Sports

Amateurs Flocked to Pickleball. But Will They Watch the Pros?


At parks, gyms and sports clubs across the country, millions of people are playing pickleball, with the sport’s explosive growth leading to battles with tennis players over court space, a push for developers to create new courts and professional athletes like LeBron James hungry to invest in the professional game.

It is hard to determine precisely how many people have flocked to pickleball — by some accounts, as many as 4.8 million people in the United States are playing, and some say that figure is more than 36 million. To be clear: People love pickleball.

Now investors and executives within the sport must figure out how to convince recreational pickleball enthusiasts that professional pickleball is worth watching on television and paying to see in person. As this year’s professional tournaments get underway, those in the pro ranks must persuade those who don’t already follow professional pickleball that the sport’s most popular players — such as Anna Leigh Waters, Ben Johns and Lee Whitwell — are just as fun to watch as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka.

Whitwell, 48, herself was initially reluctant to watch or play the game. She grew up playing tennis and was competitive enough to win two N.C.A.A. Division II national doubles titles and play a few professional matches.

“There was no room for a sport called pickleball,” Whitwell said. “As a tennis purist, I refused. I thought it was an old-person sport and not a real sport.”

Then, in 2017, Whitwell said a friend bribed her with a case of beer to give pickleball a try. Within about a year of playing for the first time, Whitwell started playing the sport professionally.

“Little did I know that as soon as I started playing it, I would fall in love with it,” Whitwell said.

These days, Whitwell is a pro pickleball star, a fan favorite who is often asked for an autograph or photo at tournaments. She is aware of the role she plays in helping grow the sport.

“We are on the ground floor of helping shape the sport,” Whitwell said.

Those who follow pickleball are deeply familiar with Whitwell, Johns and Waters. They might tune in to live streams on YouTube or ESPN Plus to watch them play. Some even buy tickets to go see them at tournaments across the country.

But outside of the pickleball world, Stu Upson, the outgoing chief executive of USA Pickleball, said those names were not well known.

“If we can have a Roger or Serena of pickleball, when people are watching pickleball and they know who they are, whether they play the game or not, that would be huge,” Upson said. “But that takes a long time to develop.”

Pickleball executives and investors are aiming to convince those who play casually to become invested enough to follow the pros.

Steve Kuhn, founder of Major League Pickleball, has been pushing the slogan “40 by 30,” for his goal to have 40 million people playing the sport by 2030.

“If this is the most played sport in America, it might not be the most watched sport in America, but it will be up there,” Kuhn said.

Unlike in most other sports, many pickleball tournaments also host a number of amateur competitions alongside the professional matches. Some tournaments even offer opportunities for amateurs to play into the professional draws. That interest from amateurs has drawn investors like Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who recently invested in a professional pickleball league.

“If you play actively, you watch, so the player growth will certainly translate to more viewers,” Cuban said.

Pickleball’s low barrier for entry is what draws many to play the sport. The gear isn’t particularly expensive, it’s relatively easy to learn and a participant doesn’t need to be especially strong, tall or fast.

“How many sports are there where grandparents can play with their grandkids?” Chuck Menke, chief marketing officer of USA Pickleball, said.

The sport is already showcasing examples that make success look attainable: Anna Leigh Waters, 16, considered to be one of the best players in the sport, plays women’s doubles with her mother, Leigh Waters, 43.

“It’s one of these sports where you can actually go out and see success early on,” Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, said.

But that low barrier for entry could be what makes watching it on TV less appealing. Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has served as a consultant for sports leagues and teams, said that one issue pickleball faces as a spectator sport “is that it doesn’t move very fast.”

“We like things that display physical acumen, where the stars can do things that we can’t do, and I think that pickleball is less amenable to that kind of an appreciation,” Zimbalist said.

About three to four pickleball courts can fit on one tennis court, which means shorter serves and less room to sprint for a ball. The court size may make strategy less visible, especially for new audiences or fans with a casual interest. The smaller court size also makes it harder to follow a player’s tactics or “anticipate the buildup,” Zimbalist said.

“I think that suggests that the television future is limited, no matter how many people play it,” he said.

Some pickleball tournaments can already be seen on ESPN, Fox Sports and the Tennis Channel, along with a number of streams online. But as pro pickleball looks to expand on TV, Zimbalist said that it also faced competition from other sports that are already well established — like tennis and golf — and others that have been growing for awhile, such as professional women’s soccer and lacrosse.

Upson, the outgoing chief executive of USA Pickleball, said that pickleball matches were better appreciated up close, much like hockey.

“If you go and get a seat down near the glass, and you see these guys skating at 20 miles an hour with that hand-eye coordination and quickness, and beating the heck out of each other — getting eight stitches and then coming back 10 minutes later — you get a much deeper appreciation for the sport,” Upson said.

As new fans are drawn to pro pickleball, they have found there is much to navigate, with tours from three leagues: the Association of Pickleball Professionals, the Professional Pickleball Association and Major League Pickleball.

Each league has something that sets it apart. The A.P.P. had the first tour sanctioned by USA Pickleball. The P.P.A. signed some of pro pickleball’s best players to exclusive contracts. Major League Pickleball, with a team-style format, has drawn a number of well-known figures to buy teams or invest in the league, including Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

While each league appears to be steady for now, some say it might be only a matter of time before one falls, or two leagues merge.

“It’s hard to find a major sport where competing pro tours or pro leagues have both been able to thrive,” Upson said. “Even the A.F.L. and the N.F.L. had to merge.”

But no matter how ‌popular recreational pickleball gets, the pro leagues will face external challenges from leagues like the N.F.L., M.L.B., N.B.A.‌, N.H.L., M.L.S. and W.N.B.A.

“It’s going to be hard to beat the N.F.L.,” Kuhn said. “Could it be in the top five? Yeah. I project it will be. I might be wrong, but the thing is, I could be wrong in terms of where we’re valuing the league now and still be right. It doesn’t have to be top five for us to do well. If it’s top 20 in terms of viewership, the investors at this level will do just fine.”

Connor Pardoe, chief executive of the P.P.A., said one of his goals for the organization was to try to convince spectators that pro pickleball players “are at the top of the game.”

“They’re true to their craft like any other any other professional sports personality, and trying to show that it’s not just a silly game that you play in the backyard but is a real professional thing,” Pardoe said. “That’s our challenge.”



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