After merging with the rival Professional Pickleball Association’s VIBE league in November and expanding to 24 teams, MLP’s six-event 2023 schedule kicks off Thursday in Mesa, Ariz. The four-day tournament could provide an early indication whether pickleball, amid unprecedented and undeniable growth in participation, can also make it as a spectator sport.
“That’s the big question,” Sam Querrey of the expansion D.C. Pickleball Team said in a recent telephone interview. “Historically, not many people have streamed these events, but there are some unique, fun stories out there in pickleball that hopefully can be showcased more and more as the season goes on.”
Querrey has made himself — and, by association, his D.C. teammates — one of the more intriguing stories of the start-up league. After retiring from professional tennis in August, the 34-year-old, who won 10 ATP titles and reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 11 in 2018, ruffled some feathers in the pickleball community by boasting on a podcast that it would take him all of three months, starting in January, to become a top 10 player.
At his first pro pickleball event in Rancho Mirage, Calif., two weeks ago, Querrey, who has played recreationally for about five years, lost his first-round singles, doubles and mixed-doubles matches. Afterward, a fan approached him to say he should be more humble and that he wasn’t good for the sport.
“Of course, he was out there in the front row watching,” Querrey said. “There’s a curiosity factor.”
‘You’re seeing pickleball everywhere you go’
Pickleball first popped up on D.C. Pickleball Team co-owner Sam Porter’s radar a few years ago, when he noticed people playing on tennis courts in his New Jersey neighborhood. His curiosity was further piqued in July, after former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, an avid pickleball player, bought a stake in an MLP team.
Porter, a former NBA agent who worked in D.C. United’s front office from 2014 to 2021, began doing some research about pickleball’s growth and was drawn to the democratic nature of the sport. When Porter’s business partner, Al Tylis, learned that MLP was looking to expand, the duo expressed interest in acquiring a team. They didn’t have to look far for co-investors.
In June 2021, Porter and Tylis purchased 50 percent of Club Nexaca of Liga MX, Mexico’s top soccer division, with a group that included model Kate Upton and her husband, three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander; actress Eva Longoria; German soccer great Mesut Özil and former NBA stars Shawn Marion and Richard Hamilton. All of them were interested in adding a professional pickleball team to their portfolios.
“I think a lot of these people had the same experience,” Porter said of MLP’s star-studded lineup of investors. “You’re seeing pickleball everywhere you go, and this is an opportunity to be part of something and take it to the next level.”
In November, PPA’s VIBE league, which was co-founded by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon and backed by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, announced a strategic merger with MLP. Porter’s group was awarded one of MLP’s 12 expansion franchises.
MLP features two tiers of competition and 24 co-ed teams composed of two men and two women. The league’s 12 previously existing teams drafted 48 of the world’s best pro pickleball players and will begin the year at the Premier Level. The 12 expansion teams, which came at a cost in the low seven figures, according to Forbes, held their own 48-player draft and will begin the year at the Challenger Level.
Every team will play the same six events, with the schedule divided into two three-event seasons. After the first three events, teams will switch levels and redraft players, with the combined results from the two seasons determining each team’s level in 2024.
Pickleball’s brightest stars, including teenager Anna Leigh Waters and Gaithersburg native Ben Johns, aren’t yet household names, but the league hopes to change that through greater exposure. MLP, which produces a weekly podcast, announced that the Tennis Channel will broadcast the semifinals and finals of its first event, and the league remains in negotiations with potential broadcast partners for subsequent events. Pickleball made its major network debut in August, when 621,000 viewers tuned in to CBS’s coverage of the PPA’s Summer Championship.
Loose geographic ties, for now
The D.C. Pickleball Team, which hired Daniel Howard as its general manager and has since added NFL wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to its ownership group, selected Querrey with the No. 1 pick of the Challenger draft. In the fourth round, the team went local by drafting McLean, Va., resident Monica Paolicelli, who played soccer at Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax and James Madison.
Paolicelli entered her first amateur pickleball tournament at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington in 2018, a few months after her grandparents introduced her to the sport. At the Gamma Pickleball Classic in Pittsburgh last year, a pickleball equipment company approached her about a sponsorship deal.
“That gave me the drive to get even better and play as many tournaments as I can,” said Paolicelli, who practices four to five times a week while also working as a fitness instructor, giving private lessons and serving as the head pickleball pro at Westwood Country Club in Vienna.
Sponsorships are the greatest source of revenue for most players and the league. Players will receive appearance fees while competing for up to $5 million in prize money at MLP events, and they are permitted to participate on the PPA tour, which features 25 events and a $5.5 million purse. MLP’s merger with VIBE makes it the only pickleball league with a team format.
Paolicelli said she was “ecstatic” to be drafted by her hometown team, though the geographic affiliations of MLP’s clubs don’t mean much — yet. Teams won’t regularly train together, much less have designated home courts or host matches in 2023. MLP’s six events are in Arizona, California, Florida and Georgia.
MLP may look to develop team rivalries with a more robust schedule and tour stops in additional cities in future years. Outside of MLP’s leaguewide events, Porter has discussed the idea of scheduling a home-and-home series with one of the other East Coast teams, such as the Brooklyn Aces or Atlanta Bouncers, and said he’ll rely on his connections from his time with D.C. United to grow the sport in the area and develop a fan base.
“We want to have a real connection with the District and have it be something where people say, ‘Okay, that’s our pickleball team,’ ” Porter said. “What we’re excited about is that meeting of a participation sport with a professional sport, and giving the District a new professional sports team to be proud of.”
Querrey has embraced his role as professional pickleball’s newest — first? — villain. “When half the pickleball players are mad you got picked ahead of them, despite having never played a pro tournament,” he wrote on Instagram after the draft, along with a video of him pretending to play the world’s smallest violin.
A casual tennis fan, Paolicelli said she didn’t know who Querrey was until his comments about tennis players coming to take over pickleball made waves ahead of the MLP draft. She doesn’t mind Querrey’s confidence, even if it’s put a target on the D.C. Pickleball Team’s back.
“It’s getting us more media attention,” Paolicelli said. “He doesn’t want to make himself look like an idiot on TV, so I think he’s going to try as hard as he possibly can. … That’s fine with me, as long as he can back it up on the court, and I think he plans to do that.”
In early January, Querrey, Paolicelli and D.C.’s two other draft picks, Stefan Auvergne and Shelby Bates, gathered from all across the country at Dill Dinkers Pickleball in Columbia, Md., where they met for the first time and tried to develop some on-court chemistry with a two-day training session ahead of their trip to Arizona. MLP events feature almost exclusively doubles play.
Paolicelli said Querrey, who lives and trains in California, was receptive to feedback from his more experienced teammates, and that his biggest room for improvement is knowing where to be on the court.
“Monica and Shelby might’ve been rolling their eyes at me a little bit on Saturday morning, but I learned a lot in those 48 hours,” said Querrey, who likes the makeup of D.C.’s squad and suggested Auvergne, a software engineer based in Austin, might be “the steal of the draft.”
Querrey’s results in California this month did little to dampen his confidence ahead of the MLP season.
“It was probably a good thing that I didn’t go in and dominate right away,” Querrey said. “I’m ready to go. I feel like I personally will hold up and be pretty good, and I feel like I still have a lot of runway left to get better. … Whatever can drive more eyeballs to pickleball right now is a good thing. For the most part, I think the top pickleball players like having me around.”