Thursday, February 22

LeBron James is buying into the pickleball explosion

After acquiring stakes in top-level teams from baseball to hockey to auto racing to European soccer, LeBron James is now buying into a sport on a truly meteoric ascent: pickleball.

The Los Angeles Lakers superstar is part of a new ownership group announced Wednesday by Major League Pickleball, which has a team-focused format that differentiates it from other nascent professional leagues in the sport.

James and longtime business partner Maverick Carter are joining MLP’s list of investors via their family office, LRMR Ventures. According to the league, their ownership group also includes the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, James’s former teammate. Investment firm SC Holdings is also part of the group.

Pickleball is exploding, and it’s getting messy

“Having SC Holdings, LRMR Ventures, and their incredible group as owners and investors in Major League Pickleball is not just great for MLP, it’s a watershed moment for pickleball in general,” MLP founder Steve Kuhn said in a statement. “Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country, building communities in cities and towns all over the world. This investment and the platform that this group provides will significantly help us with our goal to reach 40 million pickleball players by 2030.”

The sport had almost 5 million American participants as of early 2022, according to USA Pickleball. It noted an annual report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association that described pickleball as “the fastest-growing sport over the last two years,” with a 39.3 percent growth rate in participation over that span.

Something like a combination of tennis, table tennis and badminton, pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a net slightly lower than one for tennis. Players, often competing in doubles teams, swat perforated plastic balls back and forth with hard paddles. Previously favored by older players, it is becoming increasingly popular among younger demographics. USA Pickleball cited a drop last year of 2.9 years to an average age of 38.1 among all participants.

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“When I started playing pickleball, I immediately connected with the sport’s community and its capacity to be both fun and competitive,” Carter told CNBC. “To see the sport growing in communities all over is really exciting, and we’re looking forward to bringing our expertise together to try and build a championship team.”

MLP, which staged its first season last year, said Wednesday it was expanding from 12 to 16 teams. The squads, with two men and two women a piece, are not associated with a specific geographic region. MLP held events this year in Austin and Newport Beach, Calif., with another set for next month in Columbus, Ohio.

Other MLP investors include Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry, former NFL quarterback Drew Brees and ex-tennis player James Blake.

Last month, James became a minority investor in Italian soccer power AC Milan through a private investment firm, RedBird Capital Partners. The four-time NBA champion joined Fenway Sports Group in 2021 as a partner, giving James stakes in such subsidiaries as the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC and Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. In November, FSG purchased the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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