LeBron James' New Venture: What Is Major League Pickleball?

In a sign of how popular pickleball has become, Major League Pickleball (MLP) announced Wednesday that LeBron James and fellow NBA stars Draymond Green and Kevin Love are part of a consortium that is buying a team.

The group involving the NBA players joins other big names who have invested in owning franchises in MLP, such as retired NFL quarterback Drew Brees, tennis star James Blake and Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry.

Anne Worcester, MLP Strategic Advisor and Board Member, told Newsweek that having such high-profile investors "greatly increases awareness" for this sport "and adds passionate people who are experts across business, sports, media and entertainment to partner with us on growing the game."

While James no doubt shines more of a spotlight on pickleball, the game was already a nationwide sensation. Pickleball has in fact been called the country's fastest-growing sport two years in a row (2021 and 2022) by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) and has an estimated 4.8 million players.

But for those who haven't caught on to the craze, what is pickleball and how did it come to have its own professional league?

Lebron James and Pickleball paddle and ball
In this split image, LeBron James is seen on the left at the premiere Of Warner Bros. "Space Jam: A New Legacy" held at Regal LA Live on July 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images). On the right is an undated stock image of a pickleball paddle and ball (Getty Images). Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty; Chris Rubino/Getty

In 1990, The Seattle Times traced the origins of pickleball—also stylized as "pickle ball" and "pickle-ball"—to Bainbridge Island, Washington, where it's been said that the game was invented at the home of Joel Pritchard, a businessman who later served in the U.S. Congress and as Washington's lieutenant governor.

Pritchard told The Seattle Times the game's monicker has no significance; he just thought it needed "a nutty name." However, his wife, Joan, later told a reporter she came up with the name because the game "reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats."

The actual game of pickleball could be described as tennis-like in that there is a net and competitors hit a ball back and forth. Rather than rackets players use paddles, and the balls is comparable to a whiffle ball.

Games are comprised of either single or double players on each side, and pickleball can be played indoors or outside. The exact rules and regulations are relatively simple, which has been cited as a reason for the sport's appeal, as has its low cost and the versatility of where it can be played. (Pickleball's biggest spurt in popularity came during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people sought more outdoor activities.)

The sport began as a fad mostly for older segments of the population. According to the USA Pickleball Association, around half of what it deemed "core" serious players were 55 and older in 2021. But it's growing with younger players, too, and the fastest-growing group of all players are under 24.

Given the tremendous interest in the sport, a professional league was inevitable, and Major League Pickleball was launched in 2021 by founder Steve Kuhn, a philanthropist and former financial executive. With the help of investors like James, the league plans to keep growing.

"We are expanding from 12 to 16 teams, doubling the number of events from three to six across the U.S., and increasing prize money and payouts to more than $2 million," said Worcester.

She added, "Current studies estimate that about 5 million people are playing pickleball, but if you talk to experts who are diving deeper and looking at stats like ball sales and Google searches, the number is more like 8 million. If you extrapolate that out to grow 30 percent per year, there could be 40 million pickleball players by 2030."

Worcester said MLP's growth strategy is what they call "the 40 by 30 campaign."

If anything, MLP might have trouble keeping up with the demand for pickleball.

"The MLP expansion to 16 teams allowed for many potential investors—both individuals and groups—to submit bids for the four new teams," Worcester said. "We received overwhelming interest from 60-plus groups for these teams, which far exceeded our expectations."