The Disney sports giant said Monday that it struck a wide-scale rights deal with the Association of Pickleball Professionals that will have ESPN2 broadcast eight, one-hour event recap shows and ESPN+ stream more than 200 hours of live coverage of eight events from the APP’s annual tour.
While it may sound like something that belongs on “The Ocho,” the semi-fictional ESPN channel devoted to coverage of oddball sporting events, pickleball has become a phenomenon. According to The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, more than 4.8 million people in the U.S. play the sport — the latest in racket games — which has seen a growth of 39.3% over the last two years. Last year, comedian Stephen Colbert and CBS mounted a celebrity pickleball tournament, with the late-night host declaring that the sport is truly egalitarian. “You really get the sense that the best pickleball player in the world is only about twice as good as the worst pickleball player,” Colbert told Variety.
“As pickleball continues to grow in popularity across the country rapidly, we are looking forward to serving fans with coverage of the APP Tour across our ESPN platforms,” said Tim Bunnell, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming, in a statement. “We are excited to be part of this sport’s upward trajectory.”
The deal puts a spotlight on the increased demand for live sports content across TV networks of all stripes. In an era where streaming has begun to attract more viewers, programming that can still draw large crowds all at once is of increasing value. Little wonder, then, that Disney’s FX general-entertainment network will show XFL football games later this year.
Coverage of the 2023 APP season will kick off with the Daytona Beach Open in February on ESPN+, with a recap show to air on TV on Sunday, February 12. Among the tournaments to get ESPN+ streaming are the 2023 APP New York City Open in May and the league’s 2023 APP season finale in November and December in Houston.