America’s fastest-growing sport continues to attract high-profile investors from entertainment and sports with Tuesday’s announcement of Major League Pickleball’s 12 new teams for 2023. Kevin Durant, Heidi Klum, Eva Longoria, Michael Phelps and Tom Ricketts are among the dozens of investors in the clubs.
“The diversity in the backgrounds and expertise of our fantastic new owners is an incredible asset as we aggressively expand Major League Pickleball to reach more fans than ever,” Brian Levine, the interim MLP CEO, said in a statement on the news. “We always say pickleball brings people together, and this roster of leaders from across a wide variety of industries is a strong testament to that philosophy.”
Last month, MLP merged with Tom Dundon’s rival Professional Pickleball Association, which had just announced the launch of the VIBE Pickleball League with Mark Cuban as its first team owner. The move allowed MLP to expand to 24 teams with six events and $5 million in prize money for 2023. It had eight teams and one event in 2021. Each team will feature two men and two women. MLP added casual dining chain Margaritaville as a title sponsor last week.
The newly announced teams drafted their co-ed rosters Monday night and will start at the Challenger Level in 2023. The 12 previously existing teams, whose cap tables include LeBron James, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, will start at the Premier Level. Last week, those teams drafted the top 48 pro pickleballers. The two sets of teams will then swap leagues for the second half of the 2023 season and have a re-draft with the combined season results determining a team’s level in 2024. The 2024 season will feature promotion and relegation between the two levels with the Premier Level the higher tier.
The newly announced ownership groups showcase pre-existing ties. The D.C. Pickleball team is made up largely of existing investors in Liga MX Club Necaxa, including Al Tylis, Sam Porter, Eva Longoria, Justin Verlander, Kate Upton and Mesut Ozil. D.C. had the first pick in the draft and choose 10-time ATP Tour titleist Sam Querrey, who recently retired from tennis.
Miami has attracted investments from Naomi Osaka and her agent Stuart Duguid, who launched their own agency, Evolve, this year. Evolve’s only other client, Nick Kyrgios, also invested, as did Alex Cohen, who serves as a financial advisor to Osaka and, launched his own firm, Heights, in 2021 after more than a dozen years at Main Street Advisors. Chicago’s team features four women’s tennis Grand Slam champions, including Chris Evert.
Kevin Durant and his longtime business partner, Rich Kleiman, will own the team in Brooklyn through their venture fund 35V. The expansion fee for Durant’s franchise was $1 million, and fees for other recent franchises were at and exceeded $3 million, according to multiple sources familiar with the deals who were not authorized to speak publicly about them.
“This is not about simply writing a check, it’s about finding the right strategic partners to help us grow MLP and the entire sport of pickleball,” Anne Worcester, MLP’s strategic advisor and a board member, said in an email in October.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association dubbed pickleball the fastest growing sport, with participation up 39% between 2019 and 2021. The sport’s governing body, USA Pickleball, says there are 4.8 million pickleball players in the U.S. and more than 10,000 locations to play, including nearly 800 added in 2021.
New MPL Teams/Owners
Atlanta Bouncers: Anheuser-Busch
AZ Drive: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Phelps, Devin Booker, Dierks Bentley, Robert Gary, Doug Hirsch, Sheila Gulati, John Merwin, Sam Fox, Brian Frakes, Mark Dalton and Richard J. Schnall
Bay Area Breakers: Jeremy Lin, Mimi Mercado, David Mercado, Geoff Nguyen, Stacey Nishi, Jeff Nishi, Wayley Louie and Kathleen Louie
Brooklyn Aces: Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s 35V
Chicago Slice: Ron Saslow’s 35 Capital, Heidi Klum, Tom Ricketts, David Justice, Doug Ellin, Chris Evert, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin, Gigi Fernández, David Dobrik, Joe Bonamassa, Ted Foxman and Steve Bellamy
Columbus Pickleball Club: David Kass and Doug Ulman
Dallas Pickleball Club: Mark Cuban, Dirk Nowitzki, John Isner, Robert Herjavec, Chandler Parsons, and Todd Wagner
D.C. Pickleball Team: Al Tylis, Sam Porter, Eva Longoria, Justin Verlander, Mesut Ozil, Kate Upton, Shawn Marion, Rip Hamilton and Matt Walsh
Miami Pickleball Club: Naomi Osaka, Nick Kyrgios, Patrick Mahomes, Rich Paul, Darius Garland, Mardy Fish, Alex Davis, Alex Cohen, Stuart Duguid, The Palm Tree Crew, Prakash Amritraj, Matthew Pritzker, Mark Ein, Romie Chaudhari and Swimmy Minami
Texas Ranchers: Tim Klitch, Dan Ferreri, Bryan Sheffield, Kit Sheffield and Richard Veitenheimer
Utah Black Diamonds: The Pardoe Family
Valhalla Volleys: To be determined
(This article has been updated to clarify that Sam Fox and Brian Frakes are part of the AZ Drive ownership group.)