Major League Pickleball is getting new leadership as it looks to capitalize on the rise of America’s fastest-growing sport at the professional level.
The team-based pro pickleball league announced Wednesday it has named finance and media executive Julio DePietro as its chief executive officer and former NFL executive Bruce Popko as chief operating officer.
“The additions of Julio and Bruce signify another landmark step forward in the evolution of Major League Pickleball,” said MLP founder Steve Kuhn.
DePietro and Popko will be tasked with steering the league at a time when the sport of pickleball has seen explosive growth at the amateur level.
“We’re pretty confident that we have both the platform and the product. We’re at just the beginning of this hockey-stick growth,” DePietro told CNBC.
DePietro was formerly a partner at Citadel, where he worked alongside Kuhn for many years. In 2022, he purchased a stake in the Florida Smash MLP team, calling the investment a “no-brainer.” As part of his new role, he will soon divest his stake in the Smash.
In the year-plus that he’s served as an owner in the league, DePietro said, team valuations have seen 100 times growth. Teams today, he said, are going for as much as $10 million. Previously, teams were being scooped up for as little as $100,000.
With more than 36 million people playing pickleball last year, DiPietro and Popko say their biggest challenge is converting all the new casual pickleball fans into MLP followers.
The rapidly growing sports league has attracted dozens of high-profile athlete owners and investors including NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant as well as Tom Brady and Drew Brees of NFL fame. In November, beer maker Anheuser-Busch bought a team.
Popko’s background includes more than 30 years working in the sports industry, with previous COO roles at the Buffalo Bills and Pegula Sports & Entertainment.
“One of the things that I’ve learned over the years in sports is that the most avid fans are those fans that participate in the sport directly, and that’s why I love this sport so much, because we have such a great running start,” Popko told CNBC.
Popko said he will focus on three pillars once he steps into his role: growing sponsorships, building the media rights business, and licensing and merchandising strategy.
As they continue to build the fan base, DePietro said MLP is just scratching the surface in terms of the opportunity and monetization.
“We have barely turned on any of the advertising knobs, much less the subscription knobs,” DePietro said. “We think there’s a massive opportunity to leverage a lot of the installed base, the excitement behind it, the avidity of the fans, of the players, and there’s tons of sponsorship and marketing opportunities for the league.”
Another challenge the MLP faces is marketing and positioning more of its players as household names. Part of that effort means finding a consistent media partner. Currently, MLP tournaments can be viewed anywhere from YouTube and ESPN to the Tennis Channel or MSG Networks, which can be confusing to fans.
“The good news is we are in advanced conversations with an A-plus-type broadcast partner who is interested in carrying our season live and all of our content for 2024,” DePietro said.
Media viewership has consistently been growing for the sport. MLP’s Premier Level Super Final on June 19 reached more than 975,000 viewers on ESPN2, according to the league.
MLP said its YouTube livestream channel has seen a viewership increase of 500% over last year.
DePietro also said MLP is in advanced conversations with another household-name production company to create a series about individual players. He declined to name the production company or the broadcaster that MLP is in talks with.
“They’re amazing athletes, some of them have incredible stories. Bringing the human element into it, I think, is going to be a huge part in driving viewers for us,” he said.