star James Blake.
There’s also big bucks to be scored by playing pickleball professionally. The 2022 MLP season finale will see 48 players compete in Columbus, Ohio from October 14-16 for the largest single-event prize purse ($319,000) in the history of pickleball, with the winning team taking home $100,000.
What’s more, a pair of pickleball enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are also planning to open a fancy pickleball facility in New York City next year, replete with dining and drinking options (they say tacos and margaritas might be on the menu).
And there’s now even talk of making pickleball an Olympic sport.
LeBron James is part of the ownership group behind a new team in Major League Pickleball.
Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
“The potential market for pickleball is enormous,” said Erica Desai, one of the co-founders of CityPickle, the company that plans to open the New York City facility, featuring four indoor courts and a full bar and restaurant, in early 2023.
And that’s just the start: Desai and her co-founder Mary Cannon have plans to open as many as four more New York City facilities within the next two years, and are considering locations elsewhere in the Northeast. In the meanwhile, they are setting up a temporary playing facility at New York’s $25 billion Hudson Yards megadevelopment during October.
Meanwhile, Major League Pickleball has what it calls “an aggressive growth plan” in place to expand from 12 to 16 teams, and offering tournaments across six U.S. cities in 2023. That includes Brady and Clijsters ownership group, headed by Knighthead Capital, which also counts JPMorgan financial advisor Kaitlyn Kerr and RBC bond saleswoman Callie Simpkins — and will be 50% female-owned. And the other new team that is owned in part by James’ LRMR Ventures firm is part of this expansion pack, as well.
In a statement, Major League Pickleball’s founder called the addition of James and his partners “a watershed moment for pickleball in general.” And the addition of Brady and Clijsters to MLP’s to “unrivaled roster of strategic partners” should only help elevate pickleball even higher on people’s radars.
Jason Stein, managing partner of SC Holdings, an investment firm that is joining James as part of the team ownership, summed up the pickleball phenomenon thusly: “People are obsessed with the game.” (Major League Pickleball executives and James didn’t immediately respond to MarketWatch requests for additional comment.)
Chicken N Pickle, a chain with pickleball courts and jerk chicken, is one of many pickleball restaurant concepts popping up across the country.
Chicken N Pickle
The appeal of the sport is rooted in the fact that it’s easy to play and requires little investment in terms of equipment, say those in the pickleball world. It’s also a sport that has a down-home feel — in some ways, the polar opposite of tennis or golf.
“Pickleball is not a country-club sport. It’s a community game,” said Richard Porter, president of InPickleball, a magazine and website that tracks the sport.
The growth of the sport has created other business opportunities. Indeed, the rise of pickleball facilities that feature a dining component — and there are several concepts throughout the country — can be seen partly as a response to the fact that public courts are now often overly crowded, and players can face long waits.
““The potential market for pickleball is enormous.””
Chicken N Pickle is one of the biggest pickleball concepts to launch yet. As its name implies, it combines pickleball courts with a restaurant that specializes in chicken (jerk chicken is a particular highlight of the menu). It started in 2016 with one location in Kansas City, Mo., and now has a total of six spread across four states. More are in the works, according to Rachel Santschi, a spokeswoman for the company.
Santschi says the popularity of the game also reflects the fact that pickleball attracts a diverse audience, from kids to seniors. She echoes others in noting how quickly it is for a beginner to learn the game and play it well, which is not exactly the case with other sports.
“I cannot play tennis, but I love pickleball,” Santschi says.
Equipment manufacturers and other companies are naturally joining in the entrepreneurial push. Takeya USA, a company known for making water bottles, even has a line of — what else? — pickleball-themed bottles. It also sells a “pickleball backpack” for $129.99 that’s designed to hold any equipment needed for the game.
Not that some haven’t spoofed the pickleball trend, making light of everything from the name of the sport to the fact it’s sometimes played by people who are far from super-athletic. Late-night television host Seth Myers recently skewered the game by describing it thusly: “Too rich for ping-pong, too out-of-shape for tennis? Try pickleball.”
Of course, there’s always a chance that pickleball could meet the fate of other sports that captured America’s attention and then faded away. Consider bowling, which peaked in the ‘60s.
But bowling never made it to the Olympics. There are plenty of folks in the pickleball world who see their sport getting there. And the fact the idea is even being discussed says something, notes CityPickle co-founder Mary Cannon.
“It speaks to the staying power” of the game, she said.