Kevin Durant and his longtime business partner, Rich Kleiman, have purchased a Major League Pickleball expansion team through their investment venture arm, 35V. KD joins fellow sports icons LeBron James and Tom Brady in investing in MLP expansion franchises.
The expansion fee for the new franchises is $1 million, according to multiple sources familiar with the deals who were not authorized to speak publicly about them. An MLP spokesperson would not confirm the exact fee, but said it has “grown exponentially in the last year and is in the seven figures.”
MLP launched in 2021 with eight teams and expanded to 12 for the just-completed 2022 season. The expansion will take the league to 16 teams in 2023 with six events—double the number from this year—and more than $2 million in total prize money.
“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 board member, said in an email. “Each new owner and ownership group brings to the table expertise across media, entertainment, business, content and more, and we will work together to elevate MLP as we grow into 2023 and beyond.”
Durant is the NBA’s third highest-paid player with $91 million, including endorsement income (James is first at $119.5 million). His VC portfolio has more than 75 investments, and the MLP franchise joins other sports-oriented ones like Athletes Unlimited, Gotham FC, League One Volleyball, Philadelphia Union and Premier Lacrosse League.
Pickleball—which was founded on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Wash., in 1965—is a mashup of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It is America’s fastest-growing sport, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 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 courts are popping up in parks, driveways and real estate developments.
MLP is one of three pro pickleball leagues, along with the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour and the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP).
Draymond Green, Kevin Love and Maverick Carter are part of LeBron’s ownership group. Tennis Hall-of-Famer Kim Clijsters is in Brady’s ownership group, which is set to be 50% women. Other MLP investors include Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, retired QB Drew Brees and former top American tennis player James Blake.