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Kim Clijsters’ pickleball gamble: How the tennis legend is helping build a sport from the ground up
The former No. 1 sat down with Baseline in Brooklyn to discuss her journey from casual player to serious investor, as well as the challenges that still lie ahead for this booming sport.
Published Nov 10, 2023
NEW YORK, NY—At a bright and trendy tennis complex in New York City, Kim Clijsters is in her element and holding court with a pickleball paddle in hand.
It was in this city where she famously lifted back-to-back US Open trophies in 2009 and 2010 and, in the process, shattered barriers of what was thought to be possible for women’s tennis players with her triumphant return from maternity leave.
Now, pickleball has brought her back again: This time, to Court 16’s Downtown Brooklyn location, where she is hosting a clinic for members. Clijsters corrects players’ form with a gentle voice and beaming smile—she reminds me not to drop my racquet during volleys in tennis, and in pickleball, an instructor tells me my shots need “more wrist”.
Throughout the evening, Clijsters switches seamlessly between tennis—her first love—and pickleball, her new passion.
The co-owner of the Major League Pickleball (MLP) team the Las Vegas Night Owls—along with Kaitlyn Kerr and Callie Simpkins and backed by Tom Brady and Knighthead Capital—Clijsters is determined to use her lifetime of expertise from tennis to take pickleball to new heights.
"In tennis... I've been a player, I've owned an academy, I've been a tournament director, I've been on the board of the WTA," Clijsters says. "And so to be able to use that and to learn from some of the great business people that are involved in the Major League Pickleball has been so fun and really rewarding."
The former world No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam winner sat down with Baseline in Brooklyn to discuss her journey from casual player to pickleball investor, as well as the challenges that still lie ahead for this booming sport:
Thank you so much for all your tips, by the way! Very helpful. We're used to seeing you with a racquet in your hand, but clearly you know your pickleball too. Can you tell me about how you got into the game?
CLIJSTERS: It was basically for me, moving from Europe to New Jersey during COVID. Pickleball became my social life. You know, I know people in the area, but they were basically family or people that were related to my husband's side of the family. Whereas I always felt like I needed to build my own group of women, like the friendships that I've built in Belgium, and start meeting new women in the area.
And so that's what pickleball did for me, that's the foundation of how I started playing. Like, to get out during COVID and to play some sports but to also meet people in the area. And it grew from there.
How did it grow into an investment opportunity, as well? Because fast-forward just three years and you’re an MLP team co-owner, alongside names like Tom Brady more…
CLIJSTERS: Well, a few of the women that I worked with and played with... One of them worked for a bank during the US Open, and I found out that she was living in my area of New Jersey before I even moved there. But she's huge into pickleball. She calls herself Pickleball Chick on social media.
But she's very involved in a lot of different organizations, works for foundations. And she's the one who got me involved with it, as well as a few other women.
What’s been the best or most interesting part of your growing involvement in pickleball? You’ve gone from a casual player—picking up a paddle for the first time in 2020, like most of us—to leading the pickleball charge at the highest levels of the game.
CLIJSTERS: Really just to learn about it, right? That's been the fun part for me. Like, in tennis... I've been a player, I've owned an academy, I've been a tournament director, I've been on the board of the WTA. And so to be able to learn from some of the great business people that are involved in the Major League Pickleball.
Of course, it's great that there's so many celebrities that are owners and stuff. But it's also the business minds that are involved that I love learning about and hearing them do their thing.
And with all this expertise coming together, you’re basically building a new sport from the ground up…
CLIJSTERS: Yes! Exactly. And with the ups and the downs that come with it.
It's super exciting. It's super interesting. And to, you know, bring my experience of having run an Academy, being from Europe, bridging those culture differences... It's so interesting to see it all. And, so yeah, I feel like I've been learning a lot. It's so much fun.
We’ve been hearing for so long that pickleball is booming, but now it truly seems like pickleball is here to stay—and everyone wants in. Why is now such an exciting time for brands and businesses to get into it?
CLIJSTERS: So I think the foundation is set. Right? I think that's the most important thing, the foundation is set. And I'm not sure the exact number, but they're saying that there's something like 30 million amateurs at that level...
So when you have that as a foundation, it's incredible the businesses that will come out of that, like the ideas that will grow from it. I don't think we've seen anything yet. Like you see some facilities—something like this, here at Court 16—and we've seen what Top Golf has done in golf. But then for pickleball, there's facilities like that coming up.
But then for the pro level…
CLIJSTERS: That's something that I'm interested to see how that's going to be able to keep developing, because it's not the easiest sport, I feel like, to watch on TV. And you know, sports like tennis, they all depend so much on TV rights, right? You can't put a big stadium around a pickleball court, like where you get revenue from ticket sales and stuff. So that's going to be interesting for me to see how that will develop.
But to watch it, like to go to a Major League Pickleball event live, is incredible. It's so fast, their reactions, their tactics... It's so much fun to watch live. It's exciting from the first shot to the last point. But yeah, I'm curious to see how they will be able to develop the sport at the pro level.
Speaking of TV, I’m sure you’ve heard that Tennis Channel is about to launch PickleballTV—a 24/7 streaming channel that’s all about pickleball. As an MLP team co-owner, what do you think a move like that does for the sport?
CLIJSTERS: I think it's great! And not just for the US, but I think it's going to bring in even more people that maybe come to the States and watch it. I think it will grow the sport to different countries, too. For example, since I've been involved they want to talk to colleges, they want to talk to the Olympic Committee to see if pickleball can go there. So we need it to not just be in America.
When I go to Belgium, like I was there last week, nobody talks about pickleball in Europe. It's not there at all. So there's still a long way to go if we want pickleball to become a respected sport within the Olympic Committee. At colleges here in America it's going to work, but...
Yeah, it's gonna take time. But that's the fun, to figure it out and see where this can go.
Good thing they’ve got you and all your expertise on the planning committee!
CLIJSTERS: Yes! (Laughing) But especially in our team. We go to some of the events to see the differences between the tour that I grew up in, and that has had 50 years of experience of running professional events, to come to a league that is starting out very small.
So it's fun to be able to share my kind of experiences, my views and to do it with our two other women that are part of our team.
It's so much fun. Like, we're so excited about it and motivated and we work hard, we’re all about working out, and so it's fun. It's an exciting time in pickleball right now.