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LeBron James Buys a Piece of a Major League Expansion Team

Participation in this sport grew the fastest of any in the U.S. from 2019-21, reaching the 4.8 million-player mark.
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A very popular sport in the U.S. has caught the eye of Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James so much that he has decided to become a part owner in an expansion team of a growing league.

No, LeBron is not buying into a National Basketball Association team, the National Football League or Major League Baseball. And he's not buying into a brawling National Hockey League team.

The NBA legend is instead getting involved in Major League Pickleball, as the league announced Sept. 28 that James, his business partner Maverick Carter and NBA stars Draymond Green and Kevin Love will buy a team, as the league expands from 12 to 16 teams next year.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but Anne Worcester, MLP’s Strategic Advisor, told The Wall Street Journal that the team is valued in the seven figures.

The name and location of James’ team haven’t been determined either. MLP teams don’t currently have geographic attachments, but the league is in discussions with owners to accomplish that next year, Worcester told CNBC.

Other athletes who already are team owners include iconic former NFL quarterback Drew Brees and former tennis star James Blake.

Pickleball, which resembles a combination of tennis, Ping-Pong and badminton, is currently all the rage. It grew the fastest of any sport in the U.S. from 2019-21.

4.8 Million Players

Pickleball participation hit 4.8 million U.S. players last year, up 39% from 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

As for demographics, 52% of the people who play the sport seriously (eight or more times a year) were 55 and older in 2021, according to the USA Pickleball Association. But 79% of casual players are under 55.

One reason why pickleball is so popular is that it’s easier to learn than tennis. “In tennis, the balls are all over the place,” Ernie Medina, a public health professor at Loma Linda University and pickleball coach told The New York Times.

“In pickleball, you’re hitting a plastic wiffle-like ball, so it’s less bouncy and doesn’t fly as fast through the air. And the paddle is much easier to handle because it’s shorter and lighter than a tennis racket.”

Smaller Courts, Cheap

Pickleball has a much smaller court than tennis, so you don’t have to run around as much. But keep in mind that injuries are still possible, as you’re constantly making quick lateral movements, similar to squash, racquetball or handball.

Pickleball is quite inexpensive, with a set of two paddles and four balls running about $60. Many pickleball courts are city-owned, and court fees are generally low or zero.

The sport has a reputation for good sportsmanship, and the small size of the court may be largely responsible, says Zane Navratil, 26-year-old pickleball player from Wisconsin.

“In tennis, you’re 100 feet from your opponent, and if you cheat on a call, you can sort of look at the court,” he told The New Yorker. “In pickleball, you’re 14 feet away, and you’ve got to look ’em in the eye.”

It will be interesting to see where pickleball goes from here. It seems to have a firm base from which to grow. But the popularity of sports can come in go. Golf participation jumped after Tiger Woods burst on the scene in 1997, but it slid in more recent years.

Still, for now, pickleball is on the rise. Just as LeBron.