October 4, 2022 10:50 AM EDT

Paul Rivera, chief marketing officer for the SpringHill Company—the entertainment firm co-founded by LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter, which was valued at $725 million about a year ago—wants you to know that he believes he’s the best pickleball player out of a group that includes James, arguably the greatest athlete of our time, and fellow NBA players Draymond Green and Kevin Love, both potential Hall of Famers. While Rivera has never played James one-on-one in pickleball, the hybrid tennis/badminton/ping-pong activity that’s exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, he swears he’s beaten Green. “You can say that in bold, because that would be a fact,” says Rivera. “I always joke with Draymond, that if we competed at 1,000 things, he would absolutely kick my ass in 999 of them. Pickleball is somewhat of the great equalizer.”

Pickleball is also the fastest-growing sport in America, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). And Rivera, along with a coterie of NBA stars, like James, Green, and Love, want in. On Sept. 28, Major League Pickleball (MLP), the fledgling pro league, announced that is received a seven-figure investment from a group, headlined by James, to purchase a new team. The investors includes LRMR Ventures, the family office of James and Carter; Green; Love; Rivera; investment firm SC Holdings; and Daniel Sillman, co-owner and CEO of Relevent Sports Group, a media and promotion company. Major League Pickleball already receives some mainstream media coverage—CBS Sports Network has telecast the finals of MLP events—and since the announcement of James’ involvement, MLP strategic advisor Anne Worcester says the league has received more than 100 inquires from interested owners and sponsors, as the league expands from 12 to 16 teams, from three to six events, and from $1 million to $2 million in prize money next year.

“This group brings us unparalleled experience across sports, across media, across branding and entertainment,” says Worcester. “Plus, the celebrity angle just expands the reach of the sport immensely. It’s a major moment for the sport of pickleball.”

There are currently some 5 million pickleball players in the U.S., according to SFIA data; participation jumped 39.3% from 2019 to 2021. Some 40% of pickleball players are under 35, according to SFIA. “Gone are the days of ‘pickleball’s for seniors,'” says Worcester.

MLP has set a goal for the sport to reach 40 million players by 2030. Pickleball became popular among NBA referees, team personnel, and media members looking to kill time in the NBA’s 2020 COVID-19 bubble in Orlando: as a non-contact sport played outdoors, the risks of catching the virus while playing seemed low. Rivera, a former Nike exec, says that James, Love, and Green are all fans of the sport. Like many others, Rivera himself started playing pickleball during the pandemic, initially on a work trip with Carter in Mexico in 2020.

His passion for the game kept growing, to the point that this summer, Rivera, Stillman, and Jason Stein, managing partner of SC Holdings, were playing every weekend this summer in the New York City area. The trio began scouring the MLP’s Instagram account for pointers. They began to think about investing in a team, and the group’s timing proved ideal: MLP was looking to expand.

The basic bet: that the millions of Americans who’ve picked up pickleball will look to MLP for inspiration. While, say, Major League Soccer struggles to attract mass viewership in the U.S., since American audiences have access to the Premier League and other top European games on their screens, MLP is positioning itself as best in class. “Major League Pickleball will be the highest level you can play,” says Rivera.

MLP’s success, however, is far from a sure thing. Current sports offerings—NFL, NBA, MLB, and more— already leave many American fans plenty satiated. Pickleball’s appeal lies in its accessibility. The sport is easy to learn, fosters social bonds, and can be addictive to play. Pickleball is easier on creaky joints than, say, pickup basketball and tennis. So why sit on your tush and watch others play pickleball when you can compete yourself? (And maybe even beat Draymond Green).

To create regional allegiances and drum up rivalries, Major League Pickleball is considering geographical affiliations for its 16 teams next year. Each team has four members, two men and two women, and matches at MLP events consist of four components: a men’s doubles game, a women’s doubles game, and two mixed doubles games. If each team wins two of these doubles games, the competition moves on to a tiebreaker that involves singles matchups.

Brené Brown, the author and podcast host, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry are among the existing team owners in the league. George Clooney and Stephen Colbert are pickleball fans. “On a scale of 1 to 100, the sport is at a one right now,” says Rivera. “That’s the upside. I believe this could be an Olympic sport by 2028, and then trickle down from there, where there’s high school teams and college teams and scholarships. I think we’re on the cusp of something really, really special.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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