The ‘Johnson 5’, as some are calling them, finally announced their decision today and they went with MLP. Of course, the news was announced about an hour after our mailbag was posted. Fear not! The mailbag contemplated the two potential scenarios and the answers to the questions are still applicable following the news. So check out our first mailbag! Thanks for the questions.
Let’s get into the news. The five players in the Johnson 5 consist of JW Johnson, Jorja Johnson, Dylan Frazier, Gabe Tardio and Milan Rane. All of the players are friends who regularly train together, and share an agent, so it was widely thought that they were a package deal of sorts. They became the hottest commodities in pro pickleball after another wave of signings resulted in a divide of the top talent between the PPA and MLP.
The below graphic put together by Maggie Remynse shows why those players were so important, especially to the PPA. The crew of 5 comprised all of the remaining talent that was still unsigned outside of Jessie Irvine, who remains a free agent.
JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier, two of the top 5 men’s doubles players, were the key cogs in this battle but they were a package deal, which made the entire Johnson 5 more sought after than anyone could have ever imagined imagine a pro pickleball player not named Ben Johns or Anna Leigh Waters could be at the beginning of 2023. The Johnson 5 represented a crucial symbol of talent legitimacy for each tour.
It resulted in a bizarre bidding war between the PPA and MLP to lock in the Johnson 5. We are talking about silly, monopoly type money being offered to the kids that also somehow felt absolutely necessary for both sides.
Had the PPA landed the Johnson 5, they would have been able to claim having about half of the top ten men and women in sport, along with boasting the headliners, in Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters. The Johnson 5 would have likely meant a stalemate for the PPA that could have put them back on more or less equal footing with MLP at the negotiating table.
Instead the PPA has the headliners, but they have no supporting cast and seem to heading to a rather boring script for 2024 if they run next season with only the players they have announced and whoever else wants to pay a pro registration fee.
For MLP, the Johnson 5 symbolize a giant leg up in the Tour Wars. MLP obviously does not have the number one man or woman in the sport currently, which prevented them from landing a complete knockout in the Tour Wars. Nevertheless, they now control the majority of the talent in the sport and should be able to showcase a good quality product.
The most interesting part of this bidding war for us is that it sounds like the PPA was attempting to pull out all of the stops for the Johnson 5, as they have been with quite a few of the players out there. However, like many others, the Johnson 5 opted to sign with MLP.
It seems that many of these decisions for players came down to trust, and the majority of players trusted Steve Kuhn and MLP more than they trusted Connor Pardoe, Tom Dundon and the PPA. The PPA giving the superstar treatment to certain players to operate under different rules has let them keep their two stars, for now, but it proved costly with many other players.
We have heard multiple reports of players leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars or more on the table to sign with MLP over the PPA. 3 years is a long time and this doesn’t happen unless trust is completely broken. It doesn’t help during the process when the PPA does things like announce Riley Newman as being signed PPA before he was actually signed either.
So what comes next? Where does everyone go from here?
While many are proclaiming that MLP has won the war, we think the war is likely far from over, but they have certainly won the battle land for the first time probably have the upper hand on the PPA. The PPA’s big advantage the last few years has been that they have moved first to secure talent, and that has given them a big advantage over the other tours. This time, MLP moved first to secure the talent and it gave them a major advantage over the PPA.
The PPA is also now in a position where Ben and Anna Leigh have them over a barrel because they can’t afford to lose them. In addition, the PPA are also going to be hard pressed to keep them happy and relevant with the limited competition around them.
We will have to watch things closely, but it would not be shocking to see the PPA and MLP try to reach a peace treaty of sorts. What that’s going to look like is a mystery to us with so many egos fighting for supremacy in this world where pickleball pros are suddenly being paid kind of like a mainstream pro athlete. At least, they are for the time being.
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