Dec 12, 2022 - Sports

Exclusive: Major League Pickleball finalizes 2023 expansion plans

Illustration of a pickleball paddle hitting an exploding ball

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As pickleball continues to surge in popularity, Major League Pickleball — the buzzy pro circuit that counts LeBron James, Tom Brady and Kevin Durant among its team owners — is gearing up to make a splash.

Driving the news: MLP has finalized the format and schedule for 2023, which will see the league double its number of teams (12 to 24) and events (three to six), while ushering in promotion and relegation, Axios has learned.

  • MLP will announce today that Brian Levine, a former Goldman Sachs partner and top senior pickleball player, has been hired to serve as interim CEO and lead the search for a permanent CEO and exec team.
  • Just two years after being founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Kuhn, MLP will offer up to $5 million in prize money and payouts to its players in 2023, Levine tells me.

The intrigue: MLP will implement a promotion and relegation system in 2024, with 12 teams in the Premier Level and 12 teams in the Challenger Level. The 2023 results will determine where each team starts in 2024.

How it works: The 2023 campaign will be divided into two "seasons," each with three events. Prior to each "season," teams will draft their rosters, which consist of two men and two women.

  • In "Season One," 12 teams will compete in the Premier Level (the first 48 drafted players) and 12 will compete in the Challenger Level (the next 48 drafted players). Teams will then flip levels and re-draft.
  • The 12 best teams from 2023 (across both "seasons" and levels) will start in the Premier Level in 2024 and the other 12 will start in the Challenger Level.
Major League Pickleball
Team BLQK after winning the 2022 MLP finals match in Columbus, Ohio, in October. Photo: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

2023 schedule: MLP's six stops in 2023 will feature both Premier and Challenger matches. Life Time, a health club chain, will host each season's championship at their Orange County pickleball facility.

  • Jan. 26–29: Legacy Sports USA (Mesa, Arizona)
  • March 23–26: Pictona at Holy Hill (Daytona Beach, Florida)
  • June 15–18: Life Time (San Clemente, California) … Concludes with the Season One Championship (top two teams) on Monday, June 19.

-- Teams flip levels and re-draft --

  • Sept. 21–24: Life Time (Peachtree Corners, Georgia)
  • Nov. 2–5: La Quinta Resort & Club (La Quinta, California)
  • Dec. 7–10: Life Time (San Clemente, California) ... Concludes with the Season Two Championship (top two teams) on Monday, December 11.

State of play: Pickleball became a massive hit during the pandemic, growing from 3.4 million U.S. players in 2019 to 4.8 million in 2021.

  • What began as a safe, outdoor activity has evolved into a booming industry, with an average of three new pickleball facilities opening each day.
  • That growth has led to peripheral business opportunities in areas like apparel, equipment, real estate and media.

The big picture: Some question whether pickleball can succeed as a spectator sport. MLP, which merged with the Professional Pickleball Association's VIBE League last month in a move that unified team-based pickleball under one brand, is out to prove that it can.

  • "It's incredibly exciting to watch and there's constant action because of the smaller court," says Levine. "When you watch 60 minutes of pickleball, the ball is being played for 29 minutes. In tennis, it's 11."
  • "There are an estimated 5 million pickleball players in the U.S., and the expectation is 40 million by 2030," adds Levine, who's confident that every new player is a potential new fan of the pro game.

What to watch: MLP will unveil team names and the remaining ownership groups set to join James, Brady, Durant, Anheuser-Busch and others ahead of Thursday's draft in Las Vegas (9pm ET, Tennis Channel).

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