Pickleball apparently is the new new thing.
The sport, resembling a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, grew the fastest of any sport in the U.S. from 2019-21.
Pickleball participation hit 4.8 million U.S. players last year, up 39% from 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
One reason 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 a 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,” Medina said.
Professional pickleball is taking off, too. On Dec. 20, Major League Pickleball said that another group of A-list celebrities, particularly sports stars, is joining the league as owners.
Evert, Phelps, LeBron & Brady Join Pickleball
The newbies include tennis legend Chris Evert and swimming icon Michael Phelps. They join an owners roster that already includes luminaries such as basketball’s LeBron James and football’s Tom Brady, two of the best to ever play their sports.
It would be interesting to know how much money these people invested for their ownership stakes. At this point, they may provide more to MLP than the league provides to them -- legitimacy.
An adviser to the league in September put team valuations at seven figures. And a sports agency executive told TheStreet.com that it’s a few million dollars. The stars are buying teams in small groups, so they aren’t committing too much money.
A strong case that the celebs are wasting their money, that MLP won’t make it, can be made. Pickleball teams initially are unlikely to be able to sell many tickets to their events. And it certainly won’t be easy to get a lucrative media rights deal (television, streaming, etc.). It may be difficult to sell corporate sponsorships, too.
Business Model: a Free-for-All
The business model would seem to be everyone jumping on the new opportunity. But pickleball could easily turn out to be a fad. It may be easier to play than tennis. But with all the stop-start movement, generally on cement courts, injuries may run rampant.
Players can easily hurt anything from the abdomen down and will also be prone to back, shoulder, arm and wrist injuries. Many people who play the sport are older, making them particularly susceptible to injury. And injuries may destroy people’s interest in the sport.
Pickleball has a competitor in the little sport called tennis.
Tennis has dominated the racquet-sport landscape for at least 100 years. It’s uncertain how much room there is for another racquet sport.
Of course, I could be 100% wrong. Professional pickleball may take off and grab a sustainable spot in the sports marketplace.
But I wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on that.