Is There Any End to the Pro Sports League Startup Craze?

Investors are flocking to organized athletics at an unbelievable rate — probably with good reason

A male flag football player makes a diving catch
Flag football is not the only niche sport experiencing impressive growth
Getty Images

Almost 20 years ago the film Dodgeball poked fun at the relentless growth ESPN seemed to pursue by creating a fictional eighth station for the network. Dubbed “The Ocho,” it was home to “seldom-seen sports” and zany color commentators with flat-ironed hairstyles named “Pepper Brooks.”

Though Dodgeball‘s plot pushed the limits of plausibility, its Ocho gag turned out to be incredibly prescient. Today, ESPN indeed has a roster of eight cable stations, not including its streamer ESPN+. Though the Ocho is not a full-time channel, the network sometimes produces a real-life Ocho “takeover” of ESPN2. Its time slots are dedicated to way-below-the-hard-deck sports like spikeball and bed racing.

But a number of sports that just a few years ago were reserved for play in suburban backyards or city parks — and others that didn’t even exist — have had professional leagues built around them. They’re turning up on TV, too.

Ratings for ESPN’s “The Last Dance” Reveal a Desperation for Sports Content
The premiere of “The Last Dance” was a slam dunk in the ratings department

American tournaments in teqball, an international sport combining soccer and ping pong, with players on opposing sides of a curved table kicking a ball back and forth across it, aired on ESPN outlets last year after the network purchased their rights for an undisclosed amount. Though it’s unclear if teqball has a broadcast partner in the U.S. for this year’s schedule of tournaments, the sport continues to grow, eyeing inclusion in the 2028 Summer Olympic Games, so it’s only a matter of time before TV calls back. Worst-case scenario, they’ll just continue to throw matches up on YouTube, where the sport’s governing body already has its own channel that boasts total video view numbers of 27 million. That kind of audience is already generating revenue from platform ad sales, to be sure.

Then there’s pickleball, which you’ve probably already heard plenty about after the mainstream media fixated on the craze three years ago. Pickleball’s popularity gained a head of steam during the pandemic because the sport is so social-distance friendly. But serious money is being pumped into pickleball. Investors include Tom Brady, Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Michael Phelps, as well as non-athletes like Eva Longoria and Heidi Klum. And in January, the sport’s pro league, the Association of Pickleball Professionals, sold match TV rights to ESPN. (Terms were not announced there either.)

Apparently, the NCAA and NFL don’t provide enough football for Americans. The XFL just started up again for like the 90th time — OK, the third, but if you count the fact that the current iteration has already changed ownership, it’s actually four. Next month, we’ll get the second season of the second iteration of the United States Football League, which like the XFL also has a major broadcast partner.

Next year will bring us the American Flag Football League. The AFFL sold its third franchise for $3 million yesterday. There will be squads representing Boston, Las Vegas and Dallas, and league leadership hopes to begin games with up to six teams, paying its male players $1,000 a week. Even when it was a semi-pro league, the AFFL attracted CBS as a broadcasting partner in 2021. Since turning into a professional league last year, the AFFL has already delayed its season one year to 2024 so it can round into form. It’ll certainly have its games on TV somewhere, and the league’s founder, Jeff Lewis, who’s worked in finance, is so sure of its viability that he’s already publicly stated that in 2025 there will be a flag football women’s spinoff league.

“We had four games on CBS Sports last year: Three of them were men, and one was women. It was the first nationally televised women’s football game ever, and it doubled the rating of the three men’s games on average,” Lewis told Sportico in 2022. “There’s something percolating out there.” (He’s right about that.)

This all seems like a lot of sports. But even these fringe leagues, some of which have dubious histories of success, find places to put their games on TV, generating revenue to at the very least support the prospect of huge profits. They do so because live sports dominate linear TV ratings. Sixty-six of the 100 most-watched programs in 2022 were sports contests, in large part because subscription-based streaming services, with their on-demand capabilities and other features, have attracted so many consumers for previously-produced shows. Outside of live sports, which remains compelling if only in its unpredictability, people have little reason to tune into real-time TV that still has commercials — something consumers hate.

So if you want to attract investors, maybe organize a professional league in a sport that’s shown some smidgen of growth. Chances are you’ll all make money from a TV deal somewhere. If there’s no station for your new bed-racing league, ESPN will probably just form a new one. Perhaps they’ll call it “the Nueve.”

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.