Pickleball: Big business, or just big fun? – Sports Business Journal

As part of a candid opening discussion at the 21st CAA World Congress of Sports, Sports Business Journal Publisher and Executive Editor Abe Madkour prodded the panelists with a few rounds of “Buy, Sell or Hold.” The five-person panel — Amazon’s vice president of global sports video, Marie Donoghue; SMAC Entertainment co-founder and partner Constance Schwartz-Morini; USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel; City Football Group and Manchester City FC CEO Ferran Soriano; and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum — shared their takes on the viability of popular trends like NFTs (four “buys,” one “hold”) and the metaverse (five “buys”). 

Pickleball, however, drew a sharper debate.

America’s fastest-growing sport, with more than 4.8 million players last year according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, Major League Pickleball already has high-profile ownership groups including the likes of Drew Brees, LeBron James, and, as of earlier last week, Tom Brady and Kim Clijsters. That was enough for the NBA’s Tatum: “LeBron James is buying [pickleball], so I’m buying,” he said.

Schwartz-Morini and Siegel were quick to voice their approval of the budding sport, but Donoghue was more hesitant: “I would buy as a participatory sport, but I think I’d wait to see how the media shakes out.”

Soriano, meanwhile, candidly balked at the topic: “I have no idea,” he said with a shrug, drawing laughs from the audience and his fellow panelists.

It wasn’t the first time pickleball had come up. Earlier in the panel, Schwartz-Morini was asked about what opportunity is out there that everybody in the room should be focused on. “I’ve got my eye on pickleball,” she said. Pressed by Madkour as to whether there is a business around it, she said, “We’ll see soon enough. I know just as a fan of it, it’s a game that we can all play. There’s so many people investing in the league and teams right now. If cornhole can have televised competitions, I don’t see why pickleball can’t.”

While pickleball certainly has momentum, it’s still a world away from morphing from successful participatory sport to viable spectator-based business.

“People always ask me, what’s the next big sport?” Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks said during a later panel. “It’s football, right? More football is the next big sport. One hundred percent.”