December 5, 2023

The Major League Pickleball is getting new leadership as it looks to capitalize on the rise of the fastest-growing sport at the professional level in America.

The team-based professional pickleball league announced Wednesday that it has named finance and media executive Julio DePietro as chief executive and former NFL executive Bruce Popko as chief operating officer.

“The addition of Julio and Bruce marks another milestone step forward in the growth of the MLP,” said MLP founder Steve Kuhn.

DePietro and Popko will be tasked with guiding the league at a time when the game of pickleball is exploding at the amateur level.

“We’re very confident that we have the platform and the product. We’re at the beginning of a hockey stick growth,” DePietro told CNBC.

DePietro, a former partner at Citadel, worked with Kuhn for many years. In 2022, he bought a stake in the Florida Smash MLP team, saying the investment was “deserved.” As part of his new role, he will soon divest his stake in Smash.

DePietro said the team’s valuation has grown 100-fold during his more than a year as league owner. Today, he said, the team’s offer is as high as $10 million. Previously, the acquisition price of the team was only $100,000.

With more than 36 million people playing pickleball last year, DiPietro and Popko say their biggest challenge is converting all new casual pickleball fans into MLP followers.

The fast-growing sports league has attracted dozens of high-profile athlete owners and investors, including NBA greats LeBron James and Kevin Durant, as well as NFL personalities Tom Brady and Drew Brees. In November, brewer Anheuser-Busch bought a team.

Popko has more than 30 years of experience in the sports industry, including serving as chief operating officer for the Buffalo Bills and Pegula Sports & Entertainment.

“One of the things I’ve learned in sports over the years is that the biggest fans are the ones who are directly involved with the sport and that’s why I love the game so much because we’re off to a great start,” Popko told CNBC.

Once in charge, Popko said, he will focus on three pillars: growing sponsorships, building a media rights business, and licensing and sales strategy.

DePietro said MLPs are just scratching the surface in terms of opportunity and monetization as they continue to build fan bases.

“With hardly any advertising knobs turned on, let alone subscription knobs, we think there’s a huge opportunity to capitalize on the massive install base, the excitement behind it, the enthusiasm of the fans and players, and there’s a lot to offer the league Sponsorship and marketing opportunities,” DePietro said.

Another challenge for MLPs is marketing and positioning more players as household names. Part of that effort means finding a steady media partner. Currently, MLP tournaments can be watched anywhere from YouTube and ESPN to Tennis Channel or MSG Networks, which can confuse fans.

“The good news is that we are in advanced conversations with an A+ broadcast partner who is interested in live streaming our season and all of that into 2024,” DePietro said.

Media ratings for the sport have been growing. The MLP Super Finals on June 19 had more than 975,000 viewers on ESPN2, according to the league.

The MLP said viewership for its YouTube Live channel was up 500 percent over last year.

DePietro also said the MLP is in advanced talks with another household name production company to produce a series about the player himself. He declined to name the production companies or broadcasters the MLP is negotiating with.

“They’re fantastic athletes, some of them have unbelievable stories. I think putting the human element into it is going to be a big part of keeping people watching,” he said.