Major League Pickleball strategic advisor Anne Worcester signed on for a 10-hour-per-week role. Today, she’s thankful to have gotten so much more.
The sun shined bright and music blared in Mesa, Arizona as professional pickleball players took to the court on a Thursday afternoon in January.
In a hospitality tent reserved for ownership groups and VIPs, Major League Pickleball strategic advisor Anne Worcester sat at a circular table, putting out the standard fires that come with holding a robust live event weekend. It was the opening day of the first of six MLP events for 2023 as the league works fiercely to further popularize the United States’ fastest-growing sport.
At an owners offsite the day before, Worcester and MLP reflected on everything they’ve accomplished since she joined in January 2022. Since then, MLP has doubled from 12 to 24 teams, boosted by a group of celebrity owners. In turn, the number of players has doubled from 48 to 96, events have doubled from three to six, and MLP has split into two divisions. The Premier and Challenger divisions will ensure that MLP becomes the first American pro sport to introduce promotion and relegation.
Worcester came to MLP with nearly 40 years of experience in tennis as a player and on the tournament, sponsorship, and governance sides. She spent nearly four years as the CEO of the WTA — the chief governing body of women’s pro tennis, 21 years as the Connecticut Open’s tournament director, and two-and-a-half years as the president of Universal Tennis. The Universal Tennis Rating remains the world’s accepted global tennis player rating system.
In November 2021, former tennis star and close friend James Blake called Worcester up and said he’d just bought an MLP team and that the league was looking for a CEO.
Blake wanted to introduce her to Steve Kuhn, the financial executive and MLP founder. They met in December and immediately hit it off, with Kuhn offering Worcester the CEO job. Worcester said that at this stage of her career, she didn’t want to run an organization like that, but was more interested in being a strategic advisor for something she was really passionate about. At a meeting at the league’s offices in Austin, Kuhn countered with a consultant-type role of roughly 10 hours a week, which she accepted.
“On the way home, I wrote a strategic plan for Major League Pickleball, and literally from the get-go it was 50, 60-plus hours a week and has been so ever since,” Worcester told Boardroom. “That has everything to do with the fact that the sport has so much interest and popularity. It’s this incredibly unique, innovative co-ed team format with easy-to-understand rally scoring. The more I learned, the more I realized this is a moment in time to be a part of building something new and amazing from the ground up.”
Worcester had just come from a Challenger level dream breaker at championship court in Mesa. For the uninitiated, a dream breaker is the first team tiebreaker event in which each team’s four players compete in singles play four points at a time until a match winner is crowned.
In 2023, all 24 teams will compete in three events in the Challenger and Premier Levels, with teams — including the Brooklyn Aces — drafting players twice in each half of the season. All six tournaments contain three group stage matches before a single elimination format crowns a champion. Cumulative match wins at each tournament, including March 22-26 in Daytona Beach, Florida, will determine which teams move up to the Premier Level moving forward.
MLP didn’t start out looking for celebrity owners like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Mark Cuban, Patrick Mahomes, and Naomi Osaka, Worcester said, but the league did want the right strategic partners who would help grow the sport. They could help with sponsorships, media rights, a sports betting strategy, branding, and overall entertainment value. With media rights secured from the Tennis Channel, as well as sponsors like Margaritaville and Skechers, plus new owners like Dude Perfect buying in, the plan seems to be working.
Worcester says she and MLP have three overarching goals in 2023:
- To launch six events with execution and excellence, introducing promotion and relegation to the U.S.
- To leverage its A-list owners and players
- To improve the fan experience and fan engagement, creating a festival-like atmosphere at every event
The organization also has plans to staff up in 2023, with a director of business operations helping Worcester with owner relations, a general counsel, and an in-house head of public relations. That means maybe, just maybe, Anne Worcester will finally get down to the 10 hours a week the two sides initially agreed upon.
“Well, it never was a realistic goal,” Worcester said with a laugh, adding that at some point her official agreement was amended to 20 hours a week. “While I might not ever get to 20, I’d like to get closer to 20 than 60. Don’t tell Steve this, but it really has been a joy. And I do feel very lucky to be a part of this moment in time.”
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