- Kevin Durant and his business partner Rich Kleiman purchased a Major League Pickleball team, continuing an athlete-led trend.
- Kleiman told Insider that he began playing pickleball, which has exploded in popularity, and was drawn to the culture and opportunity to invest in it.
- Kleiman said he thinks the friendly culture of the sport and viral potential of the highlights make MLP a promising venture.
Some of the world’s most famous athletes are flocking to pickleball.
Strange though it may sound, it’s undeniable: In the past year, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Draymond Green have all invested in Major League Pickleball teams. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was announced as the first team owner in the rival VIBE Pickleball League.
Kevin Durant and his business partner Rich Kleiman joined the MLP ownership ranks in late October, announcing that they purchased an expansion team that will debut in 2023. Durant and Kleiman’s sports, media, and entertainment company 35 Ventures and their media network Boardroom will also work with Major League Pickleball to cover and grow the game.
Pickleball’s popularity has exploded in the US in recent years — the number of people playing recreationally has grown by 40% since 2020, according to The New York Times.
Kleiman told Insider that from his own experiences playing it, he felt it was a perfect opportunity to invest.
“For me, the initial instinct once I started playing the sport and loving the sport, with so many things that I do, is if I love something to that extent and enjoying it and see how incredible the community around it is, to figure out a way for me to be involved,” Kleiman said.
Kleiman said MLP’s team format — in which teams of four have players rotate in and out of the match — appealed to him.
“This is a very democratized sport,” he said. “It’s a very kind of, anybody can play, onboarded in a few minutes. Everybody’s very embracing of new players and teaching everybody how the game is supposed to be played. And that lends itself to a team format.”
Of the sport’s new investors, Kleiman added: “These were businessmen and women that saw the same thing that Kevin and I saw: That this was a league that was evolving at the same time that a sport was just exploding in popularity and you’re getting that ripple effect. And I think we all saw this as the right business opportunity around the sport.”
Still, even casual pickleball players could be forgiven if they have not seen the sport on TV or question whether a big audience will sit in front of a TV to watch it.
To Kleiman, however, pickleball has the potential to grow in other ways. Kleiman told Insider that he believes Major League Pickleball will be able to offer a great live experience, comparing it to the US Open, where fans will be impressed by the speed and physicality of the pro players.
Kleiman also believes the style of play will appeal to social media users.
“Some of these points are potentially viral moments and seeing how long these points go and how quick the hand-eye coordination and the reflexes are of some of these athletes, that’s the type of stuff I think people will gravitate towards,” Kleiman said. “And that’s why I think that in terms of how they format it and how they deliver it, you really can be creative because this is the type of sport, where I think highlights could really drive them and drive viewership a lot of ways.”
Kleiman and Durant have also invested in teams in the MLS (Philadelphia Union) and NWSL (NJ/NY Gotham), growing their sports business portfolio. Kleiman told Insider that he and Durant one day want to pursue owning an NBA team, saying they’d be hands-on in operating it. In the meantime, pickleball is a first test.
In the press release announcing the purchase of an expansion team, Durant said he and Kleiman were going to be actively involved.
“We’re gonna be operating this ourselves, being tasked with building this brand from the ground up,” Durant said. “It should be a fun project.”