Writer’s note: We had this drafted before the JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier Vibe Pickleball League news was broken by Darren Rovell. Nothing changes our sentiments for this post from that news. We’ll have more thoughts on the JW and Frazier situation later.
With pickleball getting so much mainstream attention these days, it was only a matter of time before someone at The Ringer took a stab at some takes on this pickleball phenomenon. The founder of the basketball-centric sports and pop culture website, Bill Simmons, expressed some doubt on the long-term popularity of the sport in a professional capacity on the Hottest Take podcast with co-host Van Lathan. While we don’t have much interest in responding to every person who has a take on pickleball, the discussion between Simmons and Lathan got us thinking about how we feel on the prospects of pro pickleball when he started off their 8-minute conversation with this:
It’s worth noting at the beginning that Simmons does not have a problem with people getting excited about playing pickleball. However, he is more than skeptical on the viability of professional pickleball and said he draws the line at pickleball being the new hot sport from a professional standpoint.
In this bubble of pro pickleball, it can easily be forgotten how little people care or know about pro pickleball, even the people who love to play it. Simmons went on further to say at the outset of the podcast that:
Simmons probably doesn’t realize how many current pickleball fanatics can relate to his sentiment. So many pickleball obsessed people, including us, were in Simmons’ shoes at one point, questioning the silly game with the silly name. Heck, a few years ago, one of us famously said to the other that they would never travel to play a pickleball tournament. It has taken the word never out of our vocabulary and made us laugh at Simmons’ comments about watching pickleball.
Nevertheless, Simmons’ comments on the sustainability of pro pickleball still resonated with us. As obsessed as the two of us are with pickleball, we may very well be the least bullish on the long-term ceiling of pro pickleball for the masses.
Like so many have done and will continue to do, Simmons made comparisons to other sports that have not been able to make the transition beyond relatively niche mainstream viewership like lacrosse and ping pong. He brought up Major League Soccer (MLS) as an example of limited growth because people want to watch the best.
The comparisons are all reasonable and we share his feelings to a certain degree. Pickleball is almost certainly not going to be as popular as football or basketball. On the other hand, can it become more popular than badminton, ping pong, disc golf or lacrosse? That question won’t be answered for quite some time, but there is one ingredient we feel that Simmons is missing in this discussion. It’s an ingredient that only those engrossed in pickleball can understand and it is the weird, addictive nature of the sport.
As we alluded to earlier, so many pickleball players share a generally similar version of their introduction to pickleball, which is often a significant level of skepticism that morphs into complete addiction. There is something unique about the sport that creates extreme fixation in its players unlike any other sport out there. Both of us have played a bunch of different sports in our lives yet nothing compares to the pickleball juice.
Although we may not be as bullish as others on the outlook of pro pickleball, we are incredibly bullish on the prospect of recreational pickleball. Of all the sports Simmons mentions in the podcast, the one with the highest participatory rate in the United States is soccer. What pickleball has in common with soccer is the accessibility component of the sport. It is that accessibility that could allow pickleball to surpass tennis as the most popular racquet sport in North America from a participation standpoint.
If you want to take an optimistic stance on pro pickleball, it is the long-term rise in participation rates that could fuel interest in the pro side of the game. Bill Simmons made the point that the only new sport that has become mainstream in the last 25 years is UFC, which is very unique in itself. While that may be true, his new sport comment overlooks that Formula 1 racing has rapidly brought in an entirely new demographic into their sport that could not have been contemplated a few short years ago.
F1 is an illustration of how fast viewing habits can change for even the non-sports interested audience. It gives hope for pickleball that steadily climbing participation rates and the right media coverage could propel the sport to a much wider audience in the future.
Golf and tennis are not week in, week out viewed sports by the broader audience. They are sports mostly confined to the four majors for both sports. Heck, the grind of an MLB, NBA or NHL season are too much for a lot of sports fans, who would rather tune in come playoff time.
Success for pro pickleball does not necessarily mean fans are grinding hours of live stream footage every weekend. Just because all celebrities are investing into pickleball does not mean that people are banking that their investment will produce a sport as popular as the NFL. What is wrong with the popularity level of the MLS? From our standpoint, the slow burn growth of the MLS has been a success considering the limited interest in professional soccer in North America when the league was established.
We still have our reservations as to whether professional pickleball can even become as popular as the MLS is right now. However, Simmons is wrong when he equates the MLS and pro pickleball with fans wanting to watch the best “athletes”. The MLS is low end professional league in comparison to the best the sport of soccer has to offer whereas we hopefully will have a premiere pickleball league or tour at some point. It’s not that people want to watch the best “athletes”. People want to watch the best in the sport compete against one another.
While an ongoing struggle for pro pickleball growing its audience will come from an inability to translate the product on video, the ongoing participation growth could be a game changer for more extensive understanding of the sport at the pro level.
The final concern for pro pickleball we want to note stems from the sport possibly going too big too fast. The need to push the pace of the sport’s organic growth beyond what it is capable of because of the opportunity available could be harmful to the sport long-term. We wrote on Twitter over the weekend that the elephant in the room for pro pickleball is that you need fans to be profitable and, right now, there is a lot of money being poured into the sport with only the potential for a marketable fan base. If there’s going to be money to be made in professional pickleball, it may not happen as fast as all these investors into the sport expect or hope it will.
As Bill Simmons said to Van Lathan, rich people can’t make stuff happen that people don’t necessarily want. In our view, people are not going to want pro pickleball until the time comes, which is likely when there are a lot more people who have actually played pickleball.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the difference maker for pickleball in comparison to other fad sports could be the accessibility in combination with that intangible ‘it’ quality the sport possesses. The ‘it’ factor that has us playing for hours on end, travelling to tournaments and tuning into weekly YouTube live streams. For so many out there already, there may not be another sport that provides such a distinctly fulfilling experience.
Contrary to what Bill Simmons thinks, maybe, just maybe, that experience will be shared by a whole lot of other people around the world.
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too!