While they've become leaders in very different industries, Bill Gates, LeBron James, Tom Brady and Gary Vee all have something in common. They have all contributed to or are betting on the future growth of pickleball, which is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. Here’s the latest on the sport you may be hearing about for the first time.
“They found a net, a Wiffle ball, some ping-pong paddles and created a game on an old badminton court that the entire family could play together,” Gates said.
The name pickleball is highly debated according to Gates, who said some say it was named after a dog and others say it is in reference to a pickle boat, which is thrown together from leftover rowers in a race.
Pickleball can be played indoors or outdoors and combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.
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Bill Gates Early to Pickleball: While some people are just now hearing about the sport of pickleball, one person who was early to the game was Bill Gates.
“Fifty years ago, I started playing this little-known sport with a funny name. Now, it’s all the rage,” Gates said in a blog post. “One of my favorite pastimes is now America’s fastest-growing sport.”
Gates said his father was friends with the sport’s inventors Joel Pritchard, Barney McCallum and Bill Bell.
“I’ve been a ‘Pickler,’ as people obsessed with the game like me are known, for more than 50 years.”
Gates called the sport a mash-up of tennis, badminton and ping-pong in his post.
“If you decide to give pickleball a try, I hope it brings you as much joy as it has my family and me.”
Pickleball Growth: Gates estimates that pickleball has grown 40% in the last two years and has nearly five million players nationwide. A survey from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association in February 2022 found that the sport has seen a five-year average annual growth rate of 11.5%.
The sport has also seen diversity across genders and ages, with people of all ages playing, and the sport split fairly close to 50%/50% men and women.
“I don’t know exactly what’s driven this recent surge in interest in pickleball, but I think the fact that it’s so easy to play is one big reason,” Gates said. “People like to say a lot of sports – even hard ones like golf are ‘easy to play,’ but in the case of pickleball, it’s true.”
The sport has spawned a couple of leagues and is starting to grab investments from celebrities and athletes as it expands its reach. Television networks and sponsors are also joining the pickleball craze.
“We would like to thank CBS Sports for helping bring pickleball to a large national audience,” MLP President Mellie Price previously said.
CBS also signed a deal with the Pro Pickleball Association to broadcast content on streaming platform Paramount+ and live on CBS.
The growth of pickleball is even being noticed by the sports betting sector. DraftKings Inc DKNG is a sponsor of the Pro Pickleball Association. People can’t bet on pickleball yet, but may soon be able to.
The PPA signed a deal with Genius Sports GENI, a company that has deals with several of the biggest sports leagues to provide data to sports betting operators.
“This partnership will set the stage for regulated sports betting on PPA events for the first time in history,” Genius Sports said of the partnership.
The International Federation of Pickleball has also grown in size, with a potential push to get pickleball recognized as an Olympic sport in the future.
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Big Names Investing in Sport: While Gates was early to the sport of pickleball, other big-name investors, celebrities, and athletes are trying not to be late to the craze and are investing in team ownership.
NBA superstar LeBron James and business partner Maverick Carter teamed up with NBA players Draymond Green and Kevin Love and other investors to own a team in Major League Pickleball.
Another set of champions are joining the ranks of MLP team owners, with Super Bowl champion Tom Brady teaming up with tennis champion Kim Clijsters to own an expansion team in Major League Pickleball along with Knighthead Capital Management.
“What excites me the most about becoming an MLP owner is that I get to help shape the future of pickleball, a sport I have come to love, with great people,” Clijsters said.
The new team ownership by James and others comes as Major League Pickleball expands from 12 teams to 16 teams. Along with expanding the number of teams from 12 to 16, the prize money for MLP is set to greatly expand in 2023, to more than $2 million for the full season.
“This investment and the platform that this group provides will significantly help us with our goal to reach 40 million pickleball players by 2030,” MLP founder Steve Kuhn said.
Outside of the new investors, there are several notable names that are currently invested in MLP teams.
NFL champion Drew Brees owns part of an MLP team. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, aka Gary Vee, also owns an MLP team. NBA team owner Marc Lasry, who owns the Milwaukee Bucks, also owns an MLP team.
Vee announced his MLP team ownership in April and selected the name The 5’s, a tribute to his favorite number. The team features Competitive Clown, a character from Vee’s VeeFriends Series 2 NFT collection, as the team’s logo.
“Pickleball can truly change lives – it’s a sport that engages people of all ages, and the athletes in our team are the hero figures that will inspire generations to come,” Vee said at the time.
Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Rahn on flickr
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