The PPA Tour dropped a hammer a couple of weeks ago with their announcement of a partnership with DraftKings and subsequent partnership with MGM for a big event in Las Vegas later this year. Well, Major League Pickleball (MLP) raised the PPA’s gambling announcements with a celebrity ownership announcement of massive proportions. The news released this morning is that an ownership group headlined by Lebron James and his best buddy business partner, Maverick Carter, are purchasing an MLP team. Other notable names included in the ownership group are NBA players Draymond Green and Kevin Love. LeBron and Maverick Carter will own the team through their family office, LRMR Ventures.
This is getting crazy.
While the viewership numbers for pickleball remain low, the goal for these ground floor investors for pickleball is likely an extremely long-term return on investment play. It’s a small gamble with potential big return for investors that believe pickleball is the sport of the future and they are the ones ahead of the curve. If pickleball doesn’t blow up, no big deal. Move on to the next venture.
From MLP’s standpoint, it’s another major win that continues to legitimize their product and business model. The LeBron led team purchase has created the most mainstream media coverage we have seen for any single pickleball story so far. It’s the type of article you send out to your family group chat and the person who has zero interest in sports responds with a “Wow!”. LeBron James is one of the few superstars in sports that transcends the game he plays. The fact that LeBron and his team see enough in pickleball to make it worth investing has the power to bring the type of exposure and eyeballs to pickleball that could take years to generate organically.
We have heard about documentaries being filmed around pro pickleball, including one spearheaded by Randall Emmett at a point in time. The PPA may have something cooking too as Tyson McGuffin has posted some social media content in the past couple of days about a documentary being made. It’s unclear what the status of any of those documentaries are, but if LeBron and Carter ever decided to put any of their production company, SpringHill Company, resources into pickleball, it could change the course of the sport.
There are not too many individuals in sports who have the influence to have a pickleball documentary get picked up by an outlet where people would watch it. Look at what Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix has done to skyrocket the interest of F1 racing. SpringHill currently has shows on NBC, HBO, Netflix and Disney+, demonstrating their reach and pull is far and wide.
We had a lot of skepticism about MLP moving to a 12-team and now a 16-team model for 2023, but it is more understandable when you have the opportunity to bring in an owner with the name recognition of LeBron James. Commissioner of MLP, Brooks Wiley, posted on Twitter this morning that this was the first of more big news to come – not “bigger” than LeBron but still big, nonetheless.
The question then arises as to what MLP will do going forward if there are other big-name owners that want to join the ranks of MLP beyond this group of 16-teams. In our view, 16 teams is a problem from a product standpoint. You can’t keep expanding with the limited pool of quality talent out there in pro pickleball. As great as it is having LeBron, MLP is putting itself at risk of having a watered-down product for 2023. The bottom line is that the product needs to be good if MLP is going to be a long-term success.
On the first episode of the Inside Major League Pickleball podcast last week, Wiley revealed that existing team owners will likely be able to franchise (i.e. keep) 1 or 2 players next year. Without any explanation as to how the franchise system will impact the lottery and draft, it’s tough to say what franchising players means for the new ownership groups when a lot of the best talent will be unavailable to be drafted. It potentially creates competitive balance questions, especially if MLP wants to expand beyond 16 teams in the future, unless they are able to pry away some of the top PPA talent. Adding some of those top PPA players to the talent pool in combination with the influx of new players to the game (Sam Querrey, anyone?), could keep the level of the same, or actually improve it next year and beyond.
At the end of the day, MLP is in hyper-growth mode, and it does not look like they are stopping anytime soon. Tyson McGuffin went on the Dink’s podcast earlier this week and, in discussing MLP, he shared that he was not happy about not being able to play MLP – he specifically named Ben Johns as being unhappy as well. Although many have surmised that PPA players are disgruntled about being cut out of MLP, McGuffin is the first PPA-contracted player to go public with those type of sentiments. Tyson went on to say that the PPA-MGM event will be an MLP “equalizer” for PPA contracted players, but those comments were provided before this LeBron James announcement, which probably makes it harder to accept that the MGM event can be a true equalizer to the fear of missing out with MLP.
It is also hilarious, and completely by coincidence (wink wink), that this evening the PPA announced their celebrity pro-am event at the made to take eyeballs away from MLP event in Frisco, Texas the weekend of October 13th. The pro-am will feature real names in Tony Romo, Jordan Speith and John Isner, but the announcement can’t hold a candle to MLP’s announcement from this morning.
We expected more big news would be coming after the PPA broadcasted their partnership with MGM, but we can’t say we expected this big of a mic to be dropped by MLP. If MLP can get gambling figured out quickly, the sky’s the limit for their organization. Gambling is the real equalizer in pickleball currently and you have to think that MLP is furiously trying to get that part sorted out as soon as possible.
So, LeBron James is officially involved in professional pickleball. When we say the game is changing fast, it’s pretty clear sometimes we don’t have any idea what that really means.
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