Reaction to Sports Illustrated’s Pickleball Piece – Fact Checking and Nuggets
In continuing the trend of mainstream attention for pickleball, Sports Illustrated published the first longform article about the sport from any major sports outlet. While it’s always exciting to see the sport gain notoriety, the article was fairly disappointing. There were undoubtedly some interesting nuggets in the article. However, beyond the either incomplete and/or lazy reporting from John Walters who wrote the article, the narrative choice of the article is confusing at best. Of course, that means we had to break down some of the more notable pieces of the article.
In February 2021, an unholy tremor shook the seemingly carefree sport of pickleball: news that a second hall of fame was in the planning stages.
The opening paragraph for the article begins with a banger, describing an “unholy tremor” shaking the sport of pickleball. Great line. Except, the tremor referred to is the announcement of a second hall of fame. It’s clear from the outset of the article that the writer has missed the point. Although the hall of fame issue did generate some buzz, it was not the “unholy tremor” that was described. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the article for some puzzling choices on what really matters in the sport.
The article goes on to describe the “series of turf wars” and opens with a story about the International Federation of Pickleball (IFP) “Coup De Pat”, referencing Pat Murphy, the president of the IFP. The article flips back and forth between the IFP vs. World Pickleball Federation (WPF) governing body feud, equating it with the PPA and APP drama. Understanding that Walters has a job to do as a writer to create a story that readers will care about, it is quite misleading to present the IFP vs. WPF issue as anywhere in the same stratosphere as the PPA vs. APP stuff.
What is the kitchen? Pickleball’s no-man’s-land – a rectangle box extending seven feet from the net (a full court is 44’x20’) that players may not enter unless the ball bounces there first.
In a vacuum, it doesn’t really matter how poor this kitchen description is. At the same time, it speaks to the incomplete nature of the article as Walters hasn’t even been able to find a way to properly describe how the kitchen works. As the creators of No Man’s Land pickleball, the kitchen is obviously not described as “no-man’s-land” and it is also incorrect to say that you cannot enter unless the ball bounces first.
Seymour Rifkind is a banger. “Some people think I’m a disruptor,” says the single-most disruptive force in pickleball.
Once again, we have to harp on where the narrative to this article comes from. It is evident Walters has talked to lots of people, but he has missed the pickle boat on what actually matters in the sport. These comments make it clear there isn’t any awareness of what is truly going on. Seymour Rifkind is not the single-most disruptive force in pickleball. He is not even a disruptor from our view of the current landscape.
A year later, within weeks of one another, [Pardoe and Hermann] launched their respective tours, which delineated themselves in two major way…
…The PPA signed some of the world’s top pros to one-year exclusivity contracts.
For a longform article, Walters sure skips key parts of the timeline for the ease of his narrative. There were no exclusivity contracts when the PPA started up in 2020. That didn’t happen until 2021. The PPA had its first event in February 2020 and both tours were derailed due to COVID. It’s not terribly important but it’s frustrating to read things that are flat out wrong from a brand regarded as one sports’ best journalistic entities in Sports Illustrated. It is giving the wrong narrative to the people who don’t know most of what is going on in the sport, which is almost everyone.
…In 2019, Johns’s paddle sponsor, Franklin, signed him to a $70,000 per annum deal. When that contract expired, this March, he inked a new two-year pact with Joola, for seven figures.”
Yes, we have a lot of critique of the article but there are some good nuggets if you look closely enough. When we were the first to report the Ben Johns to JOOLA news back in February, we had heard that Franklin offered Ben a seven figure contract over the course of 4 years. It’s staggering to see that Ben is getting some kind of seven figure number and only locking himself in for 2 years with JOOLA. Two years is still a fair length of time in pickleball terms but, not surprisingly, Ben positioned himself very well with JOOLA.
…”Four top players, including the women’s world No. 1, Simone Jardim, have gotten out of their PPA contracts in order to play on the APP Tour…”
There is a fair amount of discussion regarding PPA exclusivity in the article yet no mention is made that there are PPA players on the 1-year deal such as the Waters, Irina Tereschenko and AJ Koller (we are pretty sure, at least). Our understanding is that Simone Jardim (not the world No. 1 when this all played out) never signed an exclusive deal with the PPA and the only players we are aware of that have gotten out of (or are currently getting out of) PPA contracts are Lauren Stratman and Rob Nunnery. There’s only so much space in an article to tackle everything but spending so much time on irrelevant drama, and missing more pertinent details is a serious misstep from our view.
In September 2020, another female player won $400 at a PPA event. Pardoe didn’t have her prize money check that weekend. She sent two emails to the PPA that went unanswered. Five weeks passed before the player, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she confronted Pardoe about her winnings. Finally, he wrote out the check. Waved it in her face. Then pulled it back for a moment. “Here’s your check,” he said. “It’s your lucky day.” (A PPA spokesperson did not deny this exchange occurred.)
This is a pretty hilarious story. It would be interesting to see how much information got left on the cutting room floor of this article. Every so often we hear rumblings about the PPA being slow to pay people, including its players. Even Rob Nunnery talked previously on the Freestyle Boys podcast about slow payment from the PPA. This issue does not sound like it is historical for the PPA. Regardless, this story is the only reference to slow payment in the SI article, but it makes you wonder how much other information they have left out when it appears a lot of people were spoken to.
The Dink referred to this SI article as a “hit piece” in promoting their latest newsletter on Instagram. The Dink references the article as “embellished for entertainment value” in the newsletter itself. Even though there are issues we obviously have with the content of the article, it doesn’t read as a hit piece to us. We don’t have any real knowledge of the IFP/WPF stuff so those parts could be embellished, but you need storylines in an article. The thing about pickleball is that we have real, unscripted drama that goes on in pickleball and, if anything, there was a lot left out that could have made it more dramatic. Giving credit where credit is due, we think Walters did a good job capturing the tone and feel of the pickleball landscape. It would have been naive to frame the articlr as a kumbaya, everyone is just trying to do what’s best for the sport kind of world.
Of the $60,000 JW has already earned in 2022, most came from endorsements. After he defeated Johns a second time, in February, Pardoe approached him again. “What will it take to get you to sign with us?”…
…Pardoe better hurry, though. He may already be too late. Steve Kuhn has offered the Johnsons a home in Austin if they relocate to Dreamland.
Earlier in the article, it is noted JW was offered $1,000 per event in appearance fees. The fascinating part of this is that Kuhn has offered JW a place to live in Austin. Of course, the PPA wants to secure all the best players and it has to be concerning that the current number 1 individual rival to Ben Johns isn’t playing many PPA events. JW is going to do what JW does, but Kuhn is also trying to build a mecca of players in Austin. It’s clearly not just an APP vs. PPA thing. Steve Kuhn is in the mix too and is willing to pay a lot of money to keep players away from the PPA.
The most piss-and-vinegar feud in all of pickleball is Pat Murphy against Seymour Rifkind.
We don’t want to belabor this but making this out to be the fiercest rivalry in pickleball is so off base. Those guys may feel it is the biggest feud in pickleball. We’re pretty skeptical that anyone outside of their tiny circle feels the same way though.
Finally, there’s this: Tom Dundon does not actually own the Pro Pickleball Association. Not yet. A few blogs reported on January 2 that Pardoe and his family had sold a majority stake to Dundon’s private equity company. And neither Dundon nor the PPA ever disputed that. But “there’s still some paperwork left to do,” says Hannah Johns. “We should be announcing that in a couple of days.”
That was on April 29, and it’s still not official. If Dundon were to back out, it would mark the second professional sports league he left financially high and dry in the past four years.
Let’s get past the fact that Walters fails to give NML credit for being the outlet that broke the Dundon news, and on January 1st, 2022, we might add. This extract is probably the most interesting fact to come from the article. We had heard over the past little while that the PPA purchase had not been finalized by Dundon. For those of you who don’t recall, Connor Pardoe commented on our Facebook post breaking the story that our reporting was “70%” accurate. No elaboration beyond that. However, without any denials and then Dundon eventually appearing on the first iteration of the Freestyle Boys podcast, it appeared the deal was going to be final.
We do not know what is holding the sale up. Our guess is that it is due diligence. We noted this in a follow-up reporting piece after our Dundon report that it is not uncommon for due diligence to take quite some time. Nevertheless, we are surprised it is taking this long. The PPA is not that big of an organization that it should require this amount of time. We do wonder if there were some issues with due diligence and now they are haggling over price.
So there you go. Our likely too lengthy breakdown of the inadequate, half-finished feeling, but still intriguing, Sports Illustrated piece about the “Wild, Wild West” world of pickleball.
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10 thoughts on “Reaction to Sports Illustrated’s Pickleball Piece – Fact Checking and Nuggets”
Thank you for this 🙏
Thank you very much. Great information. As far as the deal w/ PPA and Dundon, maybe he’s looked more into what the PPA is and thinking it’s not what they perceive it to be. But I’m not a fan of the PPA.
Where do I get an NML hat ?
You dig, I read. More drilling time for me.
Thx for doing the work.
We’re really not sure. Only speculating
I liked the article despite their omissions and shortcuts. I didn’t read anything that actually sounded harmful to the sport. Certainly nothing garnering “hit piece” as a description. The reference to the “preeminent blog” was pretty funny.
I hope for the PPA players sake who signed the contract deal expecting great things from Dundon that the deal finally goes through.
And yeah there were some juicy nuggets in the article that I didn’t know about – probably why I liked the article. And I would never have known about the article without *THIS* blog post.
Nothing harmful. There’s always drama.
Hardly even noticed the preeminent blog reference 😉
There are still options for players if PPA doesn’t work out but there’s nothing to say they are anywhere close to folding right now.
And thanks Jan. Juicy nuggets for sure from just another blog haha!
I did like the article, but I agree with your main criticism — as someone whose been playing 4+ years, watches pro pickleball, follows PB online, participates in tourneys big and small, has taken lessons with pros (sometimes traveling to do so)…. I had never heard of the IFP or WFP!
I do remember hearing something about the HoF kerfluffle, but I was actually supportive of the USAP’s effort because at that time, I hadn’t heard a word about the first one and therefore didn’t think they were doing a very good job.
Well the article put a lot of people in a bad light. I personally thought it was unflattering but not sure if true or a story full of hearsay. If in 2022 a man is waving a check in front of a women then pulling it back and being a jerk about it , I’m surprised he is still standing
It’s probably subjective to a certain degree about the light certain people were put in
I’d take the all publicity is good publicity angle on this. The top sports magazine that a lot of us grew up with publishing a long form article on pickleball that breaks some news we didn’t know. Pretty cool.
And, I think it is understandable that they featured an angle for international audiences with the challenge of legitimizing the sport in advance of a potential Olympic appearance. Covering the involvement of the billionaires is guaranteed to help land pickleball on the desks of many movers and shakers and should lead to more corporate sponsorships and bigger purses.