MESA – Pickleball has taken the country by storm and its surging popularity has attracted the attention of some of the biggest stars in sports.
Major League Pickleball (MLP) officially kicked off its 2023 season this past weekend at the Legacy Sports Complex with 24 teams from across the country participating in the tournament-style event.
The popular recreational game, which has been described as a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, now has become a fast-growing professional sport. Athletes and celebrities such as Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady (Las Vegas Night Owls), retired Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona Drive), and Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Aces) have invested in the sport as members of ownership groups.
According to a report issued to the financial network CNBC by the Association of Pickleball Professionals, 36.5 million Americans picked up a paddle in 2022. By comparison, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported that 4.8 million people had played the sport in 2021.
In short, pickleball is skyrocketing, which is why well-known professional athletes are investing in pro pickleball teams.
“I jumped at the chance because I was loving pickleball already,” said James Blake, the former World No. 4-ranked tennis player. “I was seeing how many people loved playing, and being involved in a lifetime sport is a thrill to me … it made a ton of sense.”
Blake co-owns the Milwaukee Mashers pickleball club with Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry. Blake got involved because MLP wanted to involve a tennis player in ownership when it expanded.
In addition to Blake, the league reached out to athletes and corporations with experience in entertainment media, sponsorship and branding with the hopes of increasing revenue and promoting the sport.
The connection with tennis was evident in the MLP Mesa event, which was broadcast on the Tennis Channel, welcoming a national audience.
“If you look at some of our celebrity investors, we’ve got investors like LeBron James, who has almost 150 million Instagram followers,” said Brian Levine, the interim CEO of MLP. “We can reach a lot of people that I think typical linear broadcasting or live events won’t reach, so the upside is pretty dramatic.”
For 2023, MLP introduced two levels of play, Challenger and Premier. The Premier Level consists of 12 teams made up from the top 48 players taken in the MLP draft. The Challenger Level is much like a developmental level in other sports, with the next 48 draftees making up 12 more teams that give the players an opportunity to eventually prove they belong at the Premier Level.
Each team consists of four players, two men and two women. Age isn’t a factor and league players range from 16 years old to 48. The inclusiveness is one reason pickleball is growing in popularity and gaining attention across America.
“I remember when I first started I was playing at a public park in Florida, and there was a doubles team with a man who was wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat and his partner had a (Joe) Biden shirt on … they were clearly not talking about politics,” Levine said. “There’s no one cursing out their own players or a lot of the things you’ll find in professional sports.”
In 2023, MLP will be split into two seasons of three events. The first season began this past weekend and ends in June, while the second season begins in September and ends in December. The total prize pool for the six events is more than $5 million.
Because of the financial opportunities MLP now offers, many players are beginning to devote their lives to this sport.
“I think there’s a lot of players at this (Mesa) event that play pickleball full time,” said Milwaukee Mashers player Andrei Daescu. “In the last three to five years, more and more players are able to make a living out of this, and MLP obviously helps with that.”
Although pickleball is growing throughout the country, it has a long history of popularity in Arizona, where there are more than 300 courts. The Legacy Sports Complex has 41 pickleball courts on site, and most of them were in use as the matches were taking place.
Fitzgerald and former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (Los Angeles Mad Drops) were among the owners in attendance on Thursday, playing pickleball and getting the crowd involved in the spectacle.
“Pickleball is huge in Arizona, it’s actually one of the reasons we’re playing here in Mesa is the popularity,” Levine said. “(Fitzgerald) was playing with Drew Brees and actually it was pretty fun, there’s not many sports where the owners get out and start competing with each other.”
The MLP season continues at the league’s next event slated for March 23-26 in Daytona Beach, Florida.