Another day, another ownership slot being filled for Major League Pickleball (MLP). Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s investment portfolio, Thirty Five Ventures (35V), announced the purchase of an MLP team yesterday following the completion of the 2022 MLP season in Columbus. It’s another ownership group that adds to the conga line of celebrities looking to get in on the ground floor of the sport.
Kevin Durant was playing pickleball down in Austin about a month ago and 35V’s media network, the Boardroom, was all over the LeBron to MLP news so the announcement of 35V joining the MLP ownership ranks was not a massive shock. While this MLP announcement did not carry with it the same cache as the previous two, it solidifies the direction that MLP is heading in with the ability to leverage the connections these investors bring to the table to push the sport forward.
One of the big questions for us with these ownership announcements surrounds the level of investment they will have. It’s one thing to get some good press with the initial announcement, but a day or two of interest is not all that meaningful without the longer-term investment. We don’t expect LeBron James, Tom Brady and Kevin Durant to be intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of their respective teams, but if there is buy in from their main people like Rich Kleiman and Maverick Carter, that’s what is crucial.
Barring some very large and unforeseen moves elsewhere, what this means is that MLP is going to be the tour that has won the proverbial ‘offesason’. Yes, there is no offseason in pickleball, but the phrasing is used because it symbolizes where MLP is at right now.
We often hear about teams winning the offseason in other sports. You sign ‘X’ free agent, hire ‘Y’ big name coach and make a game changing trade for ‘Z’ player. None of it matters if the team can’t back up with results. Well, the same goes MLP when there are multiple entities fighting for supremacy in a brand new professional sport. MLP is winning the ‘offeason’, but it won’t matter if there isn’t sustainable growth that results from the newsworthy ownership announcements.
The early returns on the big name owner groups have been good from what we are hearing. We noted in our article after the Brady news that LeBron’s team has invested not only in their team, but in the league itself. Since that time, it sounds like all of these new groups have been very invested behind the scenes so far, particularly Rich Kleiman. Putting the pieces together with the addition of 35V to MLP, it is looking more and more like there will be pickleball on a legitimate television entity somewhere in 2023.
It’s also worth mentioning that Kleiman sounded very enthusiastic about his new investment during his appearance on the Inside MLP Podcast. Kleiman is obviously going to talk a good game when he’s talking on a podcast run by the league he just invested in, but the excitement seemed genuine for whatever that’s worth.
One other bigger question mark going forward continues to be the substantial shift in format by MLP next year for its on-court action. In Kleiman’s podcast appearance, he talked about the team format being what was so attractive about MLP compared to the other tours. Although the business reasons behind the move make sense, it feels like something will be lost from MLP in 2023. At the very least, it’s kind of a weird thing when there is a bunch of news of athletes purchasing pickleball franchises when the team aspect will only be featured on 1 of the 4 days at each event – although heck, no one in the general public even knows what purchasing a pickleball franchise means as evidenced by the pickleball discussion on the Dan Patrick Show yesterday morning.
With that being said, it isn’t our expectation the 4-day schedule that MLP has settled on for 2023 will continue for the long-term. MLP will probably keep making some degree of alterations to their Most importantly, the team feature of MLP will have to stay in some capacity because without teams you don’t have owners.
Bringing this back to the 35V news, there are no questions surrounding the star power of MLPs ownership group at this point in time. However, this honeymoon phase for MLP will fade away. What’s going to matter is how the league parlays this honeymoon phase into something long-lasting. How they will do that? That, of course, remains to be seen.
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