Can you keep up? It’s getting nuts out there. We are running out of words to describe the constantly shifting landscape, so we won’t even try to describe it today. Instead, let’s just talk about it.
Darren Rovell, who may be looking to become a pickleball Adrian Wojnarowski of sorts, broke the news on Twitter Tuesday morning that JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier have committed to play in the Vibe Pickleball League (Vibe). Mr. Rovell broke more news on Thursday morning that Mark Cuban will be the first owner for the new Vibe league. The PPA also posted an article on their website officially announcing some more details about Vibe, including that there will be 6 teams as well as adds, drops and trades similar to MLP.
We had some thoughts on the cryptic announcement of Vibe on Saturday as well as some additional thoughts in our takeaways on Monday. A couple of the big questions that we had were regarding the investment of the PPA behind their Vibe endeavor as well as whether the PPA would be able to secure high end non-PPA talent to play in Vibe.
It appears those two questions have been answered.
The Mark Cuban news is undoubtedly a positive for Vibe, but it does not move needle the way that the JW and Frazier news does. It is a major coup for the PPA to lock down Johnson and Frazier, particularly JW, who avoided playing most of the PPA tournaments after some poor treatment of him as a non-contracted PPA player earlier in the year. However, with a new year comes new possibilities and Vibe has suddenly been able to turn the tides of the tour wars in their favor.
By holding out at the start of the year, JW and Dylan have put themselves in a fabulous spot where competing tours were bidding for the right to have them play. Despite MLP being in the driver’s seat, they somehow lost the battle to secure two of the brightest non-PPA contracted stars that could lead to a domino effect that up-ends everything MLP has been building in 2022.
It would be a mistake for us to completely write off MLP after a couple of pieces of news considering how fast the entire landscape is shifting. Clearly, we have no idea what is going to happen. However, there’s no mincing words that this sudden change is bad for MLP and very good for the PPA and Vibe. By allowing Vibe to come in and scoop two of the top men, it immediately legitimizes Vibe and pushes the narrative that MLP is more minor league than major league. Ownership groups be damned.
From an outside perspective, it seems MLP has not done enough to secure players and it may be costing them. It does not matter who your owners are if you don’t have the product to back it up. While it would be shocking if JW and Frazier signed away all their rights to play other events like the other PPA players have, we are hearing that Vibe committed players will not be able to compete in MLP as well.
It feels like forever ago that the first MLP event happened in 2021 with all the best players involved and only 8 teams. So, it is easy to forget that JW and Frazier had a very bad experience together at that first MLP event. 2022 was not much better for the two young guys as as outside of the first MLP event in Austin, there was little success to be had between them on their respective teams.
In general, an issue we did not anticipate with MLP is the frustration players would have with not being able to play with who they want to. Compensation must have been a key concern and when you have someone like Rafa Hewett making close to $60K from MLP this year while JW is making somewhere in the $20K range, that probably did not sit well with players. In other team sports, good players on bad teams still get paid lots of money to lose. The democratic approach to payouts for MLP players may have created a top notch product but it may have left its most important players unsatisfied.
There have been quite a few rumblings going around about how players have not been happy with the new format change for MLP, which was supposed to be MLP’s answer to top players being stuck on weaker teams. We also have to think the prospect of being franchised by their respective teams was not appealing from a controlling their own destinies standpoint. Obviously for JW and Dylan, the changes to MLP, in spite of whatever else MLP may have been offering to them, was either not enough to keep them around or it actively pushed them away.
Moreover, by leaning into the freedom player model, MLP exposed the players still in their camp to possibility that the PPA would simply put up too much money than a reasonable human would be willing to turn down. For better or for worse, the PPA changed the rules of the game last year by setting the bar at guaranteed money and exclusive contracts, and it does not appear that MLP shifted its mindset enough to do what it takes in the environment created by the PPA.
Whether the PPA slow played MLP or made the move to start up Vibe in response to MLP’s format change, it’s apparent that the PPA is doing a good job of pivoting and making important strategic decisions quickly. Not only has MLP failed to secure any PPA contracted players for the time being, but they have also now lost a couple of its top players with the possibility of more to come. If Vibe can find a way to begin securing some of the top female free agents, there will be little doubt that their event(s) should have all the eyeballs.
Vibe has not announced how many players each team will consist of but, assuming they copy MLP’s format, their product will primarily consist of PPA players most likely. Depending on how many non-PPA players Vibe can get, the hardcore fans could be left wanting more from what could amount to a higher stakes PPA exhibition. From a league building standpoint, 6 teams ensures that the PPA keeps the quality of its product high and marketable to potential sponsors and media partners. In our opinion, Vibe has made a savvy, calculated choice to keep their product to 6 teams for their inaugural season. In addition to avoiding a watered-down player pool, Vibe should also be able to have a relatively strong ownership group, headlined by Mark Cuban.
On the other hand, MLP’s rapid expansion from 8 to 12 and now 16 teams for 2023 is looking to be more problematic than ever. MLP wanted to have their cake and it eat it too, but now there might be far too much cake to go around. Jorja Johnson is an obvious female who could jump ship as the Johnson’s are such a tight knit family. If you start losing players like Jorja Johnson, Anna Bright and Parris Todd, what level of talent is going to be left for MLP?
The PPA has not been shy in their pursuit of Parris Todd since her singles win over Anna Leigh Waters in San Clemente. This may be looking too deeply at a simple social media post, but we thought it was interesting that Parris Todd and Kamryn Blackwood attended a concert Wednesday evening with an Instagram story from Blackwood suggesting that they were hanging out in a Hertz suite (see screenshot above). Of course, Hertz is a big sponsor for the PPA for those who are not aware.
Going forward, we still think the biggest long-term question for the viability of pro pickleball may very well be the lack of a foundational fan base. We don’t know exactly what Vibe threw at JW or Frazier, but this is not going to be the last time we see substantial dollars tossed at players without the prospect of any sort of immediate return on investment. How long can these organizations operate in the red for before the ones footing the bill get tired of losing money?
That is a bigger question for a different day though because, in one fell swoop, the PPA and Vibe have vaulted themselves in the driver’s seat of the ‘tour wars’. To think, all of this has happened in the span of a few days with limited details having been publicly announced by Vibe. With plenty more announcements to be made, it’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World out there.
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