There was a PPA event in Kansas City and an APP event in Philadelphia this past weekend. You normally know what the drill is. We bring you some takeaways, you read them and we do it all again for the next tournament. However, the latest battle taking place in the pro pickleball Tour Wars has made the results from this weekend so insignificant in our view. This is the biggest battle within the Tour Wars that we have seen to date and it is not close to over as of the writing of this article.
Instead of our usual takeaways, we are going to bring you our takeaways from the latest saga in the Tour Wars. The caveat to these takeaways is that information is becoming old very fast. Our most recent piece became partly stale after only a couple of hours as Jack Sock was announced to the PPA. So we’ll look to provide as much information as we can that’s relevant and give some takes on what it means for pro pickleball right now.
For a list of players that have been announced to have signed with the PPA and MLP, you can go to the Dink’s blog or their Twitter as they are most on top of the up to the minute changes.
1. MLP is the Leader in the Clubhouse – We have seen in past battles of the Tour Wars that things can change on a dime. Making proclamations about which tour is winning the war can be foolhardy. That being said, there is little question that right now MLP is the leader in the clubhouse by a significant margin, even after the slew of signings announced by the PPA late Sunday – Dekel Bar, Julian Arnold, Lauren Stratman, Tina Pisnik and Tammy and Martin Emmrich.
As we noted in an earlier article, MLP seems to have learned its lesson from the ghosts of Tour Wars past. The PPA caught MLP on their heels both when Tom Dundon purchased the PPA and last November when they came forward with gold touring cards along with the Vibe Pickleball League.
There are different versions being thrown around of what led to this situation of mass signings – pro pickleball’s version of siblings telling their parents that the other one started it. Tyler Loong and Jimmy Miller presented a PPA friendly version of events as fact on their latest King of the Court podcast. Having taken in a bunch of information over the past few days, in our view, there’s no way we can confidently present one version as definitive. There is contention as to things such as who took the first shot and who was upset on the MLP side of the table, but who started it really doesn’t matter at this moment.
Despite the PPA supposedly locking in Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns, the end result has been MLP putting the PPA on their heels this time around by being first to the punch to lock in key players like Tyson McGuffin, James Ignatowich and Anna Bright. The MLP contracts are exclusive this time around and contemplate a full schedule for their players.
There are a whole bunch of factors that go into why players are choosing one entity over the other, but we are have seen most of the legacy big names (and pro tennis players) go with the PPA and the newer guard with MLP. Really, the biggest factor in these decisions come down to money, but when the money is close most players are opting to go with the people they trust more.
This may oversimplify matters, but the PPA prioritizing a select group of players over equality for the greater good might be hurting them in a big way. However, the biggest thing to make MLP the current leaders were the coups of Tyson McGuffin and Riley Newman from the PPA. No matter what the reasons are for the PPA being behind right now, it has left the PPA with a lot of “cap space” and pushed them into a situation where they have likely overpaid substantially for their recent signings such as Tina Pisnik.
MLP still has a significant majority of the better talent signed with the biggest holdouts still being the Johnson siblings and Dylan Frazier. The other wrinkle is that it is becoming fairly public knowledge that a good number of PPA announced players have not signed new, binding contracts, which does not appear to be the case for the MLP announced players. The word is that PPA players have signed Letters of Intent whereas MLP players have signed binding contracts.
There is potential for players to flip on both sides as the two entities continue to talk to everyone, but the flipping is more of a possibility with PPA players. The biggest possible flipper who is being thrown around is one Benjamin Johns. Now, this whole leader in the clubhouse thing could change fast if the PPA can do what it did in November and lock in the Johnson’s and Frazier because the problem for Ben currently is there is no competition for him.
It would take a huge number and some creativity on MLP’s part to flip Ben over. The information we have tells us that Ben has had equity in the PPA since he signed initially so it comes down to more than loyalty to the group that has treated him so favorably over the past couple of years.
MLP could truly put a nail in the PPA coffin if they can land the big holdouts and flip one of the two players who have the ability to provide real legitimacy to MLP – Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters.
There is a lot still to unfold as the parties continue to make phone calls, negotiate and sign players. It wasn’t very long ago that the PPA was the leader in the clubhouse. MLP has flipped that script. The question is whether they can keep the momentum going.
2. Still Many Unanswered Questions – For as many answers as there are based on player signings, there are a bunch of big questions left to be answered that go beyond the remaining dominoes left to fall.
Of course, the first question is where will all the players come out in the wash? This was already discussed it in the first takeaway, but the biggest ones to watch are the reportedly signed players. Beyond Ben Johns, there could be other players wanting to make a move so they don’t get left in the dust. If the PPA really has announced some of these new signings without having players locked down, it could mean more movement is set to come. Of course, JW and Dylan are as meaningful as anyone right now.
What happens for the rest of 2023? The PPA was supposed to have equity in MLP as a result of the intended merger agreed to in principle back in November 2022. It also resulted in PPA owner, Tom Dundon, and PPA Commissioner, Connor Pardoe, being provided with ownership of separate MLP teams, the Seattle Pioneers and Utah Black Diamonds.
We already had a season 2 draft for MLP, but we may have a chunk of the best players exclusive to the PPA. We also have a ton of previous PPA gold card players locked into MLP deals. Will the PPA run their pro events with or without the MLP exclusive players for 2023?
Connor Pardoe responded to a random Facebook post at about 2:00 am EST on Monday, August 28th that their next in Cincinnati will be “BIG”. Pardoe loves his cryptic social media messages so it’s hard to say what that means exactly. Unsurprisingly, his comment means there is an intention to continue business as usual on the PPA Tour going forward.
Could there still be a merger between the PPA and MLP? You can’t rule it out. It almost happened before when no one thought it would. The arms race caused MLP to feel backed into a corner and they traded equity for peace. A merger is far less likely to happen in August 2023, but it can’t be ruled out entirely. We have also heard some very unconfirmed rumblings there are discussions happening between the APP Tour and MLP, but we can’t give those rumblings any more credence than speculation at this point.
This leads to whether pro pickleball will be fragmented going forward. Fans were the big winners when the PPA and MLP allegedly merged. The prevailing wisdom the past few days is that the fans are big losers because we won’t see the best talent all in one place.
First off, we don’t know that pro pickleball will be as fragmented as everyone is assuming it will be. The player signings announced may not be the foregone conclusion that a signing announcement should be so let’s wait and see there.
Even if it is fragmented, can we really be so sure that is a loss for fans? So much depends on how this plays out because the other way this could go is that it makes the future of pro pickleball better than ever.
We describe this as the Tour Wars and the reality of a war is that one side ends up winning. Even if no one wins the war after this battle, it may have put the wheels in motion for one entity to be the main tour/league. Regardless of which entity prevails, the best thing for pro pickleball is likely one entity prevailing when all is said and done, and some short term fragmented paid could be the best long term gain. It forces improvement and creativity, whether it is the PPA or MLP.
What about legal issues? Breach of contract for former PPA, now MLP, players is being thrown around so casually. There are also questions between MLP and the PPA regarding the intention to merge and the agreements made to that effect. It’s dangerous to speculate on legal issues with having such a small part of the picture, but it’s safe to say there is a good chance legal issues will arise. Whether the legal issues spill over into impacting the product on court is a whole other can of worms.
These are only some of the bigger unknowns we have brought up. There are many other pieces to this largely unfinished puzzle.
3. Backing up the Brinks Truck for the Players – One thing that is certain in all of this is that pro pickleball players are giant winners as a result of this. We had concerns that the gravy train would slow down following the MLP and PPA truce, but it has been the complete opposite. So many players are receiving lifestyle changing money relative to their standing in pro pickleball, from stars to fringe pros.
Just look at all the pros who have signed what are supposed to be guaranteed, multi-year deals. The past couple of years, any financial guarantees players have had have been in the form of appearance fees. To have the stability that comes from a guaranteed contract is a major shift, and changes the game for players across the sport. Pro pickleball has become more of a full-time job and now it can be that for so many more players.
With all this money being thrown around, there are people asking where all the money is coming from? With pro pickleball currently operating as a negative return on investment endeavor, how can either the PPA or MLP be affording to pay players 6 and 7 figures over the next 3 years?
It is a fair question to ask, but it is likely only relevant for the entity that falls short in this saga. If MLP “succeeds”, they have the benefit of a previous influx of cash flow from investors banking on pro franchises being the wave of the future. Not to mention that MLP has a roster of very rich people who should understand that MLP is a long-term ROI play. If the PPA “succeeds”, Tom Dundon has his amateur side investments that supplement the investment in the pro game, and he would probably be willing to keep the train chugging so long as the pro side is more secure.
At the end of the day, the amateur side of pickleball is probably the surest bet financially and both entities involved have big stakes on that side of the coin (MLP has DUPR and PPA has Pickleball Central and the tournament software).
Beyond the competition concerns, a bigger fear for players could be for those who choose the wrong side. If one of the entities folds, where does that leave the players who chose the entity that doesn’t survive? This is what also could cause players to flip one way or the other. Not wanting to be left behind.
It is also unclear what this situation means for new players and how either entity is going to handle up and coming talent that will want to be paid in accordance with market value. Josh Gartman, new GM of the DC Pickleball Team, described this situation as NBA free agency on steroids. We have seen in past NBA free agencies that unique circumstances have led to unsustainable pay days for players (think Allen Crabbe and Chandler Parsons in 2016). This could be the same for pro pickleball, albeit with very different circumstances. It is pretty much impossible for these salaries to be sustainable going forward when the pro game doesn’t make money.
No matter what, it appears that playing pro pickleball, without supplementing income elsewhere, will be a viable career for more than a handful of players over the next three years and potentially beyond. That’s not anything that players should have been banking on at the start of the year.
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