Authored by Gritty
The PPA has been mostly quiet since it was purchased by Tom Dundon but the first big slice of media dropped Thursday with Tom Dundon appearing on the Freestyle Boys podcast with Ben Johns and Rob Nunnery. The interview had a very honeymoon but also guarded, political feel to it. Nevertheless, there was quite a bit that was noteworthy as the trio delved into some of the questions that a lot of us have about this situation.
The Dundon interview was put out on the same day that the MLP and APP separately made big announcements, including the APP’s new partnership with Intersport, a global sports marketing agency.
The biggest theme I gathered from the interview with Dundon was legitimacy. It has been pretty apparent to us from the little tidbits you get here and there that the players really want to be legit in a sports world that sees pickleball as kind of a joke. The Freestyle Boys alluded to this in their previous podcast recorded on January 2nd, but it was quite striking hearing the in-depth discussion about “standards” on the most recent podcast. At one point in the interview, and I am paraphrasing here, Tom Dundon essentially says the “only reason” for requiring exclusivity is to ensure a higher standard for things like production qualities, camera angles, data that is captured, amenities for the players etc. (time stamp 19:58 of the podcast).
However, in order to support that promise of more immediate legitimacy, the trade-off is exclusivity. As Dundon outlined on the podcast, the logic behind that exclusivity is that it provides assurances to sponsors and brands that they can invest their money into pickleball without concern that the most important commodities, the players, will be gone after a year. The reasoning is sound and definitely makes sense from the tour’s perspective. They don’t have a tour without players so it will be much easier to find people who want to support them financially if they can guarantee those players won’t go anywhere.
What grabbed my attention in the interview was how much discussion there was about growing pickleball for the greater good. Reading (or listening?) between the lines when the “greater good” of pickleball narrative was brought up is that this is really about what is best for the guy investing the money in pickleball. There was a joke made by Ben in the podcast about Dundon taking everyone’s freedom and how he is the “evil empire” (time stamp 22:40). It’s not that we at NML, or the people, think Dundon is evil. Rather, it’s the reality that he is almost certainly motivated by his own self-interests.
The players, or at least Ben Johns and Rob Nunnery, are buying that Dundon, his capital, his contacts and his plan will bring legitimacy to sport of pickleball faster than anything out there. It’s also clear the PPA has made something in the way of promises around social media and it shows with all the recent stuff we see from both the PPA and its players recently.
On the podcast, they talked about improving how the product comes across to viewers. I don’t think it’s a shock to most people the degree of difficulty of pickleball doesn’t come across all that well on a broadcast to a person who doesn’t play, especially compared to tennis. I’m quite skeptical there can be much done to a broadcast to change that perception, but Dundon seems to think there is. In any event, you can imagine it doesn’t feel great for a pro player to constantly see a bunch of snarky comments from non-pickleballers on viral videos of what are, in reality, fantastic highlight points. It all circles back to legitimacy.
It was interesting to hear that Dundon says he encouraged the PPA players to attend the 2022 US Open and they were able to get some things in place to make it a better experience. Those things like parking, tents etc. Raise the standard per se. Dundon went on to say that “if there is an event better than what we all can do together”, they won’t tell their players no (time stamp 23:49). To me, that’s a big fat ‘if’ done under the guise of we’re doing what’s best for you and ensuring you don’t tie your brand to something not up to the “standards”.
In reality, it seems like it all comes down to being able to control and limit the supply of your most important commodities. If the players are competing in an undetermined number of tournaments outside of the PPA, they aren’t nearly as valuable to the PPA. In turn, the outcome of signing exclusivity deals is that these players are putting a lot of trust that the people who have complete control won’t screw them over in the long run.
In this discussion, it has to be mentioned Ben is on a different playing field from most of the other players. It’s quite evident that Ben has spent a fair amount of time with Dundon and has been involved to a certain extent throughout this process. Ben likely has assurances that no other player has received and, as a result, he has probably positioned himself very well. If not, that’s on him.
Side Note: Casey Patterson, the pro beach volleyball player turned pickleball addict, distinguished between top 10 players and the rest on the most recent PicklePod from the Dink (time stamp 51:17). Patterson’s comments along with some of Tyson Apostol’s thoughts from Friday’s episode and their January 13th pod are worth listening to. While you’re at it, you may want to do some googling with “beach volleyball” and “exclusivity contracts” in your search.
At the beginning of the podcast, Ben gave the impression that without having all the information, outsiders can’t understand what is going on. We can’t get it. Maybe that is the case. Maybe our skepticism is unwarranted.
One major question that comes to my mind though is what sports league or entity has this kind of control over their players that the PPA is seeking to have? Sure, other sports are in a very different position than pickleball. But imagine the ATP having final say on Roger Federer’s non-ATP related events.
My view is that the words of Dundon on the podcast don’t jive with the actions we have seen in the brief period since his takeover. That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be good for pickleball in the long run, but that kind of stuff will always be a red flag to me. The PPA can do whatever it wants for the PPA, but something doesn’t sit right about pretending you’re acting in the best interests of the players and the game itself. This leads to the elephant in the room, which is Major League Pickleball (MLP). If the PPA under Dundon is all about growing the game, not monopolizing it, then why aren’t they letting their players go to MLP? Instead, they are creating their own MLP-like event.
It was also interesting that there was not a single mention of MLP in the entire podcast. It’s interesting because Ben and Rob, on previous episodes, have spoken glowingly about MLP, Steve Kuhn and their efforts to grow the game and present it in a professional manner, but they certainly seem to have no problem pushing it to the side now.
Ben actually said on the podcast he has wanted pro players to have “more power, more say”. That says to me he is either drinking all of the Tom Dundon Kool-Aid or bull you know what-ing the rest of the players out there. Of course, it could be that Ben being used as PPA’s face of pickleball does have more power, but that does not necessarily translate to the other pros. The problem I have with the Kool-Aid is that it is being presented as if the players need exclusivity when it is really the tour that needs it. Sorry Ben, I don’t think giving up autonomy to someone else is going to give the players more power and more say in the long run.
I’ve always felt that pickleball is farther away from being anything close to mainstream than a lot of the players think it is. This probably skews my perspective on what is happening but it’s apparent from listening to Casey Patterson that beach volleyball was way more advanced than pickleball when these exclusivity contracts started becoming a thing. While I don’t think you can magically create demand overnight, Dundon is promising to be able to expedite this whole process. That’s what the players want. That’s what Dundon is trying to do. Can they make it happen?
I guess we’ll have to see.
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