Pickleball The number one men’s doubles team of Ben Johns and Matt Wright (left) play Tyler Loong and Spencer Smith (right) during their professional mens doubles match in the Pro Pickleball Association Masters tournament at the La Quinta Resort and Club, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif.

Pickleball fever is sweeping the country. Everywhere you look, people are picking up the sport as participation has incredibly more than doubled in the past three years. Courts are popping up in locations far and wide. But even as pickleball becomes more popular than ever, there seems to be one area in which the sport’s growth seems to be hitting a brick wall.


The New York Times has a deep dive on the success and growth of pickleball as a sport that people love to play recreationally, but that not many people want to watch. Even though there are scores of athletes and celebrities who have invested in professional pickleball teams and leagues, the sport is at a crossroads as to how exactly it can break through and become an engaging television presentation. To this point, networks have found moderate success in televising pickleball, but those have leaned on celebrity athletes playing against one another. Even one of those participants, John McEnroe, said the hype around pickleball made him want to throw up.

To this point, the real professional players largely remain anonymous. And questions remain if the sport may be stuck with that reality. The biggest obstacle facing pickleball’s future as a television enterprise?

It’s incredibly boring to watch.

We don’t know whether pickleball is going to be a television event — if it’s not, there probably won’t be a lot of revenue attached to it,” said David Levy, the former president of the television and media conglomerate Turner. “Sponsors want what? Reach and branding.”

As a co-founder of Horizon Sports & Experiences, a sports and marketing agency, Mr. Levy this year launched the Pickleball Slam, an ESPN-broadcast event that featured retired the tennis pros Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and others competing for a million-dollar prize. It was viewed as a success, notching an average broadcast viewership of 237,000 adults under 50. But it borrowed its stars from another sport.

Pickleball proponents say the sport will eventually develop its own celebrity players.

But pickleball pessimists aren’t so sure. “It doesn’t make for good television,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has written several books about sports, told DealBook. He pointed out that while pingpong has long been played by millions of people in multiple countries, it hasn’t become a commercial success. “I think that pickleball is going to confront some of the same issues,” he said.

Even people within pickleball who have invested in teams see that drawing in a television audience will be difficult moving forward. And any hopes of financial returns from investment in the sport might have to come through alternative means.

The viewership side of it — people watching at home — is going to be a challenge,” said Richard Kleiman, a co-owner of a professional pickleball team and the founder of Thirty Five Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on sports investing. He said that rather than depending on big network T.V. deals, teams may make much of their profits from merchandise and events, like the U.S. Pickleball Nationals, which inked a sponsorship deal with the hospitality company Margaritaville last year.

If Pac-12 football can’t get a willing television partner, it’s hard to see pickleball crossing the threshold to where television networks will get into a bidding war for the rights. Just because a sport is popular to play doesn’t mean it will make an incredible amount of money in television revenue. Let’s just hope the people that invested millions of dollars in the sport realized that before they bought in.

[New York Times]