Appearance Fees, Exclusivity and the Potential Impact on Pro Pickleball

📸 Adapted from PPA Instagram Story

This post was written prior to information we had received about Tom Dundon and the purchase of the PPA. We decided to post this in its originally drafted form and have a follow-up post with thoughts on the more up to date information.

Authored by Slim

Ever since it became public that the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) was contracting players in exchange for a significant degree of exclusivity, there has been a lot of chatter in the pickleball world about the topic of appearance fees and how it differentiates the PPA from the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) Tour. In addition to the ongoing pro tour debate, a complementary topic is the price of pro pickleball, which Rob Nunnery documented extensively in his two-part Facebook posts in 2021 (part 1 here, part 2 here). In an effort to respond to the PPA’s appearance fee model for players, the APP has tried to implement a stipend for the top players on its cumulative standings list. The stipends essentially amount to a frequent flyer, merit-based appearance fee for the regular APP Tour players.

What seems to get lost in the whole appearance fee, cost of pro pickleball discussion is that what is good for an individual player isn’t necessarily good for the larger pool of players. In turn, what is good for an individual tour, isn’t necessarily good for the greater game of pickleball. 

Professional beach volleyball player turned pickleball addict, Casey Patterson, discussed his view appearance in beach volleyball when he appeared on the Freestyle Boys podcast.

My two primary issues with appearance fees are that (1) they create a further barrier to entry to aspiring full-time pro players as well as new pro players and (2) when they make up a significant portion of the “prize pool” as they currently do for the PPA, it does to a certain extent hurt the competitive product on the court. 

We have mentioned it in passing in some of our posts but something that may not be widely known by the casual pickleball fan is that when the PPA announces their prize pool for a tournament, this includes the appearance fees they are paying to their contracted players. Last year, appearance fees formed approximately half of the prize pool in tournaments. This means that a $75,000 advertised prize pool is only paying out $37,500 in prize money to participating pros. Ironically, their appearance fees give the PPA the appearance of bigger prize pools. With at least 22 pro players under contract this year, one would have to expect a similar equal distribution between appearance fees and actual prize money available to be won. I am also curious if, with more players being under contract this year, the actual prize pool is going to diminish further.

This creates two problems for players. The first being that the PPA does not pay down very far, often only to third place, and the prizes are quite small (for example, $375 for third place in singles). The fact that the payouts don’t go very far down in placings means it is very difficult for new players to make any prize money as naturally the players regularly filling up the podium spots are going to be the contracted players.  A further problem is the smaller prize money pool likely creates less motivation for players from tournament to tournament and it almost certainly creates less incentive for players to battle all day. Something we saw play out with withdrawals last year, most notably one Benjamin Johns. If a top player who is already making $5,000 just for showing up, gets knocked down to the loser’s side of the draw, they have very little incentive to keep competing and financially it honestly does not make sense for them to risk injury and wear and tear on the body for the rest of the tournament as well as the entire season. On the flip side, if a player has no guaranteed pay or significantly less guaranteed pay, but third place paid, say $2,500 and fifth place paid $1,000, you can bet that they would still be out there competing hard.

While I may have these issues with appearance fees and would have some concerns if I was player about the potential long-term implications on the game and player compensation, it would be pretty damn hard for me to say no, if I was a second-tier pro player reportedly being offered between $2,500 to $3,500 guaranteed per tournament for 20 tournaments. $50,000 to $65,000 guaranteed a year in pickleball is huge money right now and you aren’t just going to be able to go somewhere else and get that. At a minimum, you would have to work very hard to earn that kind of money on the APP Tour.

With that being said, my concern as a player would be, if the APP were to go out of business, what incentive would the PPA have to keep paying these appearance fees? And would they even really have incentive to kick these into the prize pool? I think players like Ben Johns, Tyson McGuffin and Anna Leigh Waters, would likely still have significant leverage to negotiate appearance fees with the tour, but what incentive would a tour have to pay a Patrick Smith or Callan Dawson $2500-3000 to show up, if they aren’t vying with another tour for those players. Without another legitimate tour those players really wouldn’t have leverage.

Although I may not agree with appearance fees, I cannot say that I would have necessarily done differently if I were running a tour. If I were running a tour, I would want to have the best players playing all of my events. Personally, I still think this could have been done, by offering the biggest payouts, the best venues and the best exposure. However, people love exclusivity and I have to think the PPA’s goal was to put their APP rivals out of business. At this point, with the latest rounds of PPA signings, I have little doubt that’s exactly what their goal is. I have a hard time seeing the business benefits of offering some of the contracts they are currently offering, other than trying to starve APP of name players. As I said above, if I was player, this would give me significant pause about the long-term implications even though I don’t know how you say no when each player is out there fighting on their own.

When the PPA initially announced that they were going to offer contracts to players I thought based on the numbers they were offering, that it would make little sense for most players to sign the contract and give up their earning potential by limiting the number of outside tournaments they could play. However, it seems the PPA quickly increased the amounts they were willing to pay players and made it too good of a deal for pros to turn down. As a player, I would still have been hesitant to give exclusivity to one tour, but it is only a one-year contract, so you aren’t limiting yourself too greatly, and if it makes sense financially you pretty much have to do it.

The APP initially seemed to try and stay out of the appearance fee game. I think that this was a mistake on the part of the APP tour, even if their intentions in doing so were pure. Once, it became apparent that the PPA was making this an arms race for players, they needed to find a way to corner a certain market of the players, such as the second tier of female players. Instead, they waited a long time to introduce a stipend system that does not come close to matching what the PPA has demonstrated it can offer its players. I think waiting towards the end of 2021, to announce their 2022 stipend system, was particularly harmful, as it made it late in the game for players to decide where they were going to play the majority of their 2022 season. They are also requiring a minimum number of six APP tournaments players must play to be eligible for their top tier events along with some wildcards available for those who haven’t played the minimum six. This seems to be an attempt to keep out the PPA signed players and give players an incentive to play their events. Not coincidentally, six was the number of non-PPA events the PPA players were allowed to play in 2021. Unfortunately, I think this only hurts their tournaments and again creates another barrier for lower level and new pro players. The other option for the APP could have been to forego the stipend money altogether and redistribute it towards making prize pools even bigger. It should be noted that the APP stipends are not included in their announced prize pool, so a $50,000 prize pool is $50,000 available for players to be won – the APP does pay significantly more to the senior pros from that prize pool though.

Ideally, I think the best thing for the infant professional sport of pickleball would have been to have two pro tours competing free market style against one another to have the largest tournaments, with the biggest payouts, trying to attract new sponsors to the game and create the best pickleball experience. I think from the tours’ perspectives, while appearance fees may lead to short term gains, they are really harming themselves long term, by creating significant barriers of entry for aspiring and newer pro players. A relatively new sport like pickleball ideally should have few barriers of entry in order to encourage talented players to pursue it, which should lead to a higher level product. Also, sports in general always need to be growing the next generation of players. Players, at this point, should want competing tours who are working to grow prize pools and sponsorship opportunities to entice players both new and old to play their tournaments, as that should lead to the bigger prize pools and tournaments in the long run, with a greater percentage of revenue being paid out to the players. The reality is, unfortunately, we don’t live in a utopian society and that ship has likely sailed, unless the players were to band together in a true association form, which seems very unlikely.

All of this is to say that I have significant concerns about the effects of appearance fees and exclusivity contracts at this stage of pickleball. It seems this has created a bit of a carnival funhouse mirror illusion that pickleball is farther ahead than it really is as a professional sport in the grand scheme of everything. But as long as these appearance fees are in the best interests of individual players and tours, I do not see anything changing soon and I have to hope that my worst-case scenarios don’t play out as I fear they might.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at

10 thoughts on “Appearance Fees, Exclusivity and the Potential Impact on Pro Pickleball

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  • January 2, 2022 at 6:51 am

    The WWE model comes to mind!

  • January 2, 2022 at 7:56 am

    From a name recognition and skill perspective, APP was already a bit of a farm team league. Maybe the best way forward is to embrace that, allow it to be the tour where new talent can emerge, and have signing with the PPA be the goal of players on the APP.

    Also, it seems clear that *something* big had to happen this year. Is this the absolute best move for the future of pro pickleball? Maybe not, but it genuinely seems better than muddling through 2022 with 50+ (?) pro tournaments across the two tours.

  • January 2, 2022 at 9:01 am

    it doesn’t make sense to me that the 1 year contracts could be torn up because the tour was sold. it makes sense that the tour was sold with existing contracts in place. after all that’s why they call a contract a contract. If a private equity company buys a grocery store chain they don’t rip up the labor contracts. They Honor them.

    However, it does make sense to me that the new owner would offer a 3 year contract to a player that signed a 1 year contract already —- if they agree to tear up the old one. Why would a player like this arrangement? Because it guarantees that player could make a living for 3 full years, instead of the 1, doing what that player lovers to do. So I can see why a player would wish to sign a 3 year deal. Players invariably sign long term contracts when they are offered over short term ones.

    I think the next step here is to INCENTIVIZE the owner of the APP tour to either merge with the PPA, or Sell to the PPA. The new owner of the PPA has deep pockets and is likely presenting “godfather” offers to to PPC PPT and PPA tour former owners. His goal is to gain a monopoly position in the sport, at what hopefully is the take off point for Pro Pickleball and rec pickleball. One tour would make his position virtually unassailable.

    I don’t know how they are going to do it. But I expect there to be ONE major tour from Pro Pickleball no later than 2023. As for this being bad for players, it’s debatable.

    Think about a new player contemplating a career in pro pickleball. He now sees real money being made by the top players in the sport. He now sees long term contracts being handed out. He now sees the very top players making BIG money. My belief is that there will be NO lack of new players wanting the chance and seeing the opportunity to make pickleball their career, and perhaps a lucrative one.

    • January 2, 2022 at 5:08 pm

      Our understanding is that the contracts still stand but they are pressuring them to sign new ones. Although we have heard info that the old ones are null and void, which wouldn’t make sense as you said

      A player may want guarantees but it’s problematic for most players in our view.

      The APP is a whole different question with a shift in landscape. We’ll have to see what happens

  • January 2, 2022 at 11:52 am

    Another idea would be to have the APP become the senior tour… they’re already headed in that direction with having two separate senior “pro” categories/payouts with the super senior stuff.

    • January 2, 2022 at 5:09 pm

      Is there enough interest in a senior tour? That’s a big concern if you do that

      • January 4, 2022 at 10:20 am

        Maybe not? But if there’s not enough interest in a senior tour, why are both tours paying 30-40% of their prize money to the senior pro events? 😬

        • January 5, 2022 at 12:17 pm

          They still form a significant amount of the prize money for pros so from that standpoint they are somewhat essential still at least

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