We started our last article about Vibe Pickleball and Major League Pickleball asking if you all could keep up. Well, there’s more to keep up with as Wednesday afternoon it was announced that there will be a merger between MLP and Vibe. Yes, a merger. This is happening less than two weeks after the Vibe Pickleball League made its first cryptic appearance on social media and about a week after it was announced that JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier were defecting to Vibe from MLP.
The merger between the two leagues, if you can even consider Vibe a league, means that Vibe will essentially be folding, and the two leagues will continue under the “Major League Pickleball” brand name. With the player auction getting underway last week, it is evident that the two sides have decided to make nice to avoid an ongoing bidding war for players. There are very few rich people out there that can accept the LIV golf tour model and it appears the competing sides have determined a compromise makes more sense for everyone.
This has to be the one of the more bizarre sequence of events that anyone could have conjured up. The JW and Dylan move seemingly portrayed that Vibe was created as a legitimate competitive entity to MLP. However, it is now far murkier whether Vibe was simply a big-time power play to force MLP’s hand to cooperate further, or whether the action of founding Vibe indirectly led to the billionaires all playing in the sandbox together. Ultimately, the why of Vibe doesn’t really matter because the end result is that the PPA have put themselves in a better spot than they were a couple of months ago as they are no longer completely on the outside of the team pickleball concept – whether the competition of Vibe was legitimate or not.
The announcement of the merger was scarce on public details. The Boardroom reported that there are going to be 24 teams, presumably a combination of current MLP owners, the to be announced Vibe owners and additional MLP owners. We are hearing that there are still details to be worked out such as format, PPA player availability, and franchising players. The other question is whether MLP is going to stick with their old format or continue with some version of their new combination of standard tournament and team format.
Our overall sentiment about the merger is that it is good for the pickleball. The tour wars going into a full-fledged arms race was creating a bigger fracture than most were reasonably anticipating so it’s good that there is only partial fracturing rather than a full-on break. A ceasefire creates more stability for the time being and hopefully will allow the sport to grow without the in-fighting controversy. Importantly, we are going to see all the best players in one place competing against one another.
While it may be good for players long-term that pickleball is hopefully in a more stable position, it is undoubtedly a loss for players in the short-term as they have lost a lot of the leverage they had. The pickleball world was possibly heading towards an insane bidding war where some of the 2nd and 3rd tier players, especially the women, could have been making far above market value dollars for showing up to events. Also, how happy can JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier be right now? They could not have known this was going to happen when they signed with Vibe last week and now, they are forced back into the randomness of the MLP shuffle again, albeit with a lot more guaranteed money.
Even though we think it’s good for long-term stability that the entities aren’t trying to go shot for shot on players, there are still real questions about how the overall pickleball product is going to look next year. It’s arguable the merger changes very little from a big picture standpoint. The PPA still has a chunk of players on exclusive contracts and those players are unlikely to be playing APP events. The tournament landscape may end up looking quite similar to 2022 with a limited amount of crossover between APP/MLP and PPA players at tournaments, which we continue to believe is a negative for fans of the sport and growing the game.
In addition, we’re going to have an MLP product where there are suddenly 24 teams. Sure, the PPA players being added to the mix will increase the depth of the MLP pool, but the product has to suffer after all of this, doesn’t it? Removing the issue of finding 48 quality men and 48 quality women for the league, how is anyone supposed to keep track of what is going on? Not only do we have 24 teams playing at an event, but we also have drafts, adds, drops and trades to keep up with. We already felt like 12 teams was too many when MLP expanded in 2022 and now we’re doubling that. While it may not matter for securing broadcasting deals and that sort of thing, this may not be ideal from the perspective of hooking in more casual observers with the confusion of players, teams, and whatever format they decide on for MLP. On the plus side, it’s mega content heaven for NML Pickleball.
If teams didn’t think they needed General Managers to run their teams before, they should be thinking hard about that now. The player pool suddenly gets a lot deeper with 24 teams and there is going to be a lot more deep diving that has to be done with all of these players legitimately in the mix to be drafted by an MLP team.
With all the Vibe and MLP hoopla, the APP is also flying more under the radar than ever. We love to give opinions, but it is hard for us to determine if this is a win or a loss for the APP. The PPA allowing their players to go deeper into the water of non-PPA events could mean they are less motivated going forward to prevent its players from going to APP events. There will always be new players coming into the game, so it’ll be interesting to monitor whether the less flashy, tortoise type of approach to growth of a tour is a sustainable model in the environment created by the PPA. The free agent model has paid dividends for guys like JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier.
On the flip side, it is equally as likely that the APP ends up getting lost in the shuffle of the tour wars within the next couple of years, particularly if PPA can sign players who are now more apt to give up control with the ability to play MLP. So much depends on what the more specific financial considerations are for each player but there are many questions that have to be answered beyond the financials.
Are there enough players willing trade their autonomy away for financial security despite all that’s happened over the past year? Does a merger wipe the memory of players to the point they forget how poorly the PPA has treated non-contracted players throughout the year? Will the PPA start treating non-contracted players better with the merger in place?
Heck, does the PPA have any real incentive to offer more exclusive contracts to players anymore? The APP is still out there but, without competing MLP money, the PPA can worry far less about locking down more players. They still have a good chunk of the top talent and other players are going to want to play their events because perception still matters. The smartest thing for the PPA to do could be to focus on growing prize pools instead of spending that money on players.
It’s clear from the above screenshot of the social media post from PPA Commissioner, Connor Pardoe, that the PPA has no intention of the APP being any sort of competitor. Pardoe is presenting this as the sport finally finding clarity but that proclamation discounts how quickly things can change in this sport. With Dundon having a stake in MLP, the PPA has all the incentive to promote MLP’s product, which could very well leave the APP behind. The merger undoubtedly puts the PPA in a better position than a few months ago but a self-proclamation of the PPA being the “official pro tour” does not automatically make it so.
It would obviously be best if everyone wanted to let the players decide for themselves where they want to play and let the chips fall where they may, but that’s not the way the PPA ever wanted to do this. They continue to play their cards close to the vest and the Vibe situation is the latest example that the only rules out there are jungle rules. The ceasefire has halted things temporarily but it’s clear that no one out there can rest on their laurels. Somebody somewhere is working on something to put themselves ahead of the game. Who will make the next move?
Who knows, but we might actually have a reprieve for a little while before we see the next chapter of the tour wars saga play itself out.
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