Adding to outsiders’ sense that the mass-movement sport is some kind of inside joke, pickleball has now won the patronage of no less a sports giant than LeBron James.
As the Washington Post reports, the Lakers superstar has now added pickleball to a pro-sports investment portfolio that includes baseball, hockey, and Euro soccer teams, joining a new group of owners that were just announced by MLP (yes, that’s “Major League Pickleball”).
This ownership group includes James (through his LRMR Ventures), Golden State Warrior Draymond Green, Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love, and James’ business partner Maverick Carter (no relation to the Dallas NBA team). SC Holdings, an investment firm, is also part of the owners group.
King James’ longtime colleague Carter is a likely entry point for the recent venture.
“When I started playing pickleball, I immediately connected with the sport’s community and its capacity to be both fun and competitive,” Carter recently told CNBC. “To see the sport growing in communities all over is really exciting, and we’re looking forward to bringing our expertise together to try and build a championship team.”
MLP founder Steve Kuhn echoed this enthusiasm. “Having SC Holdings, LRMR Ventures, and their incredible group as owners and investors in Major League Pickleball is not just great for MLP, it’s a watershed moment for pickleball in general,” he said in a statement. “Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country, building communities in cities and towns all over the world. This investment and the platform that this group provides will significantly help us with our goal to reach 40 million pickleball players by 2030.”
A combination of tennis, table tennis, and badminton, pickleball was invented in 1965, by three Washington State dads who sought an after-golf activity for themselves and their bored kids, as recently detailed in The New Yorker.
While a 1976 issue of Tennis magazine announced it as “America’s newest racquet sport,” pickleball has for years seemed better suited to the shuffleboard set than to professional athletes. Played with hard perforated paddles on a badminton-sized court, the game often involves doubles, and usually takes place outdoors in city parks and rec centers.
In 2020, the pandemic drove a pickleball surge, as more than a million Americans took up the holey racquets, bringing the total number of players to nearly five million last year. Its demographics changed considerably after this, with a 2.9-year drop in average age of player last year to 38.1, per that journal of record, USA Pickleball.
With noted fans now including Bill Gates, Kevin Durant, and the inevitable Kardashians, there has come a consequent surge in investor interest.
LeBron James’ group follows an earlier round of investments announced by MLP in July, whose owners included NFL superstar quarterback Drew Bees, a co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, a former world fourth-ranked tennis player, and, er, cast member of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing.
MLP has shared plans to expand from 12 to 16 teams in 2023, when players will compete in six tournaments across six U.S. cities for more than $2 million in prizes.
James and co. have yet to share the name of their prospective pickleball team (though we like the Cleveland Moguls). And the MLP has no rule that would forbid this team’s co-owner—and Laker forward—from picking up a racquet himself, should pickleball prove the game of kings.