LeBron James, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes bet big on pickleball … will it pay off?

For years, Kyle Yates hid a secret from his closest friends.

He didn’t want them to know that he was a rising star in a sport best known as the last athletic refuge for graying retirees.

Yates’ pickleball addiction took hold at age 15 when his uncle coaxed him into playing a match together. By then, Yates recognized he lacked the size or raw power to pursue tennis beyond high school. In pickleball, he saw a better showcase for his trademark patience and guile.

There was no one Yates' age playing pickleball when he first picked up a paddle, nor were there even many young adults. The Florida teenager regularly practiced with a group of men old enough to be his dad or even his grandfather.

When Yates earned his first meaningful victories and broke into the national rankings, he began venturing further from home in search of stronger competition. As a student at the University of Florida, he would often slip away from campus to The Villages, a sprawling Florida retirement community that at the time was home to a handful of the world’s best pickleball players.

“I’d play with those guys on weekends as much as possible, but I wouldn’t tell any of my friends because I thought it was too silly and too dorky,” Yates said. “At the time, pickleball was considered a sport for seniors. It wasn’t really a cool thing to do.”

Not even a decade later, pickleball is no longer the sports equivalent of socks with sandals or toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Out of nowhere, it’s America’s fastest-growing sport, with a vibrant youth movement, communities racing to satisfy the demand to build new courts and deep-pocketed investors seeking new ways to monetize the sport’s surging popularity.

As pickleball has leaped out of obscurity and into the mainstream, the sport’s nascent pro circuit has also taken flight. It scarcely resembles what Yates stepped into six-plus years ago when he put his pursuit of a college degree on hold to see if he could support himself playing pickleball.

No longer do tournaments offer hardly enough prize money to cover players’ travel expenses. Now there are bidding wars between rival leagues to secure top pros.

No longer are the sport’s premier events held in RV parks and retirement communities. Newly constructed pickleball complexes and swanky tennis clubs and stadiums have opened their doors to the sport.

No longer can Yates topple the world’s No. 1 ranked player in front of a few dozen observers seated in beach chairs. Professional pickleball is now a big business replete with competing pro tours, feuding billionaires, escalating prize money, the likes of Tom Brady, LeBron James and Mark Cuban as celebrity investors and a former Wimbledon semifinalist among its newest players.

"I think we all feel like we’re on a rocket ship," said longtime tennis executive Anne Worcester, now a Major League Pickleball board member and strategic adviser. "I’ve never ever had so many inbound phone calls, texts and emails and social media messages. Everybody wants to sponsor pickleball, get a job with pickleball, sell something to pickleball. Honestly, not a day goes by where I don’t get like a dozen people reaching out to me."

Those pouring money into professional pickleball are wagering that the sport can expand its audience and turn some of its top players into headliners. So far pickleball tournaments have mostly drawn sparse crowds and modest TV ratings.

It raises a question that is difficult to conclusively answer with the sport evolving at lightning speed: Is pickleball just a booming participation sport? Or will people watch it too?

Kyle Yates would sneak away from his friends to play pickleball before pickleball was cool. (Courtesy of Kyle Yates)
Kyle Yates would sneak away from his friends to play pickleball before pickleball was cool. (Courtesy of Debby Robinson, Victory Management Group)

The birth of pickleball

When former Washington congressman Joel Pritchard died in 1997, obituaries highlighted his “centrist politics” and knack for “working with colleagues from both sides of the aisle.” Only after a few hundred words did authors bother to mention what now may be Pritchard’s most enduring legacy: He invented pickleball.

Pickleball was born in 1965 when Pritchard was vacationing on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and needed to find a way to entertain his bored kids. Pritchard and two other fathers devised a backyard game using a wiffleball, wooden paddles and a backyard badminton court with the net jerry-rigged to hang low.

The only part of the story lost to time is how the inventors named their new game. Some say the inspiration was the Pritchard family’s dog, Pickles, who kept chasing after the ball. Others insist Pickles wasn’t alive yet and was later named after the game.

Over the next few decades, what was originally intended to be a kid’s game gradually gained traction with an older crowd. Pickleball became a favorite of retirees living in sun-splashed RV parks and gated communities.

Twelve-time national champion Dave Weinbach stumbled across pickleball 16 years ago when his parents moved from Milwaukee to a retirement community in Surprise, Arizona. Midway through a tennis game against his father, Weinbach was interrupted by the distinctive high-pitched pop of a paddle striking a pickleball.

“What in the world is that?” Weinbach asked.

“That’s pickleball,” his father replied.

Weinbach returned to Wisconsin enamored with pickleball, but he had to go to great lengths to introduce the game to his friends. Since he found no pickleball courts within driving distance of his Madison home, Weinbach devised a way to create makeshift ones.

“We would go to these local parks, lug these weights from the parking lot and weigh down tennis nets until they were the right height for pickleball,” Weinbach recalled with a laugh. “Then we’d tape the pickleball lines on the tennis court using painter’s tape.”

Until the recent explosion of pickleball courts and venues, Weinbach’s experience was the norm for top players all over the country. For years, anytime Yates wanted to practice without trekking for miles, he would carry a bungee cord, chalk and painter’s tape to a local public tennis court.

“I actually got in trouble a couple times because they said I was vandalizing the court,” Yates said. “I tried to tell them we were just playing pickleball, but they said that’s not a real thing.”

Pickleball players no longer face such obstacles given the sport’s unprecedented growth over the past decade. Americans of all ages and classes have fallen in love with the tennis-ping-pong hybrid because it’s easy to learn to play competently, it’s social and it’s a fun way to stay active without the injury risks of more physically demanding sports.

The pandemic served as an accelerant for pickleball’s ascent. The sport thrived since it offered a means of reconnecting with friends in an outdoor, socially distant setting. About 4.8 million Americans participated in pickleball in 2021, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, up 39.3 percent from 2019. There are now at least 38,140 pickleball courts in the U.S., more than double the number just five years ago.

As pickleball mania swept the nation, opportunists predictably emerged. Chief among them was the son of a Salt Lake City real-estate mogul who observed America’s growing obsession with playing pickleball and gambled that he could turn that into enthusiasm for watching it.

Pickleball turns pro

Lifelong tennis purist Connor Pardoe came to a stunning realization in May 2018 while watching some of pickleball’s top players compete at a tournament in Atlanta.

Pardoe turned to his father, a former BYU tennis player, and said, “This is more fun than going to the U.S. Open. I’m having more fun watching pickleball.”

It didn’t take Pardoe long to recognize that he had stumbled onto a business opportunity. At that time, there was a patchwork of small-time pickleball tournaments offering prize money, but the sport lacked a true professional tour capable of attracting elite players, big crowds, broadcast partners and corporate sponsors.

Backed by his family’s real estate development firm, Pardoe in 2019 launched the Professional Pickleball Association to fill that void. The ambitious, high-energy Pardoe envisioned the PPA growing into what the ATP and WTA are for tennis or the PGA and LPGA are for golf.

At about the same time as Pardoe was developing the PPA, a longtime Illinois tennis coach and club owner formed a pickleball tour of his own. Association of Pickleball Professionals founder Ken Herrmann discovered the fast-growing sport when he was making plans to open a new tennis club in Illinois and he received advice to install pickleball courts. From there, he started playing pickleball and quickly recognized the need for a professional tour.

It’s fitting that the PPA and APP have opposite acronyms because Pardoe and Herrmann built them very differently.

The PPA sought to live up to its slogan, “Play where the pros play.” At first, Pardoe offered the sport’s highest-ranked players modest appearance fees to play PPA events. Then he irked some within the industry by signing many of those same players to exclusivity contracts that paid extra money in return for not playing on rival tours.

“That was the most important thing we’ve ever done,” Pardoe said. “TV partners, venues and sponsors wanted to know that the best players were going to be at our events every week. Once we could tell them, hey, we have 16 of the top 20 men under contract or we have 16 out of the top 20 women under contract, it became a lot easier to put those deals together.”

The APP wasn’t nearly as aggressive in its pursuit of high-ranking pros. Herrmann shied away from appearance fees and openly voiced his disapproval for locking top players into multi-year exclusivity contracts in a nascent sport whose landscape was changing so quickly. His focus instead was on growing the game by creating the best possible experience for players of all levels.

Non-pros and seniors who paid to compete at APP events were more likely to play on permanent courts, to receive complimentary snacks and water and to have a certified referee officiate their match. Amateurs who paid to enter PPA events were often drawn by the chance to stick around and watch world No. 1s Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters as well as some of the other brightest stars in the pickleball universe.

“The APP did a great job growing the game at the grassroots level,” said Morgan Evans, a longtime pickleball pro who now splits his time between coaching and broadcasting. “But when APP players came over and played PPA events, most of the time it was the big dogs from the PPA who were in control.”

As if the existence of two competing tours wasn’t already confusing enough for consumers, along came another billionaire entrant into the professional pickleball battle royale. In 2021, hedge fund manager turned philanthropist Steve Kuhn opened Dreamland, an 86-acre Texas oasis of pickleball and other first-date-appropriate activities. Later that year, Kuhn launched Major League Pickleball, bringing 32 of the world’s top players from both the APP and PPA to Dreamland for a four-day team event.

Eight ownership groups drafted teams of two men and two women. The teams then faced off in men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles with more than $150,000 in prize money at stake.

The format was an instant hit among pickleball’s elite players, many of whom had never played a team sport before.

“I was like, 'My goodness, I love this,' " Vivienne David said. “There is nothing else like playing for your teammates and your team owner. You really want to win it for your team. The energy level, the adrenaline, the excitement, everything was off the charts.

The mainstream media buzz and universally positive reviews generated by MLP’s inaugural event did not go unnoticed at the PPA. Pardoe instantly saw value in bringing the fist-pumping, chest-bumping enthusiasm and camaraderie of team competition to pickleball, and in using rally scoring to boost the pace of matches and the intensity of each point.

“Our staff was like, ‘This is a good idea,’ ” Pardoe said. “To us, the question was, are we going to work with MLP to build this? Or are we going to do this ourselves?”

MESA, AZ - DECEMBER 3: Julian Arnold hits a backhand drive shot against JW Johnson and Dekel Bar in the quarter finals of the APP Sunmed Mesa Open Pickleball Men's PRO Doubles division at Legacy Sports Park on December 3, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Bruce Yeung/Getty Images)
Julian Arnold, currently ranked sixth, hits a backhand drive shot in the quarter finals of the APP Sunmed Mesa Open Pickleball Men's PRO Doubles division at Legacy Sports Park on December 3, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Bruce Yeung/Getty Images)

Competing leagues do battle

As 2021 bled into 2022, the PPA welcomed a new owner with deep pockets and big ambitions. Texas billionaire Tom Dundon, who made his fortune in subprime auto loans, invested heavily in pickleball, buying a majority stake of the PPA from the Pardoe family soon after acquiring the sport’s leading retail store and main tournament-organizing website.

Until then, the relationship between the PPA and MLP had been more cordial than competitive. The PPA permitted its stable of talent to play in the MLP’s inaugural event. In return, the MLP promoted the PPA as one of its sponsors.

Under Dundon’s leadership, the PPA quickly signaled it was done playing nice. It offered Johns, Leigh Waters and other top pros 3-year exclusivity contracts that not only prevented them from competing in APP tournaments but MLP events as well.

Kuhn approached Dundon in hopes of negotiating a compromise, but the two billionaires initially butted heads and failed to find common ground. As Pardoe put it, “I tried to put both of them in a room. It just didn’t really work out.”

While discussions regarding a potential partnership with the PPA continued behind the scenes, MLP executives left that meeting with a realization that they would need to compete to secure elite players. In response, the MLP increased its prize money to the largest sum in pickleball’s brief history, a total of $1 million across its three 2022 events with $100,000 alone going to each winning team.

MLP soon bolstered its position again when one of its team owners made a strategic decision to sell a minority stake in the Mad Drops Pickleball Club. New York venture capitalist Zubin Mehta recognized that partnering with prominent athletes and celebrities who were passionate about pickleball would help grow the sport and drive awareness of the league.

Last summer, a mutual friend connected Mehta and quarterback Drew Brees, an avid pickleball player who only a few months earlier had joked he might halt his retirement to train to play the sport professionally. Mehta pitched Brees on an easier way into the sport — joining the Mad Drops ownership group.

“We had a series of calls,” Mehta said. “We talked about his interest in pickleball. We talked about our vision for growing the game both at the pro and amateur levels. We talked about the investment opportunity as we saw it. Through a series of conversations, he became really interested.”

The torrent of mainstream publicity generated by Brees investing in a pickleball team validated Mehta’s approach. In October, MLP revealed it intended to expand from 12 to 16 teams and announced that its newest team owners were some of the most well-known figures in sports.

“Our first two expansion team meetings were with the LeBron group and the Kevin Durant group,” Worcester said. “They’re passionate about pickleball, passionate about pickleball. The first 15 minutes of every meeting was everyone talking smack to each other about their last pickleball game.”

Just when it seemed there was no way the PPA could keep pace with what MLP was building, Dundon responded with a flurry of uppercuts of his own. In late October, the PPA announced that it was forming the VIBE Pickleball League, a direct competitor to MLP with a virtually identical team format. Days later, two of MLP’s top players revealed they were defecting to VIBE. Then VIBE confirmed that Mark Cuban, one of Dundon’s good friends, was its first team owner.

“At that point, I didn’t think a deal with MLP was going to happen,” Pardoe admitted. “We had announced our own team league. I was getting ready to hire people and to announce team owners, schedules and how it was going to work. I thought it was past the point of no return.”

What happened instead, Worcester says, is MLP executives “had an epiphany.” They realized they were better off partnering with Dundon and the PPA than slugging it out to determine who would emerge as professional pickleball’s dominant entity.

Mehta and Dundon held a summit and hammered out the framework of a deal. On Nov. 9, the MLP and PPA shocked everyone within the sport by announcing a strategic partnership and a unified team league featuring virtually all of pickleball’s top pros.

At last, professional pickleball had what it had been missing: consolidation and a clear direction.

Pickleball on TV

Before the deal between the PPA and MLP, Connor Pardoe often received the same response when he approached potential sponsors and broadcast partners. They would tell the PPA founder and CEO, "We love pickleball. We want to be involved, but you guys need to figure your s— out."

The partnership between the two biggest entities in pickleball made the sport appear less messy. While the MLP and PPA remained separate organizations, they worked together to draft player contracts and jointly snatched up all the top pros. Elite players now largely aim to play on the PPA tour and to win enough to be drafted onto an MLP team. The APP is pressing on but for now has been relegated to a developmental tour.

The knowledge that the best players were under contract with one tour and one team league made brands and investors more comfortable backing both the PPA and MLP. Carvana has signed on as the PPA's title sponsor. Margaritaville has done the same for MLP. In December, MLP announced a new wave of expansion team owners that included athletes such as Patrick Mahomes and Larry Fitzgerald, celebrities such as Heidi Klum and Eva Longoria and even a major brand, Anheuser-Busch.

At least 250 hours of PPA matches will air on TV this year, including Tennis Channel, ABC, CBS, Fox and FS1. MLP has yet to announce a broadcast partner for its six 2023 events, but Worcester says "there's great demand" and the league is "in conversations with all the major linear and streaming broadcasters."

Last month, ABC aired the semifinals and finals of a PPA event that included four American professional tennis players dabbling at pickleball. Tim Bunnell, a senior vice president of programming at ESPN, said he's optimistic about pickleball as a TV property because of the sport's soaring participation numbers, festival-like atmosphere and celebrity involvement.

"The numbers are there to support that this is a sport that has a future," Bunnell said. "It's tough to be a successful media property right out of the gate, but, with pickleball, there's a lot to like."

MLP’s plan to grow its audience starts with the premise that its stable of celebrity team owners can boost interest and awareness of the league. Step 2 requires MLP to keep increasing its prize pool to siphon high-level talent away from other sports. Step 3 is MLP marketing its most compelling and successful players to create new stars.

Just as critical to MLP’s strategy is growing the game at the grassroots level in hopes of having 40 million Americans playing pickleball by 2030. Worcester explains the importance of that ambitious goal by citing a International Tennis Federation study showing that 94 percent of professional tennis ticket buyers also played in the sport

“That shows you we need to build the entire ecosystem of pickleball,” she said. “The more pickleball players there are at the grassroots level, the more ticket buyers there’ll be, the more television viewers there’ll be, the more consumers of sponsored goods there’ll be.”

As professional pickleball has ascended out of the RV parks and into the mainstream, the quality of play has followed a similar trajectory. One reason is today’s younger, more athletic player pool. Another is paddle makers pushing the limits of innovation to help players generate more power and spin. But maybe the biggest factor is how much time pros devote to improving their physical fitness and to working on their craft.

Gone are the days when a player could hold down a full-time job, practice or train after work or on weekends and expect to be competitive. The prize money and sponsorship income available now incentivizes players to go all in.

“Nobody has a side job anymore,” Vivienne David said. “Now you have to dedicate all your time to pickleball because everybody’s getting better.”

The level of play in professional pickleball should get only higher if more American tennis stars make the leap. Already two-time Wimbledon semifinalist Sam Querrey, 35, has transitioned to pickleball, as has 26-year-old former Wimbledon junior champ Noah Rubin.

Newcomers to professional pickleball have a hard time comprehending how much has changed in a short time. Not even a decade ago, Yates was embarrassed to admit he played pickleball. Last month, he was drafted onto a professional team co-owned by Tom Brady.

“If he wants a lesson, I’m pretty close to Tampa,” Yates joked. “I’m happy to go meet him.”