It’s obvious that pickleball is growing as a participation sport.
Communities across America are feeling the pressure from the ever-growing legions of recreational players who are demanding more courts to feed their pickleball appetites.
But what about pickleball as a spectator sport? The courtside spectators at pro pickleball matches have been sparse, and the TV audience not much better.
In August, CBS broke new ground by giving pickleball its first live broadcast on network TV. The much-hyped broadcast of the Pro Pickleball Association’s (PPA) Skechers Invitational Summer Championship featured great play. But it wasn’t a ratings bonanza.
The national audience was estimated at a meager 621,000 viewers – on the level of say, cornhole – but not keeping pace with the viewership numbers of golf, NASCAR, the Little League World Series, or Women’s National Basketball Association broadcasts.
Could pickleball just be a sport to play, and not to watch? Or to put it another way: Do you require a paddle in your hand in order to be captivated by pickleball?
Well, the jury is still out on that, and there are big money bets being placed.
This month, Anheuser-Busch, the international beer company, announced that it was buying ownership of a Major League Pickleball team for next year’s season.
Anheuser-Busch is the latest big-name investor in pro pickleball, joining superstar athletes LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Drew Brees.
The maker of Budweiser beer is the first Fortune 500 company to invest in a MLP team.
“We love the accessibility of pickleball and we think it’s an amazing opportunity for us to gain relevance and excitement for our brands,” Matt Davis, the head of the company’s U.S. sports marketing division, said about the purchase.
The league is growing from 12 to 16 teams. Even so, the question remains: Will enough people care?
Will MLP be a big enough draw to drive enough spectators to their living room couches or in front of sports bar screens to watch the Chimeras take on the Clean Cause, or the Hard Eights battle the Florida Smash?
Veteran sports commentator and author, Bill Simmons, doesn’t think so.
During a recent podcast, Simmons cited Major League Soccer, professional Esports leagues, and the Premier Lacrosse League as prior examples of national spectator sports that fell short of their early hype.
“I’m glad people are playing it,” Simmons said about pickleball. “Where I’m drawing the line is rich people and celebrities buying pickleball teams and telling me that pickleball is going to be the new hot sport.
“Rich people can’t make stuff happen that people don’t necessarily want,” Simmons continued. “And I will tell you this, at no point in my life will I watch the best pickleball players play pickleball on a streamer, on a TV station. I will not go to this. My kids won’t go. Pickleball will not work. Stop it. Stop it with your stupid investments.”
Film producer Van Lathan, who was speaking with Simmons on the podcast, took the opposite view.
“Have you tried to watch pickleball before?” Lathan asked him.
“It’s fine,” Simmons answered.
“Bill, it’s not fine, It’s f—ing fun,” Lathan said. “It’s fun to watch pickleball.”
“I get it,” Simmons said. “It’s fun to play. It definitely is. But it’s not going to be like football.”
Simmons said that high-profile investors are trying to “Jedi mind-trick” people into thinking they want to watch other people play pickleball.
“Here’s what I think can work,” Simmons said. “The couple has to be married. Because the most fun stuff is when married people have to play tennis together. My wife won’t play tennis with me. Becaus I get mad at her.”
“I want to see married pickleball. I would invest in a Married Pickleball League.”