The story of the founding of Major League Pickleball’s Brooklyn Aces from Rich Kleiman, Samin Odhwani, and Anne Worcester.
Every weekend during the summer, 35V co-founder and CEO Rich Kleiman plays tennis, a sport he’s loved for decades. Last Fourth of July weekend, however, a friend invited him to play pickleball, having built a court in his front yard earlier in the season.
“I did not pick up a tennis racket again the rest of the summer,” Kleiman told Boardroom. “It was clear that all of us fell in love with the sport.”
Kleiman played pickleball between three and five times a week through late September. As the temperatures began to drop, he not only had a mean backhand, but eyes on breaking into the professional league. Not as a player, however.
Kleiman and 35V bought an expansion team in Major League Pickleball dubbed the Brooklyn Aces.
“Like a lot of things we do in our life,” he continued, “once we fell in love with the sport, it was finding a way to be able to work and collaborate with that sport.”
Samin Odhwani, 35V’s director of business operations, first heard of MLP back in 2020 while working for the NBA. He saw various league governors, former pro tennis players, and venture industry leaders become the league’s first investors. Two months after starting at 35V, Odhwani put together a brief pitch to put pickleball on Kleiman’s radar.
But Kleiman was already hearing about MLP through his friend Marc Lasry, the co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. He’d asked Lasry a few questions here and there about the league, but his interest was genuinely sparked once he stepped on the court and actually played the game.
“As soon as I played, I called him and was like, ‘This is epic.’ I totally understand,” Kleiman said. “I need to be close to this sport. And he made that initial connection to Anne and the team at MLP.”
Anne Worcester is Major League Pickleball’s strategic advisor — the league’s de-facto CEO — a role she’s held since January 2022. No stranger to racket sports, Worcester served as a tennis executive for three decades prior to joining MLP. Since joining the emerging league, Worcester and MLP founder Steve Kuhn plotted an expansion and a wholly revised scoring and schedule system for 2023.
As changes began to take root at the league level, MLP drew the attention of big-name investors. First, in July 2022, Drew Brees joined as the ownership group of the LA Mad Drops. The Super Bowl winning quarterback’s unlikely investment garnered national attention even beyond sports outlets.
As MLP prepared to recruit investors for expansion in August, Worcester realized she had a winning formula on her hands.
“We realized if we could find strategic partners who could help us grow the sport in all kinds of ways, plus have celebrity fairy dust to expand the reach, awareness, and the cultural diversity of pickleball, that’s a win-win,” Worcester told Boardroom.
As Kuhn and Mad Drops co-owner Zubin Mehta began the expansion process over the summer, Worcester had breakfast in July in Connecticut with Lasry, now the co-owner of the Milwaukee Mashers, who told her that Kleiman was interested in a team. Lasry connected Kleiman and Worcester the next day, which led to the league’s first exploratory call about an expansion franchise.
Worcester quickly realized the passion Kleiman, Odhwani, and Kevin Durant had for pickleball.
“We had a really great deep and meaningful conversation,” Worcester said, “and I remember Rich and Samin really understanding the social benefits of pickleball, that it’s really everything that the consumer wants and needs. It impressed me and us.
“That was one of the very early easy decisions to make because they had all kinds of creative ideas about how to leverage the [NBA] and they were always very interested in working together to bring pickleball to the inner cities, which is very important to our founder Steve Kuhn.”
Kleiman wanted to get in quickly, but the league was expanding, figuring itself out, and evolving. There was a period of time, he said, where 35V had to bid on a team and there was some concern in the middle of August where he was worried a team wouldn’t materialize. But toward Labor Day weekend, he felt confident that MLP was gaining steam on investments from superstars like Brees and LeBron James and that an expansion invite would soon arrive.
“To Rich and Kevin’s credit,” Odhwani said, “they saw the opportunity and really leaned into making this happen and went as far as traveling to Austin to close the deal.”
On Oct. 20, 2022, Major League Pickleball announced that 35V purchased an expansion franchise as the league set to expand from 12 teams to 16, with Odhwani serving as general manager. In preparing to put a roster together, Odhwani attended the final MLP event of the 2022 season in Columbus, Ohio to see many of the players live and speak with some experienced GMs about how they constructed their rosters.
A merger with the Professional Pickleball Association’s VIBE Pickleball League in November expanded Major League Pickleball to 24 teams, with MLP ultimately deciding on a city-based team format with two divisions and becoming the first U.S.-based pro sports league to employ promotion and relegation. Kleiman and 35V naturally wanted a franchise to represent New York City.
“Everything I do is New York. Everything I’m about is New York,” Kleiman said. “I live here. Kevin played here. My business is centered here…
“So when the league brought the idea of Brooklyn up, as soon as they said it, it made sense,” Kleiman said. “And Ace has been a nickname of mine for a long time. I love the way it flowed, Brooklyn Aces. It connected with us right away.”
To Kleiman, pickleball is a democratized sport people can pick up in minutes, with a priority for courts being built in different underserved neighborhoods and communities. The Brooklyn Aces brand should feel like the sport, feeling fun, and inclusive, a hybrid of what Brooklyn and the sport is about with the borough’s style and energy.
“We also want to be known for really being great partners with our players, and that the experience of being on the Brooklyn Aces is an enjoyable one and a fun one,” Kleiman said.
One year ago, Kleiman barely knew about the sport. Now, he was able to witness the Aces rally together in their first team outing Mesa, Arizona in January. Decked in custom Nike gear, the team nearly missed the weekend’s finals.
Next up: the team takes to Daytona, Florida March 23-26 for the second of three tournament weekends for the inaugural season.
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