- The Tennis Channel is diving deeper into America's fastest growing sport, pickleball.
- The channel will air the semi-finals and finals of Major League Pickleball's Mesa, Arizona, tournament.
- The league also announced the final two teams of MLP and their ownership groups.
The Tennis Channel is embracing pickleball.
Major League Pickleball announced Thursday the cable channel will broadcast the league's premier level tournament semifinals and finals in Mesa, Arizona, and will make all matches of the tournament available for streaming. The partnership marks a deepening of the relationship between professional pickleball and the TV network.
Pickleball has soared in popularity, with more than 36 million Americans playing the sport last year. Now the Tennis Channel is poised to capitalize on that surge.
"We've gone from one pickleball event in 2021, we had a pretty full year of coverage in 2022 and that is going to escalate significantly in 2023," Ken Solomon, CEO of the Tennis Channel, told CNBC. "We have big plans."
Solomon said the network is uniquely positioned to broadcast pickleball after its 20 years of broadcasting tennis.
"We have all the infrastructure in place and all the human capital and the people who create the narrative to the engineers," he said.
Solomon said the network can transition to pickleball "literally with a flip of a switch." And, he said, the sport is "hot as hell."
The longtime Tennis Channel executive said pickleball has already seen a very natural overlap with existing tennis sponsors. He doesn't worry about pickleball cannibalizing the sport that's been his bread and butter.
Brian Levine, Major League Pickleball's interim CEO, agrees the two sports can be mutually beneficial.
"I think there's this misperception that there's a competition between tennis and pickleball," Levine told CNBC. "I think that it's actually a complement."
The vast majority of MLP professionals come from a tennis background. Many current and former tennis players have invested in professional pickleball, including Naomi Osaka, James Blake, Kim Clijsters, Sam Querrey, Nick Kyrgios and Lindsay Davenport.
For the Tennis Channel audience, Levine thinks pickleball's fast-paced action will help attract new fans of the sport. He noted that during MLP professional matches, the ball is in action about 40% of the time, compared with professional tennis matches at 16%.
The Tennis Channel, created in 2003 and owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, struck its first deal with the Professional Pickleball Association in 2021 to broadcast various events and tournaments.
The network has since broadcast a special pickleball celebrity exhibition in Dallas featuring sports legends like Tony Romo, Jordan Spieth and John Isner, as well as MLP's first-ever draft in Las Vegas, where the league revealed team lineups.
Solomon said pickleball has already delivered strong ratings for his network.
"What we have seen consistently, is real attention, real appointment television type viewing for pickleball. It has rated very, very well," he said.
The network has been making a push into streaming and making its product available internationally, with a subscription service called Tennis Channel International launching in 2020. Adding pickleball matches to its streaming offerings means beefing up content at a time when linear television is stagnant, at best.
MLP said it has not finalized broadcast agreements beyond the Mesa, Arizona, tournament but is actively in discussions.
Solomon would not comment on his network's future plans with MLP but said, "We firmly believe that having dedicated destinations is a virtue. We've proven it."
Also on Thursday, the pro pickleball circuit announced the final two teams of the league and their respective ownership groups for the 2023 season, which kicks off Jan. 26: The St. Louis Shock will be led by businessman Richard Chaifetz, with his son, Ross Chaifetz, leading team operations; and the Orlando Squeeze in Florida will be led by Ryan DeVos, whose family has more than 30 years of ownership experience with the NBA's Orlando Magic.
NFL free agent Odell Beckham Jr. will join the ownership group of the Washington, D.C., team, the league said.