Pickleball has the backing of A-list athletes and businesspeople, now including Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman.
For one weekend, Columbus, Ohio was the place to be if you are a pickleball fan.
From Oct. 14-16, the nation’s best in the the fast-growing sport journeyed to the midwest for the last of three Major League Pickleball (MLP) tournaments this year. Tennis facility Pickle and Chill hosted the first fully indoor event, which offered its largest-ever purse for the winning team: $100,000 ($25,000 to each player). The event’s winners, BLQK, also took home top honors at the first tournament in Austin in June.
While the core rules of pickleball are consistent, MLP takes some liberties to get the most out of its events. Men and women each play a doubles match and two mixed-doubles matches, followed by a singles tiebreaker (“dreambreaker”), if necessary. MLP co-founder Steve Kuhn admitted that while dreambreakers get pretty tense, they’re one of his favorite parts of the contest.
“In that moment you see the best of the best leave it all on the court,” he told Boardroom. “Players might be exhausted from already playing two games a piece, but they don’t care. The only focus is getting that win, it’s incredibly fun to watch.”
A sport with 1960s origins, pickleball’s popularity has surged in recent weeks after sports legends announced investments in teams. LeBron James made headlines on Sept. 28 after he and business partner Maverick Carter announced an ownership group within MLP. Two weeks later, Tom Brady and former world tennis No. 1 Kim Clijsters revealed their plans to bankroll a pickleball squad as well.
Earlier this week, it was 35V’s Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman.
“Moving to the States from Belgium two years ago, pickleball kind of became my social life during COVID,” Clijsters told Boardroom at the MLP tourney in Columbus. “A couple of the other female owners [Wall Street bond saleswoman Callie Simpkins and financial consultant Kaitlyn Kerr] became some of my closest friends and we always talked about doing something business-related together. The things Billie Jean King and Venus Williams have done for tennis behind the scenes to make sure men and women are treated equally is what I want to do with MLP.”
While Clijsters and Brady teaming up on a pickleball team might confuse the average fan, the four-time Grand Slam champion and Brady share a connection. With mutual friends within the community, the owners Clijsters previously played with helped bring the two together.
“It went really quickly,” Clijsters said. “We talked about it and thought, ‘Oh I hope this happens because it would be fun to have a team.’ Weeks later, here I am checking out the final event of the year, meeting players and seeing how the organization functions. The league is still so young, after all.”
As for Durant and Kleiman, both are determined to help with MLP’s growth, player relations and marketing, sponsorships, and merchandise.
“[Pickleball] was a small passion that’s just gonna keep building,” Durant said. “We’re gonna be operating this ourselves, being tasked with building this brand from the ground up. It should be a fun project.”
MLP made its debut in 2021 with eight teams and expanded to 12 this year. Ahead of the 2023 campaign, the league announced the addition of four more teams and six tournaments. The prize money will also significantly increase, raising the stakes for the semi-pro competitors.
Sponsorships and Sustainability
Though still a young league, Major League Pickleball has made significant strides. Take, for example, corporate sponsorship. While not all players in Columbus cosplayed as walking billboards for their favorite brands, a number of them have already leveraged their likenesses into a partnership. Former-tennis-player-turned-pickleball-athlete Parris Todd lifted the championship trophy alongside BLQK members in head-to-toe Alo Yoga. Similar to how Serena Williams and Roger Federer exclusively use Wilson tennis rackets, Todd’s paddle of choice comes from Selkirk.
We all know athletes can really cash in on brand partnerships, so how will team owners secure these sought-after collabs? Well, Mad Drops Pickleball Club owner Zubin Mehta hopes that with the additions of James, Brady, Clijsters, 35V, and more owners in the future, brands will eventually rush to monopolize another sector of athletics with clothing and footwear manufactured specifically for pickleball.
“The new owners have a ton of awareness, lots of experience and are connected with some of the best companies in the world,” he told Boardroom. “There’s a large portion of the population that plays pickleball, so the corporate buy-in should also reflect that.”
MLP has already secured backing from Skechers, Franklin, pickleball global rating platform DUPR, and plant-based protein supplement Ora.
MLP has plenty of grassroots excitement, and now owns endorsements from the world’s best in their individual crafts. That’s a solid start, but how does the league ensure the momentum never dips?
Co-founder Melli Price weighed in.
“Our mission as a league is to spread the joy of pickleball,” she told Boardroom. “We want to see 40 million people playing by 2030, and all of that is kind of in that story for us. This sport brings community together, it’s accessible to people of all ages and experience levels. We have a responsibility to elevate the professional side of it as a major league. This has potential to create a real career path for our players where they can make a good living doing it.”
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