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LeBron James buys Pickleball team in effort to boost sport's Major League

This photo shows a pairs match of pickleball at a court in Lane County, Oregon. (SBG)
This photo shows a pairs match of pickleball at a court in Lane County, Oregon. (SBG)
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What is pickleball and why is LeBron James – along with former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Kevin Love and the Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green – buying a professional team?

As it turns out, James, Love and Green are all part of an ownership group for Major League Pickleball, which is trying to expand from 12 to 16 teams in the organization over the next year.

"The new ownership group announced today brings unparalleled experience and impact across sports, media, entertainment, and branding," the league said in a statement. "With this group, MLP aims to expand the community beyond its current participants into more diverse communities globally."

But just what is this mystery game?

Pickleball was invented in Washington state in 1965 by Congressmen Joel Pritchard and his friend Bill Bell, a businessman, who returned to Pritchard’s home to find their families just sitting around in boredom. According to the history of pickleball by USA Pickleball, the pair set up an old badminton court and, unable to find badminton rackets or birdie, used ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball – like one might use in wiffle ball – to play.

After two weekends of playing and fiddling with guidelines, like the net height – and introducing a third man to the creative team, Barney McCallum – the trio officially created the rules for the sport. The first dedicated pickleball court was built in 1967, at the home of one of the congressman’s friends, and the creators formed a corporation to protect the idea of the sport in 1972.

The rules and format are similar to tennis in terms of order of play, point scoring and similar but played on a court one-third the size and played with the paddles and perforated balls.

While largely seen as a social activity and casual sport, mostly popular in the Pacific Northwest, it has steadily – and subtly – grown in popularity around the country. Almost 60 years later, there are an estimated 4.8 million Americans who are registered with USA Pickleball, the national governing body, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Sports, Fitness, and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report.

The SFIA further notes that pickleball has been the fastest growing sport in the U.S. for two years in a row, growing membership by 39.3%. It has also gained an international following. A report by NPR from earlier this year noted that the sport is played in 70 countries and could soon push for entry into the pantheon of Olympic sports, which require a baseline of participants in 75 countries to qualify.

That may explain why James is just the latest to hop on the major league pickleball investing bandwagon. In July, Major League Pickleball announced a round of high-profile investments by former NFL quarterback Drew Brees – who said in a statement from July that he’s “An avid pickleball player, fan and student of the game” – entrepreneur and internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk and Marc Lasry, co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, among others. The investments this year, beyond the increase in teams, will also expand the league’s reach to host tournaments in six cities with over $2 million in prizes.

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