Yes, you read the headline correctly.
NBA superstar LeBron James is once again expanding his sports portfolio – this time into the US’ new favorite pastime.
James is part of a consortium which is buying an expansion franchise in Major League Pickleball (MLP) as the competition grows from 12 to 16 teams.
The consortium is made up of fellow NBA players Draymond Green and Kevin Love, as well as James’ lifelong friend and business partner, Maverick Carter among others.
MLP founder Steve Kuhn called the investment from the three basketball stars – who have nine NBA championships between them – a “watershed moment for pickleball.”
“Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country, building communities in cities and towns all over the world,” Kuhn said. “This investment and the platform that this group provides will significantly help us with our goal to reach 40 million pickleball players by 2030.”
Along with this new ownership group, MLP says it hopes to announce more investment to a list that already includes Super Bowl champion Drew Brees, Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and former world No. 4 tennis player James Blake.
Dubbed America’s unofficial pandemic pastime, more than one million Americans have picked up a paddle in the last two years.
But what is the sport which has swept across the country?
The basic aim of pickleball, like with other racket sports, is to hit the ball over the net and prevent an opponent from hitting it back.
It can be played in singles or doubles, inside or outside on a 20-foot by 44-foot court – approximately the size of a badminton court – and lasts until one side reaches 11 points, with a two-point cushion.
Pickleball began life inauspiciously in 1965 when future US Congressman Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell attempted to entertain their bored children on holiday.
Staying in a property on Bainbridge Island, Washington, with an asphalted badminton court, they mustered together the available equipment – a wiffle ball, ping-pong paddles and a badminton net which they later lowered to 36 inches, closer to the height of a tennis net, once they found that the ball bounced well on the asphalt.
As the holiday progressed, they began to create rules for the game, with the help of another friend Barney McCallum.
The ping-pong paddles were deemed too small and substituted for larger plywood paddles they fashioned themselves and a non-volley zone seven feet from the net on either side was created to deter smashing.
The non-volley zone, or ‘kitchen’, is what gives pickleball much of its distinctiveness.
It minimizes running, allowing older players to be just as competitive as younger, fitter players and diminishes the role of power so that children can play alongside adults.
Pickleball’s popularity has skyrocketed in North America, partly driven by the Covid-19 pandemic as it offers a safe, socially distanced form of exercise.
It had originally found a solid base among retirement communities where it was beloved for its sociable aspect, moderate exercise, and for simply being fun.
Between 2018 and 2021, however, USA Pickleball membership nearly doubled and the organization estimates that 4.8 million Americans now play the sport.
Much of this expansion has been concentrated outside pickleball’s traditional demographic – the fastest rate of increase was among players under 24 from 2020 to 2021 driven by the height of lockdown when portable pickleball nets temporarily sold out as people set up the small courts in driveways and gardens.