You may have heard about—or read one of about 8 million news articles on—pickleball, the paddle sport combining elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong that continues to fascinate the nation. (The latest sign of pickleball’s ascendance: Wollman Rink, the venerable skating facility in Central Park, will be converted into 14 pickleball courts this spring.) Andy Roddick, the retired American tennis star and former world No. 1, certainly has strong feelings about the sport. “It’s like tennis w no learning curve, movement, spin or speed,” Roddick wrote on Twitter in September. It’s safe to count him as a pickleball skeptic. Especially when it comes to recent effort to professionalize pickleball and make it a viable spectator sport.
“It’s hard for me to watch on TV,” says Roddick in a joint interview with Jonathan Venison, owner InsideOut Sports + Entertainment, which operates Major League Pickleball events. “Even when it’s played at a high level, I don’t enjoy it. I don’t find myself trying to study it. And maybe that’s my ignorance. Fine.”
Roddick may dislike pickleball on TV. But he’s not about to dissuade you from watching him play the game, for $1 million in prize money, on ESPN.
“I would try hacky sack for $1 million too,” says Roddick.
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Give Roddick some credit for honesty. The inaugural Pickleball Slam, which debuts on April 2, at noon on ESPN, features four tennis legends: Roddick, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, and Michael Chang, competing for the $1 million purse. The event is the brainchild of David Levy, the former president of Turner Sports who led the network when it began airing The Match, popular head-to-head golf competitions—with big money at stake— featuring stars like Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Phil Mickelson, and Tom Brady. Pickleball continues to skyrocket in popularity—in February, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association announced that pickleball was America’s fastest-growing sport for the third year in a row, with participation growing 158.6% over three years. The game has attracted celebrity investors like LeBron James, Heidi Klum, and Patrick Mahomes.
Given all this momentum, Levy applied a formula similar to The Match to pickleball. Levy’s company, Horizon Sports & Experiences, partnered with InsideOut Sports + Entertainment to create and produce Pickleball Slam from Hollywood, Fla.
“It just feels like an opportunity to really do something fun, that could give the sport a lot of exposure and get a good rating,” says Venison “If you insert star power into something that’s obviously exploded from a participation standpoint, then you can hit a gold mine.”
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Sure, that’s one way of looking at it. As an operator of pro pickleball events, Venison is obviously a believer in pickleball as a business enterprise. Roddick, not so much.
But he wants to be clear: he doesn’t dislike pickleball, as a participation sport. In fact, he swears he’s enjoyed learning the game. “It’s weird,” says Roddick. “I got a text like a month ago, and someone says, ‘How’s training going?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m better than my neighbors.’” Saying pickleball is easy to learn is not a knock, Roddick insists.
The ease with which people can pick up the sport, however, could make it less attractive to consume. Why watch other people do something you can do yourself? “When you go to an NBA game, you want to see someone do something that you can’t do,” says Roddick. “You want to see someone tomahawk a slam, or Steph Curry pull up from 29 feet or the physicality of Rafa [Nadal] or the racket skills of Roger [Federer]. I don’t think pickle translates that obviously to television.”
This month, Major League Pickleball founder Steve Kuhn told a Sportico podcast that says pickleball “will be easily a top five sport in the next five years in terms of viewership. We will challenge MLS, Major League Baseball, and the NHL. I think we’ll be in that category soon.”
Kuhn’s a biased observer. But I’d hope we can all agree that this prediction is hilarious. Pickleball is going to outdraw tennis? “You’re not going to sit around and plan your afternoon around it or plan a Monday night around it,” says Roddick. “You’re not going to come in with a great barbecue game and replace the history of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. To treat them as equals at this point is absurd to me.”
Venison gamely stands by as Roddick takes digs at a sport he’s tasked with growing. He expected the ribbing. “I talked to Andy before the call, and I said, I want you to be honest,” says Vension.
Roddick has always spoken his mind, pickleball or otherwise. “It’s a blast to play,” says Roddick. “I’ve seen my own friend group become obsessed with it pretty quickly. There’s obviously something there. There’s a draw. A curiosity. You’re going to get a chance to convince people. Now, there is a difference between really fun things to do and professional sports. I’ve very confident in one and less confident in the other.”
A million bucks on Sunday could always change Roddick’s tune. “By the way,” Roddick slips in at one point during our conversation, “I’ve been wrong about pickleball the entire way so far.”