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Sporting Econ 101: The Finance of America’s Burgeoning Sports

Photo Courtesy Joan Azeka

If you tuned into ESPN from August 3-5, you might have caught the 2023 edition of ESPN 8 The Ocho. What started as a gag in the hit comedy “Dodgeball” has turned into a media sensation. Every year, ESPN provides 24-hour coverage of all the niche, exotic, and downright strange sports. This year, we go to witness the Microsoft Excel Championship, Tetris Championship, Teqball Championship, rapid kayaking, and professional horseshoe tossing. These are classified as “sports,” even if some are low-effort endeavors.

ESPN is no stranger to airing alternative sporting events. In its earliest days, the channel broadcasted events like professional bull riding, slow-pitch softball, speedboat racing, etc. Never in a million years did fans think these quirky sports would become mainstream and recurring fixtures in ESPN’s morning weekend programming when college football and basketball are not in season. Cornhole and pickleball have taken the country by storm, but how did they become professionalized and are they profitable?

Pickleball: It’s not tennis, but can it pay like tennis?

The rise of pickleball doesn’t make sense. A sport associated with retirees playing during recreation hours or kids playing during gym class has become one of the most popular sports in the U.S. Why? Other than it essentially being low-effort tennis, it is something everyone can play. Research suggests the largest player demographic is under 24 as it continues to grow in popularity. Homeowners are installing pickleball courts in their homes as the craze continues in fervor. 

The rise of casual pickleball opened the door to professional games. Major League Pickleball is probably the most successful pro-pickleball league. The venture was started in 2021 by businessman Steve Kuhn. Today, it’s backed by celebrity investors, including top athletes in their respective sports. The first year had eight teams participate in six outings across Arizona, California, Florida, and Georgia. 

In September 2023, the league merged with the Professional Pickleball Association Tour, another professional pickleball venture. With $50 million in new investments coinciding with the merger, the new-look MLP added more teams and opened the door for more outside revenue streams. League executives told Front Office Sports the deal would lead to greater competition among athletes and better entertainment for fans.   

MLP has expanded to 24 teams competing for prize money. The 2023 pool is $5 million. Players will get a share of the earnings if they win the tournament. There are two levels of competition, the Premier and Challenger tiers. A team’s performance at these events leads to the total number of points, which affects the standings. Players can take home as much as $300,000 but also require sponsors for additional revenue. 

Professional tennis players make around $250,000 median salary but with better endorsements and larger prize pools, tennis players are still making more than even the best pickleball players. 

Photo courtesy Major League Pickleball

Pickleball’s explosion has not gone unnoticed by celebrity investors. Kevin Durant invested in a team through his VC firm, Thirty Five Ventures. Tom Brady and former Belgian tennis player Kim Clijsters bought a team last year. Lebron James, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Drew Brees, and others have all gotten on board. Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios is loving the increase in participation

Kuhn told Front Office Sports it was a “watershed moment” to have investors like Lebron and his LRMR Ventures. Kuhn recently left MLP, though. 

In 2022, USA Pickleball and the Sports & Fitness Industry Association recorded a 159% increase in national participation. That’s up to 8.9 million players. Factors like these have boosted the price of starting a team from $10,000 to $10 million. While Pickleball hasn’t inked a major streaming deal with ESPN, CBS, or FOX yet, it does have online streaming through its website, YouTube, and FuboTV. You can find MLP on the MSG networks, but that channel is mainly broadcasted in the NYC metro area. 

Still, access is now there, and by providing direct-to-consumer options like YouTube streams (which are FREE), the league and sport receive more publicity. Revenues aren’t quite at the level of professional tennis, but give it time. 

Cornhole: Wait, we aren’t tailgating?

It’s difficult to ascertain when cornhole’s popularity began or truly peaked. The American Cornhole Association says on its info sheet the sport didn’t break into mainstream media until the Wall Street Journal published an article about the rise of competitive cornhole in 2007. Following that, a cornhole video game for Nintendo Wii was released around 2011. In 2013, ESPN aired the first ACO World Cup, with former anchor Kenny Mayne hosting. 

Cornhole’s rise isn’t as rapid as pickleball’s. The game is said to have started in southern Ohio/northern Kentucky. It goes by several names: sack toss, bag toss, sack-in-hole, but cornhole is the most common. It’s typically a game played at tailgating, barbecues, on the beach, etc. 

Stacey Moore, the founder of the American Cornhole League, started his venture in 2015 in Rock Hill, SC. He oversaw record profits; by 2019, prize pools had risen to the 7-figure mark. He went from setting up the tournaments alone to having a legitimate sports entertainment enterprise. 

“I started out running all the tournaments, carrying all the boards, setting up all the boards, doing it all from the, from the ground up,” Moore told Bloomberg

Now, the ACL has media deals with ESPN and CBS. Moore says there are over 250,000 players representing 15 different countries. The ACL was featured on ESPN 8 The Ocho this year but has a standalone TV slot. Cornhole’s professionalization has even led to a cheating scandal

Photo courtesy American Cornhole League

Weirdly enough, cornhole’s big break came during the height of COVID-19. When all major sports paused operations to reduce the spread of the virus, the ACL resumed play earlier because it had social distancing on its side. Competitors already had to stand back several feet from each other. For an audience deprived of live sports events, this was at least a start in the return to pre-pandemic life. A seven-week tournament with four-hour broadcasts gave the ACL a much-needed media boost. 

If you are still skeptical about the growth of professional cornhole, the ACL has set multiple divisions based on skill level. Players can jump between these divisions as they compete in regional and national tournaments: ACL Pro, ACL College, ACL Juniors, and eventually the Johnsonville Champions Series. Having a sponsor in one of America’s agricultural giants speaks to the growth of the sports’ entertainment value and profitability. 

That isn’t to say pro cornhole players are raking in the dough. Pro players can make anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 a year. Some of that comes from tournament earnings; some of it is from sponsorships. Winnings are typically 50% of the pot. If a team wins a whole tournament, the cash is further split, meaning some players may not make more than $100 a tournament. Events have to be played frequently to crack the 4-figure mark. 

The craze is real!

The obsession with cornhole and pickleball stems from the simplicity of the two sports. Cornhole only requires two long boards and six bean bags. It can be played pretty much anywhere and doesn’t require a ton of skill to play. You really only need a flat surface and space. 

Pickleball requires rackets, a wiffle ball, and a tennis court. You have to use some athletic effort to be a good pickleball player but not the levels of tennis or squash. The slow nature of the sport allows those with mobility problems to play. It’s exercise, especially for those with joint problems, heart conditions, and injuries. Pickleball also burns more calories than walking. Most people drink beer on the side while playing cornhole casually, so pickleball has that over it. 

The wacky sports craze will continue. We already see it with professional Spikeball, eSports, and Quidditch. These sports offer a different sense of community, one with a culture that starkly contrasts with those in football, basketball, or baseball. 


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