The line in the sand has officially been drawn.
The APP announced Saturday morning that they had entered into a strategic partnership with Major League Pickleball with the details of the partnership to be announced during the APP’s 2021 season-ending tournament in Boca Raton in a couple of weeks (yes, 2021 season ending tournament in 2022. This was done in response to Tom Dundon’s purchase of the PPA, Pickleball Tournaments and Pickleball Central.
This strategic partnership came together after talks between the PPA and MLP, failed, and by most accounts failed badly. Our understanding of those discussions is that MLP was pushing to allow for more player freedom didn’t really go anywhere and the PPA has held firm on their stance of their contracted players are limited to one non-PPA pickleball event per year (i.e. US Open, Nationals, MLP, or any other non-PPA tournament).
What this meant for the APP and MLP is that something had to be done, and they are deciding to do it together. The survival of the APP Tour was almost immediately in jeopardy as soon as these exclusive contracts were being presented to players. A lack of star players would make it very difficult to run a pro tour. So this strategic partnership has to be a big win for them, as it would appear to help keep them in the game.
It is also sounding like the APP and MLP have chosen to play hardball with the PPA as we understand the players are being told if they sign the new 3-year PPA deal, they won’t be able to play MLP. They have little choice but to play this strategy either, given the stance the PPA is taking.
Of course, the PPA is playing the hardest of balls back as they announced Saturday evening “Team Pickleball Events” that will include “drafting, team owners, big-time sponsors, a unique format, and a first-class broadcast coverage and TV distribution.” So…the PPA basically announced they are doing MLP without MLP. More announcements are slated to come on February 1st but you have to expect this was their plan all along, which would explain why there wasn’t a need to work with MLP.
At this point, it appears very likely we’re going to have a significant divide between the two tours.
It became clear pretty quickly after the purchase of the PPA was announced, along with the purchases of Pickleball Central and Pickleball Tournaments that Dundon had his eyes on the big picture, when it comes to pickleball. Since Dundon has come into the picture, the PPA has been pushing players, including their already 2022 contracted players, to sign 3-year contracts with strict exclusivity provisions.
This makes sense from Dundon’s perspective, since the greatest asset the PPA has is its players, and if they only have them locked in for one year, it’s not a great asset. While it is still unclear who has signed the new contracts, we’re hearing that some of the big guns including Ben Johns, Tyson McGuffin, Riley Newman, Lucy Kovalova and Matt Wright are all-in with the PPA. We also understand that many of the contracts are individualized, with guaranteed money etc., so we will reserve judgment on the contracts for now.
With all that has been going on behind the scenes, there’s a lot more that is going to come out in the wash. Some PPA players will likely come around to signing this new contract. Some are going to stick with their 1-year deals and make their decisions later. Some players will go to the APP. And we are hearing that there are even some players who have been announced as PPA players that may not end up there as there hasn’t been an official pen to paper yet.
At least in the short term, all of this chaos is great for players in theory. They have multiple entities pitted against each other vying for their services. The APP has had to up its game and now has substantially more financial backing. Billionaires who need you means more money for these players. Both sides, because there are obviously two sides at this point, pushing all their chips into the middle of the table makes players hotter commodities than they have ever been before. This is why if we were players, we would be hesitant to make long term commitments while these wars play out.
Unfortunately, we don’t see this divide as good for the sport as a whole. In our view, it’s clearly a loss for fans of the sport, most of whom just want to watch some damn pickleball and don’t care about any of this drama. We’re going to have fewer best on best matchups, most notably with MLP and the PPA’s copy of MLP where some of the very best players in the game will be missing. There was nothing proprietary about MLP but the effect of having multiple team events takes away the novelty, which was its best asset. There’s a reason the Davis Cup (tennis), Ryder Cup and President’s Cup (golf) don’t happen multiple times a year.
For where the game is at now, growth should be the goal for everyone involved but that’s almost certainly far too idealistic.
It’s not a plus for the sport when there’s a divide. With the financial backing that the APP has now, there’s going to be enough quality players to give the APP the legitimacy it needs to continue on. The PPA will likely continue to be the premiere tour for the time being and you will get some best on best matchups as the APP players probably, for now at least, won’t be restricted from playing PPA events. But what is to come next year when the 1-year PPA deals expire? Will they stay with the PPA? Play as free agents on the APP? Players have to decide and what you end up getting is a watered-down product for both tours as well as for MLP and PPA’s Team Event.
The APP had to act quickly for the pros who were on the fence about a massive career decision for themselves and they have found a way to do it. It also sounds like the APP has more announcements on the way regarding stipends, prize money, and potentially more partners, so there going to be a lot to sort out in the coming weeks. As noted, the PPA will have more about their “Team Event” in February and you would have to think other plans are in the works.
There is still a lot more information to be revealed and we’re probably never going to have all the answers to all the questions out in the abyss. One thing that is certain is that the pickleball world continues to evolve at a rapid pace.
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