Over the years, there have been many bold claims about sports’ future viewership. One from Major League Pickleball founder Steve Kuhn on Sportico’s “Sporticast” podcast is the boldest that’s come across this desk in a while, though:
— Scott Soshnick (@soshnick) March 14, 2023
Steve Kuhn, the billionaire founder of @MajorLeaguePB, said on today's @Sporticast with @soshnick and @novy_williams that he believes pickleball will "easily" be a top five sport in terms of viewership within the next five years.
— Sporticast Media Network (@sporticast) March 14, 2023
Major League Pickleball founder Steve Kuhn says pickleball "will be easily a top 5 sport in the next five years in terms of viewership."
"We will challenge MLS, Major League Baseball and the NHL. I think we'll be in that category soon."
(via @Sportico podcast)
— Mark J. Burns (@markjburns88) March 14, 2023
Claiming that pickleball “will be easily a top five sport in the next five years in terms of viewership” is bold, especially considering pickleball’s limited TV success so far. Yes, the sport has picked up a lot of recreational players: the 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) Topline Participation Report named pickleball as the fastest-growing U.S. sport on that front for the third straight year, saying it had 8.9 million participants over the age of six (86 percent year-over-year growth). But recreational numbers alone aren’t everything.
And yes, the sport has gained some TV and streaming carriage. It’s gone from early 2016 coverage on CBS Sports Network through a feature on ESPN’s Ocho day last year through more recent ESPN deals with the Professional Pickleball Association and the Association of Pickleball Professionals (yes, those are different groups) and another APP deal with CBS Sports Network through Tennis Channel broadcasting one event in 2021, several last year, and many more Major League Pickleball ones this year. And there’s some broadcaster demand for it. But top five in viewership would be extremely difficult for pickleball to crack in five years.
There are two different-but-reasonable approaches to attaining a status where a sport could claim “top five in terms of viewership.” One would be for the most-watched pickleball event to be fifth or higher amongst all leagues’ top sporting events in terms of average U.S. viewership. The other would be for the average pickleball event (or the average in a given league) to be fifth or higher amongst all sporting leagues in terms of average U.S. viewership.
Let’s look at that first one first. As per Jon Lewis at Sports Media Watch, 45 of 2022’s 50 most-watched sporting events were NFL games. The five most-watched events outside the NFL were the three College Football playoff games, the night of the Olympics that followed the Super Bowl, and the World Cup Final. If we count just one NFL game (the Super Bowl), one CFB game (the national championship), and don’t count the Olympics or the World Cup given that they’re international and not annual, we can go further down the list to college basketball (a Final Four game), the Kentucky Derby, and Game 6 of the NBA Finals, with that last and lowest one coming in at 13.99 million.
We’d have to go further down still to get the three specific leagues Kuhn references. MLB’s top event was Game 5 of the World Series (12.77 million), the NHL’s was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final (5.82 million), and MLS’ was the MLS Cup (2.16 million). No pickleball event has come close to even that MLS number yet. And it should be noted that there are plenty of other sports that had top events above the MLS number in 2022 (in descending order: the PGA Tour, NASCAR, women’s college basketball, IndyCar, tennis, the USFL, and F1). A one-off pickleball special on CBS hosted by Stephen Colbert last November did draw more viewers (2.46 million) than the MLS Cup, but no other pickleball event has approached that. So even if a professional pickleball event did outdraw the MLS Cup within five years (unlikely at this point, but perhaps conceivable), calling it a “top-five sport” based solely on that seems like a big stretch, as there are lots of other sports with events pickleball is unlikely to pass.
The second idea, fifth or higher of all leagues in average event viewership, is perhaps more feasible. But it still carries a lot of caveats. It’s possible that one particular pickleball league with a decent TV deal could possibly pass MLS in terms of average audience per game, with so many MLS matches streaming-only on Apple TV+ now. (This would be very difficult to actually prove, given that most streaming numbers aren’t released, but it’s conceivable, especially if pickleball organizations continue to grow and one of them gets a better TV deal than what they presently have within five years.) However, MLS is likely not a “top five sport” in the U.S. in terms of average TV audience per game; this is much more difficult to calculate for sure than the peak above, as there are so many questions that arise with cross-sport comparisons and radically-different broadcasting deals, but many of the previously-mentioned sports with peaks above MLS would seem likely to beat it in average audience as well.
It would be much more of a stretch for pickleball to pass the NHL or MLB. But that could possibly happen with a counting method that averages in games in those other sports that are only broadcast in-market (and through out-of-market packages) and compares them to nationally-broadcast pickleball events. Even under a dubious method like that, though, pickleball would still have a high hurdle to climb. And it’s notable that a high participation rate doesn’t necessarily mean people want to watch professional events at home, a trend that’s been very true in soccer (and particularly with MLS). Statista found 12.6 million Americans played outdoor soccer at least once in 2021, but those aren’t all regular MLS viewers. And Mark Burns shared some survey numbers (from a survey conducted Feb. 16-20, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,202 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points) on interest in watching professional pickleball in a piece at Morning Consult last week:
Despite the increased broadcast commitment to pickleball, only about 1 in 4 adults (24%) said they are at least “somewhat” interested in watching the sport on TV or via a streaming provider, according to the Morning Consult survey.
About two-thirds of adults (66%) and 3 in 5 sports fans (61%), in addition to 49% of tennis fans, said they are either “not too interested” or “not interested at all” in watching pickleball.
Among generations, millennials (33%) were most interested in watching pickleball, compared with 18% of Gen Xers and baby boomers — both tying as the least-interested cohort.
Surveys aren’t everything, of course. But that is a notable data point about the current level of interest in watching pickleball. Yes, that could change if the sport continues to gain popularity, and investments from celebrities like LeBron James and the Dude Perfect group may help. But the sport doesn’t seem close to “top five” by any metric so far. And that led to a lot of jokes around Kuhn’s comment, including Scott Hines (and many others) referencing the famed Mad Men bit about how jai alai was set to take over the U.S. (“in seven years, it will eclipse baseball!”):
— actioncookbook (@actioncookbook) March 14, 2023
There were lots of other roastings as well:
You could attribute this quote to every dude who founded a spring football league in the last five years too. And all the people who dumped millions into eSports. https://t.co/Ivpu6VYQAD
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) March 14, 2023
NARRATOR: you know what happened next https://t.co/8Q4afZY1W5
— Max J. Rosenthal (@maxjrosenthal) March 14, 2023
This sounds like somebody who has no idea how many people watch Major League Baseball https://t.co/P19WVhCVDV
— Anchor of Gold dot com (@anchorofgold) March 14, 2023
Badminton is exponentially more fun to watch, and that’s not like a Top 30 sport in viewership. This is a wildly transparent grift. https://t.co/eECVmCptx8
— Moons (w/ an affordable buyout) (@GAMoons) March 14, 2023
An underrated flaw of capitalism is that even when it seemingly works, it isn’t good enough. People who made money on a sport no one thought to monetize a decade ago should be considered wildly successful but they always need more. https://t.co/CN9IkaXWUe
— John Fleming (@johnjf125) March 14, 2023
Fleming makes a good point there. By many metrics, pickleball has been insanely successful to date considering where it was a few years ago. And the Dude Perfect group’s investment (also announced on that Sportico podcast) values a Major League Pickleball franchise at $5 million. But televised pickleball is nowhere close to even MLS at the moment, much less the NHL or MLB, and there isn’t a whole lot suggesting a trajectory where it could pass even MLS (which, again, probably not a “top-five sport” in the U.S. from a TV perspective) in five years. Things can change rapidly, of course, and perhaps Kuhn will get the last laugh in the end. But for now, it’s the sports world laughing at his quote here.