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Retired NFL quarterback Drew Brees and Anne Worcester, Major League Pickleball strategic adviser, join Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the rise in popularity of pickleball and how it’s attracting both talent and sponsorships.
– All right. It’s officially football season with the NFL preseason kicking off Thursday night. But the fastest growing sport in the country is not played with the pigskin but rather the pickle ball. I spoke to future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, the part owner now of the MLP’s Mad Drops pickleball club, along with Major League pickleball strategic advisor Anne Worcester. I started by asking Drew what he loves about the game. Let’s watch.
DREW BREES: Well, first off, it’s a game that’s just so inclusive. And I feel like it’s a game that you can take four people from any walk of life, any skill set, any athletic background and just combine them on a pickleball court and they can have a fun time together. So I think it’s a sport that brings people together of all ages, of all skill sets, and is just so much fun to play from a fitness perspective, from a wellness perspective, and from a camaraderie perspective.
I think that’s what’s so fun about being here at our big MLP event in Newport Beach is to see the amateurs playing right next to the pros and just watching all the fun that’s taking place here and all the fans that have a chance to be here to witness it as well.
– $100,000 goes to the team that wins this thing. It’s serious cash. Anne, you’ve gained nearly 4 million players since 2019. What to you makes pickle the fastest growing sport in America?
ANNE WORCESTER: Well, the research says that it’s 4.8 million. But then the experts who really are even closer to the ball sales and to Google searches think it’s more like 8 million players playing today. And so if you calculate a 30% increase, the experts are looking at 40 million players by 2030. We’re calling it the 40 by 30 campaign. Our chairman, Steve Kuhn, has challenged us to get to 40 million pickleball players by 2030. And we’re well on our way.
– Quite a goal. So Drew, how do you describe the game to those who aren’t part of that, whether it’s 5 or 10 or 20 million? How do you tell about it? How do you sell the sport?
DREW BREES: It’s really a combination between tennis and ping pong. It’s a fast-paced game. It’s really one that you can play singles and doubles. I think what’s become really, really popular is doubles, again, because it’s on a much smaller court. And so there’s just so many different hits that go back and forth. It’s really more of a game about patience than it is about power. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way. I thought initially I could just go on the court and overpower people because I was a tennis player growing up and that’s how I used to beat people.
But at the end of the day, I went out there with a couple of 75-year-olds and got my butt kicked because they could just out patient me and then put me away. So I think that’s what’s so much fun about it is that no matter what your age, no matter what’s your skill level, it’s a game that you can pick up very, very quickly. You can partner with a lot of different people. What’s so great about the MLP is a lot of what we do is coed. Mixed doubles is one of the most popular aspects to the sport and something husbands and wives can play together and really just brings families together.
– Yeah that co-ed aspect.
ANNE WORCESTER: Just to expand on that, Major League Pickleball is one of, if not the only, leagues where it’s all about equality. Men and women are on the same court playing at the same time. Equal court time. Equal prize money. They play gender doubles. Then they play mixed doubles. And if there’s a tie and it goes to what we call a dream breaker, men and women play singles against each other. And because the coed teams are set up so equitably in our very innovative snake draft, 50% of matches go to this very exciting dream breaker, which winds up in chest bumping and fist pumping and all kinds of palpable energy for the fans.
– Have some intense matches with my 14-year-old son. So, yeah, to your point, all ages welcome. Speaking of banter, it’s an interesting group of owners. Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc lasry. Digital media, you might call him a tycoon, Gary V. Former fourth ranked tennis player in the world James Blake. Very fascinating group you’re joining, Drew. Is there a battle, some camaraderie between you, the owners?
DREW BREES: Absolutely. And this is where I bring out the Mad Drops pickleball club hat because we got a 12:30 match today. And we’re making a run at the championship. We made it to the quarterfinals at the inaugural event this year in Austin. But here we are in Newport with a new mindset ready to go out and make a run at it.
ANNE WORCESTER: And those iconic owners announcing Gary Vaynerchuk, cultural icon, serial entrepreneur, Marc lasry, James Blake, the famous researcher and storyteller Brené Brown, one of my favorites in the whole wide world, and now Drew Brees. We can barely keep up with the interest in sponsorship and investing in additional teams and investing in the league, investing in our sister company Jupiter. The calls are flooding in. We have Google Docs and waiting lists for the next round. And I haven’t even told Drew this, but in a call with Gary Vaynerchuk himself last week, he wants to challenge you to a match in 2023. Game on. We got a plan it. We got to find the right date, the right time. But Gary V wants to take you on.
DREW BREES: I’m in. I love it. He beat me to the punch because I was going to reach out and challenge him.
– Anne, is there any talk of a TV deal?
ANNE WORCESTER: Yes. Absolutely. This year, we’re on CBS Sports Network. The deal is up at the end of this year. So there’s a lot of interest from all the likely suspects as pickleball takes off, not just the traditional linear platforms, but all kinds of new platforms like AWS and Apple. And we’re having all kinds of conversations for bigger and better coverage for 2023 and beyond.
– Well, speaking of that, Drew, the NFL is adding new platforms. Apple is getting in the game. Amazon is now in the game. There is talk that after you spent a year with NBC that you too might join Amazon in a Thursday night broadcast. Might you be returning? And as a fan, what do you make of the NFL being streaming and Apple and Amazon?
DREW BREES: Well, I have to be a little hush-hush with what’s going to happen this fall. You’re probably finding out something here soon. But look, at the end of the day, I had a great experience last year with NBC. I learned a ton. I had a chance to work with a first class group of individuals in a great team. I got exposure to broadcasting college games. A couple of NFL games I really would have liked to have broadcasted more. But, unfortunately, NBC didn’t have the space for that.
But also did some sideline reporting and also did a Super Bowl broadcast, which was five hours, which is a whole other animal. So I feel like I learned a ton. I ended up stepping away from NBC. That was my decision just to be able to spend more time with my family because, obviously, a lot of those football broadcasts are on the weekends. But Amazon is very intriguing, being that it’s Thursday night. I’m in discussions with them. And there might be something coming together. You’ll just have to wait and see.
ANNE WORCESTER: Maybe we could add pickleball to your discussions, Drew.
DREW BREES: I got my Tuesday, Thursday group that I play with. So that will be happening in the fall as well. Don’t worry about that.
– Sounds like an Amazon landing. Curious, do you have any reaction to Tom Brady’s $375 million TV deal, more than he made in his whole 21 year playing career? And would you have any advice for him stepping into the booth just off the field?
DREW BREES: Well, he seems like he’s got a plan. And I know where his focus is for this year. But, yeah, I mean, I think it’s always a natural transition to think about broadcasting. It’s still a way to talk about the game, to be around the game, to show a love and a passion for the game. And certainly that’s what I tried to do last year in a lot of different ways with NBC.
But I’m excited for that next chapter for me, whatever it is. I love the game of football. I’ll always be involved with it in some form or fashion. But that’s what’s also exciting about this opportunity with MLP is to also show my love and passion for the game of pickleball and how we can continue to grow it and spread it across the country and the world.
– The game is exploding. It is a lot of fun it has all age groups above 65. People think that’s the highest concentration. But below 25, the game is really exploding. I’m sure you’re interested in that Amazon answer, Josh. Pretty clear he’s going to be part of the Thursday night team.
– Drew Brees to Amazon’s pretty exciting. He did a little hush-hush. It seemed like that’s definitely where he’s headed. I think that will certainly add to the NFL broadcast there. And also them probably spending a lot more. I’m sure he’s not going for nothing.
– The word is an all-QB broadcast. I’ve heard whispers of that. It sounds like that’s what’s in play. What did you take away from the pickleball excitement, though?
– I thought it was very exciting, the growth there. We know that there are some very large names, celebrities, that have been big backers of pickleball so far over the years, Bill Gates being one of them. The Kardashians, Leonardo DiCaprio, just to name a few. But I really liked what we heard about equality, and how that is such a focus here in pickleball in terms of equality, and who gets the court between men and women, and also, of course, the pay for winning the tournaments. And I think that’s so critical here when we talk about the rising popularity of a sport and also some incentive here maybe for some of the other leagues to follow suit.
– Yeah. They’ll give away 300k this weekend. $100,000 to the winner. But the co-ed nature of MLP I think is awesome. That’s the only sport that can really do that. But, Josh, I’m curious your thoughts. It was a huge pandemic boost. Can they keep that momentum growing years past? Or will it begin to fade?
– It’s a good question, Dave, because the thing is, for me, would I watch it? I’m not really sure. I don’t know if I’m watching that broadcast. They’re talking about Apple and Amazon broadcasting this thing. That’s serious. And I don’t know if people are going to watch it. I think it’s something that people like to play. How innovative can the broadcast be? What can they do? Can I gamble on it? That’s something that you need to start incorporating because that’s what gets sports fans excited.
– And televise that match between Gary Vaynerchuk and Drew Brees.
– That will get some eyes on it.
– We’ll be their live, Dave.
– We will be there. We will broadcast that.