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Pickleball Slam Latest in Manufactured Destination Sports Programming Resurgence

Pickleball Slam Latest in Manufactured Destination Sports Programming Resurgence

January 30, 2023

Pickleball Slam Latest in Manufactured Destination Sports Programming Resurgence

While pickleball is the fastest growing participatory sport in America, the jury remains out on if it can become a viable spectator sport. 

David Levy (co-CEO and founder, Horizon Sports and Experiences) is not convinced the average sports fan is going to regularly make time to watch the pros–at least not at this stage. Even the most pickled pickleballer would struggle to name a single top-ranked player. 

However, he is betting casual fans and pickleball junkies alike will tune in to check out a collective of tennis legends playing for the sport’s largest-ever purse ($1 million).

Horizon Sports and Experiences (HS&E) recently announced it will stage the inaugural

Pickleball Slam

, featuring John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, on Sunday April 2nd. The event will air on ESPN just prior to the NCAA Division One Women’s Basketball Final.

If Levy is right HS&E should have “ample opportunity” to grow a business around the IP. It would also likely accelerate the ongoing manufactured destination sports programming resurgence.

“More [hand-picked] appointment programming will emerge,” he predicted. 

Manufactured destination sports programming is “event programming that is condensed into one or two days, that [has] strong brand names attached [and] that people want to attend or watch live,” Levy said.

It is different from a pinnacle event that comes at the culmination of an extended season, where the participants have earned the right to play (think: Super Bowl).    

The genre dates to at least the 1970s. Levy fondly recalls watching


as a child. 

But it has largely flamed out over the last couple of decades as athlete salaries have skyrocketed. “To be successful, you need big brands and big names,” Levy said, and it has become increasingly difficult to entice recognizable stars to participate. 

As the amount of money needed to attract marquee names has gone up, so too has the risk profile for those staging these entertainment events. Clauses in modern player contracts prohibiting participation in certain activities and a growing number of off-the-field obligations have also made the execution of them more difficult in recent decades.  

However, a resurgence appears to be underway. HS&E views the genre as a pillar of its business. PFL just announced the formation of a

. MSP Sports Capital recently acquired and has plans to


will debut in January ’24 (note: TGL will take place over more than one or two days).

Growing experiential budgets make manufactured destination sports programming more financially viable today than it was just a decade ago.

“[Marketers] have realized that touching and feeling a product, and having an experience with the product, is going to generate a better result than just running ads,” Levy said. 


Pickleball Slam

is positioning itself to capitalize on the experiential trend. “If you create [appointment viewing], you can have all sorts of [adjacent] opportunities for sponsors,” Levy said. 

The inaugural event weekend includes an amateur challenge. 96 doubles teams, each paying $2,000 to participate, will compete for a $10,000 prize and the chance to play a match against two of the tennis legends. The entry fee includes two tickets to the

Pickleball Slam

and access to a banquet with McEnroe, Roddick, Agassi and Chang the night before.

Future iterations could include everything from food and beverage tastings to a music festival–and all those fan touchpoints can be monetized. 

The emergence of new technologies has also opened some new revenue opportunities for IP owners. “We can stream [matches] and put [them] in the metaverse,” Levy said.

HS&E plans to tap into more traditional revenue streams, like title and presenting sponsorships, and ticket sales, too.

The inaugural


will take place at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, FL. “The reason we chose Florida out of the gate is it’s the most popular place for pickleball,” Levy said. 

Levy has long been a champion for manufactured destination sports programming. He was the president at Turner Sports when the company introduced

The Match: Tiger vs. Phil

in 2018. 

“The idea was to take the two biggest brand names in the sport, put them head-to-head for a winner-take-all $9 million purse and tie gambling to it,” he said.

The Match II

drew a pandemic-aided 5.67 million viewers, making it the most watched round of golf to ever air on television. 

Interest in

The Match

has seemingly waned since. That is be expected as the novelty of a new property wears off.

But the decline may also be a reflection of 

The Match

straying from its core competition and high stakes ethos. Just two of the last six events have exclusively featured professional golfers.

“You need the best of the best [competing] and have [the stakes] be meaningful, otherwise it’s not authentic and no one is going to watch,” Levy said.


The Match VII

, which took place in December, featured Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas going up against Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. It drew a solid 1.38 million viewers. 

McEnroe, Roddick, Agassi and Chang are all best known for their tennis prowess. But Levy insists the


is not “celebrity pickleball.” He said the best pickleballers are former tennis players and the two racquet sports require similar skill sets.

The HS&E executive said future


events could feature tennis legends like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Venus and Serena Williams, as well as up and coming players and household names from the ATP and WTA tours. 

For ESPN, scheduling the

Pickleball Slam

ahead of the Women’s championship game was more art than science. “We have an opportunity to bring people into a Women’s basketball game, who are not necessarily fans of the sport, because we have a two-hour platform with pickleball to promote it,” Tim Bunnell (SVP of programming, ESPN) said.

Of course, the


is a fairly low risk experiment for ESPN. The network is not responsible for its production.

“If you have a combination of athletes who people know, playing a sport that is, at least from a participatory standpoint, clearly on the rise, it has automatic cache,” Bunnell said. “We’re always willing to take a gamble an event with those types of ingredients in it.”