We had been wondering what we might have to talk about with less tournaments towards the end of the year and a gap period before the MLP draft that is slated for some time in mid-December. Fear not fanatics as the pickleball news cycle continues to churn even on Thanksgiving weekend. While things have been quiet since the MLP-Vibe merger was announced a couple of weeks ago, a shoe had to drop at some point.
Of course, Black Friday morning is when a joint MLP and PPA email was sent out to pro players informing them of next steps. The email begins with an encouraging statement that the total combined payouts between PPA and MLP for 2023 will range from $8 million to more than $10 million, and concludes with the bombshell “creation of the ‘PPA-MLP Player Tour Card’”.
You might be asking, what is the PPA-MLP Player Tour Card?
Well, according to the email sent out to players, there are two categories, a Gold Tour Card and a Silver Tour Card, and each player is offered the opportunity to join their “Tour & League” under one of the two categories. The following is the criteria used for how they determined which card a player is eligible for:
One of the most notable aspects to this email is that a Silver or Gold Tour Card is required to participate in MLP. There are different requirements and benefits for each Tour Card. Silver players are required to commit for the next two years to participate in all 6 MLP events and play at least 5 PPA events in a year, but there is no tour exclusivity.
We may have buried the lead here, but the Gold Tour Card is the potential game-changer. In addition to the 2-year and 6 MLP event commitment, there is also a requirement that a gold player attends a minimum of 20 PPA events, including all 4 majors. The primary benefit of the Gold Tour Card is that a player will earn double the prize money compared to all other players at BOTH MLP and PPA events.
You read that correctly. Double the prize money. 2X. 2 times. 100% more. You get the gist.
This is a huge development. Prior to this change, the gap between PPA contracted players and others was less quantifiable. The difference was largely a subjective opinion based on whatever factors any given person views as relevant. Doubling the prize money creates a tangible demarcation between PPA and non-PPA players that puts a pause on the universal applause the announcement of unification received from pro players.
Other news of note in the email is an outline of the MLP format for 2023, which Lea Jansen had discussed during her appearance on the ‘It Feels Right Podcast’ earlier this week. Ultimately, MLP will be sticking with the team format, foregoing the individual tournament structure that had been emailed out to players not too long ago. The league itself will have two separate leagues consisting of 12 teams each – the Premier League and the Challenger League. The first 48 players drafted will play in the Premier League. There will be $3 million to $5 million in total prize money, but no details were provided in the email as to how that money will be distributed between the two leagues. This was not directly in the email, but it looks like the 2023 calendar year will be split into two separate, three event seasons, with a new draft for each season.
Getting back to the real story, the Tour Cards. We have not been made aware of who has received offers for the Gold versus the Silver card. From some limited intel we have gathered, it would appear the gold cards are not being offered as exclusively as we would have anticipated when we first got wind of the news. In other words, the Gold Tour Cards have not just been offered to the top non-PPA players.
That leads to some big questions about the Tour Cards. We understand, but have not confirmed, that all the PPA players are getting Gold Tour Cards, but how many non-PPA players are getting those gold offers? The criteria set out in the email leaves a lot of room for interpretation for the PPA and MLP.
How many new players will accept the Gold Tour Card offer?It could be a difficult decision for non-PPA players as to whether to accept a Gold Tour Card offer. Prior to this news, we heard that the APP had locked in a lot of top non-PPA players to attend their events for 2023. It is unclear what they may be paying those players, but does this Tour Card development change anything for players who had expected to primarily compete as APP players in 2023? Interestingly, MLP and the PPA announced this double prize money situation without specifying anything more than the total range of the payouts available.
We have no information on these specific players, but if you’re a non-PPA player like Dekel Bar, Andrea Koop or Vivienne David, who will certainly be drafted in the top 48, it cannot feel good to be offering similar or greater value than other PPA players yet receive half the compensation for attending MLP. These are players who stayed loyal to MLP despite almost certainly receiving enticing offers from the PPA and their loyalty is not being reciprocated. Unfortunately, that is offen how the world works, but we don’t think that will make it sting any less.
It is a reminder that business often trumps loyalty in the pro sports world. We have written that MLP should take more of a PPA style approach to the tour wars, but the new alliance leading MLP down the road of prioritizing PPA players in this way was not something we anticipated. While the PPA has continually treated non-PPA players as second-class citizens, MLP has appeared to align on this approach by drawing a clear line in the sand with the prize money distinction.
The thing about the Tour Card situation is that it forces all the top talent, including those on the fringe of being draftable to the Challenger League, into accepting the Silver Tour Card at a minimum. This is crucial for the PPA as it ensures that most, if not all, the new talent will not be confined to APP events. The PPA has heard the cries about the stale bread nature of their events, and this move appears to be an attempt to hand a crushing blow to what the APP offers the pro pickleball world.
Keep in mind that it was reported on Instagram by the Pickleball Clinic earlier in the week that the APP is on the verge of securing a major broadcast deal. We have heard similar rumors to what was reported.
There is not much time to make a decision for players as the email stipulates that the deadline to apply to the MLP draft is December 5, 2022. With it already being the end of November, a lot of these players likely have a good chunk of their 2023 schedule planned out and could be scrambling to figure how they can make this Silver Tour Card situation work – although some may have at least 5 PPA tournaments planned already.
The APP will have to hope that players trust the foundation they have built and view the monopoly the MLP and PPA are trying to create as harmful to their leverage in the long-term. There is no question that competition between the tours has been beneficial for players overall and, if everyone goes the PPA route, it could kill the players’ ability in the long run to maximize their earning potential.
For those who become Gold Tour Card players, the commitment equals a minimum of 26 events for 2023 and 2024. That means a player will be playing an event for at least half of the weekends for the year. There are already quite a few non-APP players who will have played in excess of 26 events this year, but make no mistake that the burnout factor is real for players on both tours. While the prospect of doubling the prize money of your colleagues must be appealing, another 2 years of being away on at least half of the weekends could be daunting as well.
The fact is the tours probably don’t care that much about player burnout. As hard as it is for players, a lot of the current talent is likely going to be pushed out in relatively short order by newer players entering the sport who are hungrier and will happily welcome the grind of a full tour schedule. While the tours may not worry about the players, we wonder whether they should care about it from a fan saturation perspective with so many events to watch.
Another legitimate issue which could emerge is if some of those top non-PPA signed players decide to boycott MLP. The league could quickly fall back into the problem of being short on players and talent. There are plenty of APP events, prize money, and appearance fees out there. Players may soon question why they would add the wear and tear of 11 events where they are asked to play for half the money (really less than half the money with no appearance fees).
We have a hard time finding a sports comparison where a league actually offers different prize money based players status. It’s unlikely, but if those players that can’t commit to 26 events a year and those only offered a silver card boycotted, MLP and PPA would be in a real bind from a talent pool perspective. We doubt it would happen, but there is some real incentive for players to do it here, because if they don’t MLP and PPA will only gain strength and they will lose bargaining power going forward.
One other aspect that is unclear about the Tour Card situation is how MLP and the PPA will deal with emerging talent. If there were Tour Cards last year, they would not have been sent out to the likes of Anna Bright, Parris Todd, Etta Wright, James Ignatowich and Federico Staksrud. We’re sure they will figure it out somehow, but how that is dealt with could have ramifications beyond the impact to the new players entering the sport.
People may have questions as to how the PPA has gained sucha stranglehold of the MLP product but it cannot be forgotten in all of this that DUPR has become the official rating for the to be launched pickleball.com in 2023. We expect that the DUPR integration was part of the deal with the Vibe-MLP merger and it’s far more than a footnote in all of this. Even though the merger may feel like a lopsided win in favor of the PPA, it should not be underestimated how important it was for the Steve Kuhn founded DUPR to finally be integrated into every aspect of the pro and amateur tournament scene for pickleball.
In all likelihood, the Vibe-MLP merger secured DUPR’s place in the amateur pickleball world. We can talk about the future of pro pickleball as much as we want, but the safest bet when it comes to pickleball is the massive growth that is poised to continue on the amateur side. MLP could very well have been comfortable making more concessions on the pro side in order to secure the amateur piece of the transaction.
Assuming that the PPA and MLP move ahead with what was set out in their player email, the APP is in serious danger of being on the outs of the pro pickleball scene. There is a monumental advantage for the PPA on the pro side as the arms race is not stopping. However, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and we have to think this one is a long way from being over.
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