I have multimillion-dollar salary now

During Ben Johns’ first year as a professional pickleball player, he could barely support himself financially.

Now, he’s making $2.5 million in pickleball salary alone this year, he tells CNBC Make It — plus more in endorsement deals and sponsorship contracts.

Johns, 25, is currently the Professional Pickleball Association Tour’s No. 1 ranked player in men’s doubles and the top-ranked male player in mixed doubles. He’s held those rankings for most of the last three years, winning more than 120 PPA titles and 21 triple crowns — first place in singles, doubles and mixed at the same event — more than any other male player in pickleball history.

Over those three years, his payouts have grown significantly as America’s fastest-growing sport attracted sizable private equity investments, wealthy team owners, bigger sponsors and media deals that infused capital into the game. In 2021, Johns made $250,000, he told CNBC at the time — which would mean his salary has increased tenfold since then.

In 2018, he only earned about $50,000 from pickleball, he adds. Those earnings came almost exclusively from prize winnings at national tournaments, rather than an annual salary.

“We haven’t reached the top,” Johns says, adding: “I think there’s still an upward trend.”

The rise of professional pickleball

In February, two of the world’s largest professional pickleball leagues — the PPA Tour and Major League Pickleball — merged into one organization under a holding company called the Unified Pickleball Association.

The merger was backed by a $75 million investment from private equity firm SC Holdings and a series of pickleball team owners, according to the deal’s announcement. Annual player payouts would increase by nearly 250% this year, compared to 2023, it noted.

In April, the UPA announced it’ll hold future events in India, the world’s most-populated country — a marker of planned international expansion and global ambition. With more exposure, player payouts could become more heavily funded by sponsorships and media deals.

Johns, who started playing pickleball at age 17, has a lifetime sponsorship contract with Joola Pickleball, and other deals with Jigsaw Health, Pickleball Galaxy and Life Time fitness. It’s unclear how much money he makes from those arrangements.

How Johns is using his money

Johns says he’s an avid investor — portioning some of his money into the stock market, startup investments and cryptocurrency.

“I love venture capital and investing and all the money management stuff,” he says, adding: “So it’s basically all, me talking to as many people as I can that are in the space and getting advice from there.”

His portfolio, which features a mix of stocks and equity in private companies, currently includes both pickleball-related ventures and an artificial intelligence company, he says. His interest in cryptocurrency goes back at least three years: He chose to receive a portion of his prize money in Ethereum in 2021.

Pickleball has given Johns opportunities to play with and against a variety of celebrities and CEOs, he says. Three big names remain on his “dream” list: Tesla CEO Elon Musk, tennis star Novak Djokovic and comedian Kevin Hart.

Johns currently drives a Tesla with a bright orange wrap, and says playing with Musk would be his ultimate dream.

“I don’t really have idols or anything, but he is the only person I’m a huge fan of,” Johns says.

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25-year-old earns $11K/month working three jobs while training for the Olympic trials

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