Tennis legends put America's latest sports phenomenon, pickleball, on full display
On most days you can find Andre Agassi busy fulfilling his dreams of educating youth through his partnership with the Turner-Agassi Education Facilities Fund, which helps create charter schools (now well over 100) in some of the nation’s most underserved communities.
But there is also another side of Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam tennis champion and Olympic gold medalist. One that is fulfilling his need of staying in shape by participating in one of the popular sports in the United States.
That interest by one of the world’s best racket players is more than enough reason why a pickleball showcase interested sports media companies and television executives – and has them salivating at the possibilities.
Pickleball Slam will feature Agassi, Michael Chang, John McEnroe and Andy Roddick competing for a $1 million purse. The four men have a combined 17 Grand Slam singles championships between them.
The event will take place at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida on Sunday and will broadcast on ESPN at noon ET, immediately before the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game. There also will be an amateur challenge held Friday and Saturday.
"As far as the interest in it, are we anywhere near the best pickleball players? One-hundred-percent no is the answer to that question," Agassi told USA TODAY Sports. "But there's tens of millions of people playing the game for obvious reasons. They love it. And I'm one of them."
"I'm going to play beyond this event just because I've learned it's a great form of exercise outlet," Agassi continued. "One of the things I recognized with all the pickleball community, is they always want to measure themselves and they always want to feel like they're better than they are."
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WHAT IS PICKLEBALL?: Why pickleball and its avid fans are taking over the courts
Pickleball was invented in 1965 and has grown in scope and popularity ever since. The difference is the size of the playing surface, which are the same dimensions as a standard doubles badminton court, measuring 20 feet by 44 feet, with the height of the net at 36 inches at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle.
Pickleball has exploded over the past decade to the point where nearly 37 million played the sport in 2022, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals. Other sports stars are hopping on the bandwagon including Patrick Mahomes, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Tom Brady, who have each invested their own money in pickleball teams during the past year.
David Levy, co-CEO of Horizon Sports & Experiences, says this is only the beginning, as pickleball was primarily thrust into the mainstream as a way to get exercise during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. It's become a major player as a spectator sport with visions on mainstream television exposure, especially if more investors and television partners join in.
Levy said Pickleball Slam is the first in a five-event deal with the Hard Rock and could be soon coming to locations such as Nashville, Las Vegas, New York and Atlantic City and, as the market dictates, will also have a global focus.
"Success, I think, is measured by a few things. One is there's an amateur tournament on Friday and Saturday and winners get to play against two of the four legends, so that's going to be kind of unique and different,” Levy said.
During a dinner Levy had with his co-CEO Chris Weil almost six months ago, the two discussed ways to grow the company and focused on four areas: Formula 1, golf, soccer and pickleball. Levy, who was the head at Turner Sports until 2019 and spent three decades at the company, immediately thought of his past experience in made-for-TV events, such as The Match, a head-to-head golf match between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
From concept to getting the players and television partners, the whole deal took six days.
"If this was purely just what I would call professional racket ball player pros, people don't know their names right now," Levy told USA TODAY Sports. "You can't really ask anybody in the pickleball space to name the top pickleball ranked players, but what you can name is the best racket players in the world.
"And you put the best names and racket sports in the fastest-growing sport. And you can say you can say this concept in less than 30 seconds and everybody gets it. You know, you're going to have success."
Partnering with a conglomerate such as ESPN was crucial to the deal as well in terms of the eyes that will be tuned in and the players involved. Throw in raising money for charities, and a chance to pocket some coin themselves, and expectations are high for the athletes.
"I think there's a lot of reasons for them to tune in this year alone because they're going to gravitate towards it, because they're going to want comparatives," Agassi said. "So, it's a big audience as you just start. And then you take those that have kind of live nostalgic, watching us compete over decades, and think they're going to want to see us try to put our skill set on another platform."
Agassi and Levy both believe there is another wild card in the event: John McEnroe.
McEnroe, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, was known for his temperamental behavior, especially when it came to calls that didn’t go his way. Chair umpires were usually the source of those complaints.
"I think anytime McEnroe does anything, you have to question what’s going to happen," Agassi said. "I am probably as interested in that as everybody else would be."
Levy says that success won’t be necessarily measured in ratings, although that’s only one part of the success equation.
He has no doubt people will tune in and that will only make the sport grow.
“You know, we're not putting celebrities in a pickleball competition. These are dominant racket players in racket sports and the names that everybody knows and it's authentic. And I think that's a very key word why people will tune in,” Levy said.
Scooby Axson can be followed on Twitter at @ScoobAxson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pickleball takes spotlight with Andre Agassi, tennis icons competing