The Tennis Channel embraces the pickleball.
Major League Pickleball announced Thursday that the satellite channel will broadcast the Major League Semifinals and Finals games in Mesa, Arizona, and make all tournament games available for live streaming. The partnership represents a deepening of the relationship between the professional blackball professional and the television network.
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Pickleball has skyrocketed in popularity, with more than 36 million Americans playing the sport last year. Now, Tennis Channel is poised to capitalize on that rally.
“We went from one Pickleball event in 2021, had a full year of coverage in 2022 and that will ramp up exponentially in 2023,” Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon told CNBC. “We have big plans.”
Solomon said the network is uniquely positioned to broadcast baseball 20 years after broadcasting tennis.
“We have all the infrastructure in place and all the human capital and people who make the narrative for the engineers,” he said.
Solomon said that the network can switch to a game of “buckleball” with “literally the flick of a switch.” He said the sport is “hot as hell”.
The longtime Tennis Channel executive said that pickleball has already seen a very natural overlap with current tennis sponsors. He doesn’t worry about eating the pickle ball for sports, which has been his bread and butter.
Major League Pickleball interim CEO Brian Levine agrees that the two sports can be mutually beneficial.
“I think there is a misconception that there is a competition between tennis and pickleball,” Levine told CNBC. “I think 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 believes the fast-paced action of pickleball will help attract new fans to the sport. He noted that during professional MLP matches, the ball is in action about 40% of the time, compared to 16% in professional tennis matches.
Tennis Channel was established in 2003 and is owned by a company Sinclair Broadcasting Groupinked its first deal with the Professional Pickleball Association in 2021 to broadcast various events and tournaments.
The network has since aired a special celebrity showcase in Dallas featuring sports legends like Tony Romo, Jordan Spieth, and John Isner, as well as the first ever MLP draft in Las Vegas, where the league revealed its lineups.
Solomon said that pickleball has already provided strong ratings for his network.
“What we’ve seen consistently, is real interest, real pickle-type TV viewing. It was very well rated,” he said.
The network is pushing towards streaming and making its product available internationally, with the launch of a subscription service called the International Tennis Channel in 2020. Adding pickleball matches to its broadcast offering means boosting content at a time when linear TV is stagnant, at best.
MLP said it has not finalized broadcast agreements after the Mesa, Arizona tournament, but is in active discussions.
Solomon did not comment on future plans for his network with MLP but said, “We firmly believe that having dedicated destinations is a virtue. We have proven it.”
Also Thursday, the professional pickleball circuit announced the league’s final two teams and their ownership groups for the 2023 season, which kicks off Jan. 26: St. Louis Shocks will be led by businessman Richard Chivitz, with his son, Russ Chivitz, captain of team operations; Florida’s Orlando Sequoias will be headed by Ryan DeVos, whose family has more than 30 years of experience in ownership of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
The league said NFL free agent Odell Beckham Jr. will join the Washington, D.C. team’s ownership group.