Originally published by Sportico
The New York Stock Exchange hosted an unusual event on Wednesday. Under the stained-glass dome of the iconic board room on the sixth floor, right before the opening bell, a handful of executives watched a pickleball match that kicked off a big week for Major League Pickleball: Draft week.
Not many had heard of pickleball—a ball-and-racket sport that’s a fusion of tennis, badminton and ping-pong—until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sport has come a long way since. The Economist dubbed it “the fastest-growing sport in America” in a January 2021 story. Since MLP’s launch in Austin last September, the league has held a handful of games around the country as well as the event inside one of the oldest financial institutions of the world.
The MLP features elite, coed team events, like the Davis Cup. The league kicks off the year on June 3-5 at Dreamland, an 86-acre venue in Dripping Springs, Texas. During this three-day tournament, teams play a women’s doubles game, a men’s doubles game, followed by two mixed doubles games. If two teams are tied after these four games, a tiebreaker is played, involving all four players on each team. These group matches are followed by single-elimination matches. After Dreamland, there will be two more tournaments in 2022.
MLP will be unveiling the twelve teams and their players during Saturday’s live draft, which will take place at New York’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and is expected to have top professional pickleball players and MLP executives along with a handful of club owners in attendance.
“Owning a team was a natural extension to me being a co-founder of MLP,” Mellie Pierce, the owner of Chimeras, one of the first six professional teams, told Sportico during the NYSE event. “Pickleball brings joy to everyone. I found it sort of informally but soon realized it’s one of the fastest growing sports in the world. And as a businessperson, I thought, well, of course I want to own a team!”
Pickleball was invented on Bainbridge Island, Wash. in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, a career politician. But the growth was slow. The official rule book was published in 1984 and the governing body of the sport, USA Pickleball was formed in 2005. However, pickleball really had its moment as a sport when COVID-19 came along. With gyms and squash courts shut down, many people turned to this low-cost, low-impact, easy-to-learn, outdoor sport. According to USA Pickleball, the game saw a 21% increase in participants from 2019 to 2020, and more than 4 million people played the game in 2021 in the U.S.
Today, 48 players compete in MLP across twelve professional teams. There are a few recognizable names among the owners: Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry and former tennis pro James Blake own The Lions, and VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk joined the 2022 season with his team 5S.
Zubin Mehta, the co-founder of Good Alpha Industries, owns one of MLP’s new teams, Mad Drops. Mehta was looking into getting involved and he jumped on the opportunity to own a team when it came up. “I think MLP is probably the most exciting event in particular,” he said. “It’s a team-based event. It’s got men and women; it’s got the best players in the world. The format between the draft and multiple events is great, some real intrigue, and we’re super excited to be part of it.”
In addition to the MLP, there are two domestic professional pickleball tours: the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) and the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA). Last year, Tom Dundon, the majority owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, bought the PPA and signed some of the world’s best players, including Ben Johns, the highest-ranked men’s player in the world.