The Pickleball Craze Is Real, but Its TV Potential Is a Different Story
15% of U.S. adults said they have played pickleball, compared with 58% who have played tennis.
66% of adults and 61% of sports fans said they are not interested in watching pickleball on TV or via a streaming provider.
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The pickleball participant craze has swept across America.
In 2022, pickleball was the fastest-growing sport for the third consecutive year, with participation increasing nearly 86% year over year, according to a recent report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
New Morning Consult data confirmed the widespread participation, as 15% of U.S. adults said they have played pickleball, while nearly 1 in 5 self-identified sports fans (19%) and 1 in 4 self-identified tennis fans said they’ve played the emerging racket sport.
“I have been in the sports management business for many, many years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have not seen anything like this in any other sport — the exposure, growing awareness and the visibility of pickleball over the past two years,” said USA Pickleball’s outgoing CEO Stu Upson. “It’s crazy.”
Celebrities, star athletes and owners of major U.S. sports teams have taken notice, gravitating toward the burgeoning sport with their pocketbooks.
Seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and four-time NBA champion LeBron James each acquired an expansion Major League Pickleball team ahead of the league’s 2023 season. Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon reportedly purchased a majority stake via Dundon Capital Partners in the Professional Pickleball Association, and invested in e-commerce platform Pickleball Central, among other strategic pickleball-related initiatives.
The Chicago-based sports marketing firm Intersport, meanwhile, paid an undisclosed sum to become the majority owner of the Association of Pickleball Professionals Tour.
Sam Porter, co-owner of Major League Pickleball’s D.C. Pickleball Team (one of 24 teams competing across six events this year), said players tend to become advocates for the sport, telling friends and family in order to grow their playing circles.
“That was an interesting entry point as a sports and entertainment investor,” Porter said.
How the Pickleball Participant Pool Compares to That of Tennis
Pickleball’s popularity is not in dispute: A 2023 participation report found that over 36.5 million Americans played the sport between August 2021 and August 2022. But how many of those participants will actually watch pickleball when it’s on TV or available via streaming platforms?
As the next step in the sport’s attempted takeover of America, professional pickleball leagues have signed deals with major media companies, hoping to turn the participant sport into a spectator one to compete with — and ultimately supplant — more established sports.
Many experts interviewed were skeptical. Even Upson, as he readies to depart the game’s governing body, had questions about the sport’s viability as a media product.
“Pickleball will be very healthy over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “It’s not going to be a fad. But will it end up being a product that people want to make appointment television?”
Fastest-growing sport is in a media pickle
Pickleball doesn’t have a history of TV ratings or broadcast metrics to which media executives can point and say there’s a clear audience pattern for the sport. Yet there is some initial data, and much of it suggests just how much smaller the viewing audience is compared with the sport’s participant pool.
In August, 621,000 viewers reportedly tuned in to CBS’ broadcast of the Professional Pickleball Association’s Summertime Championships. A few months later, late-night personality Stephen Colbert hosted a two-hour celebrity pickleball tournament on CBS, drawing nearly 2.5 million viewers.
“We’re trying to be both the beneficiary and the conduit to helping the sport grow,” said ESPN’s Tim Bunnell, senior vice president of programming and acquisitions and orchestrator of the network’s racket sports agreements.
The Association of Pickleball Professionals signed separate TV pacts with ESPN and CBS in January, collectively guaranteeing at least 20 hours of tour coverage across CBS Sports Network and ESPN2. Meanwhile, the Tennis Channel, which aired one pickleball event in 2021, has continued to make investments in the sport in 2023.
Despite the increased broadcast commitment to pickleball, only about 1 in 4 adults (24%) said they are at least “somewhat” interested in watching the sport on TV or via a streaming provider, according to the Morning Consult survey.
About two-thirds of adults (66%) and 3 in 5 sports fans (61%), in addition to 49% of tennis fans, said they are either “not too interested” or “not interested at all” in watching pickleball.
Among generations, millennials (33%) were most interested in watching pickleball, compared with 18% of Gen Xers and baby boomers — both tying as the least-interested cohort.
Americans Show Little Interest in Watching Pickleball on TV
The data also showed that pickleball lacks visibility across TV and social media. About 2 in 5 adults (41%), sports fans (42%) and tennis fans (42%) all said they heard about pickleball through “word of mouth,” making it by far the top method included in the survey through which the three groups have heard about the sport.
Executives and stakeholders highlighted the challenges facing pickleball to become a viable TV product. One hurdle is the fragmentation of professional pickleball across several leagues, including the Association of Pickleball Professionals, the Professional Pickleball Association and Major League Pickleball.
“No sport can handle multiple leagues playing at the same time,” Upson said. “Even the AFL and the NFL had to merge — and that’s football.”
He cited two other issues: The sport isn’t very appealing to watch for those who don’t play, and it lacks the star power that exists in other traditional sports. In other words, nobody outside of the sport’s most enthused participants is following its best players on Instagram or putting their posters up on their walls.
“Pickleball is not necessarily the most telegenic game,” said David Sternberg, co-managing partner of sports media consulting firm Claygate Advisors, who equated the sport to rugby or lacrosse in terms of “very niche interest from a consumption standpoint.”
Some executives said pickleball could become the next cornhole in terms of the broader sports media market.
“Cornhole is a very successful TV property,” said sports media consultant Patrick Crakes, who previously worked at Fox Sports as a research and insights executive.
Both he and William Mao, senior vice president of global media rights consulting at Interpublic Group of Cos. Inc.’s Octagon, pointed to the sport’s accessibility, familiarity, everyman appeal and strong grassroots following as reasons why it could carve out a relatively small but reliable niche on viewers’ screens. The American Cornhole League, with sponsors like sausage company Johnsonville and Mike’s Hard Lemonade Co., has recorded mid six-figure viewership figures on CBS Sports and ESPN platforms.
“I don’t see pickleball as a media property,” said Joe Favorito, a veteran sports marketing and communications executive and professor at Columbia University’s graduate sports management program. “I see it as a marketing property.”
Favorito said owners of intellectual property connected to the sport — think endemic equipment manufacturers, apparel brands, pickleball-related technology companies and ranking systems — stand to benefit from a pickleball media product. Those entities can leverage media to “show their product is essential for the core pickleball fan,” he said.
Solving pickleball’s media future
Pickleball may need time to grow as a linear TV product, where it will create more visibility, before it becomes a lucrative streaming play, according to Morning Consult data and interviews with executives. Roughly 3 in 5 adults (60%) and sports fans (58%) each said if streaming providers started carrying pickleball programming, it would make “no difference” as to whether or not they’d consider subscribing.
Americans Are Indifferent to Pickleball's Presence on Streaming Platforms
Crakes characterized pickleball as a “tier three” media entity — for now. He, like others, said the more pickleball programming that can be seen on established TV, the better for the sport in the long run, due to a discoverability element of linear TV that doesn’t always exist for streamers.
“That is still one of the last strategic advantages of the traditional TV system,” he said.
Claygate’s Sternberg said converting the core participant base into TV and streaming viewers is a priority. He suggested providing USA Pickleball members — there were nearly 70,000 at the end of 2022 — with discounted access to streaming services that feature pickleball programming.
Some experts recommended investing in better quality production and adding new components for broadcasts, including improved camera technology and betting integrations. But all of which, of course, costs money.
“Creating more of a connection between the audience and the players is where the market is moving towards,” said Octagon’s Mao, who also posed placing microphones on players, especially in doubles competition, for fans to understand more nuanced strategies. Other budding pro leagues, like the Premier Lacrosse League, have turned to micing up players (and even referees) as a way to promote big personalities.
Executives said one of pickleball’s advantages as a game — the notion that nearly anyone can pick up a paddle and feel like they can play competitively — is also one of its biggest problems from a viewership perspective. Broadcasts need to showcase just how much more talented professional pickleball players are than the average participant, they said.
Producing original content, providing behind-the-scenes access and tapping into the social media audience of celebrity owners are other ways stakeholders have floated broadening the sport’s following.
Next month, four tennis legends, including Andre Agassi and John McEnroe, are scheduled to compete for a $1 million purse in the inaugural Pickleball Slam, which will be held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., and exclusively aired on ESPN. Sternberg and USA Pickleball’s Upson said more events like that one is what the sport needs as it transitions into a media product.
“If pickleball wants to grow its audience, the sport has to invest in storytelling around its athletes,” said the Association of Pickleball Professionals’ Chief Marketing Officer Tom Webb, who added that Netflix’s popular F1 “Drive to Survive” docuseries is a lesson for pickleball executives on growing awareness and engagement around a sport. “There are tens of millions of people playing the sport who currently don’t know who the pro players are.”
Some executives, like Columbia’s Favorito, are less convinced of the sport’s appeal as a TV play, no matter how many celebrity tournaments or all-access documentaries it produces.
“Could you have great storytelling around some pickleball players, whether they’re 15 or 50? You could,” Favorito said, “but is that really a mass market opportunity?”
Mark J. Burns is a sports analyst on the Industry Intelligence team, where he conducts research, authors analyst notes and advises leaders in the sports industry on how to apply insights to make better business decisions. Before joining Morning Consult, he served as a beat reporter at Sports Business Journal, covering the business of hockey and soccer. Mark graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in history and holds a Juris Doctor from Belmont University. For speaking opportunities and booking requests, please email [email protected].