The Tour Wars are officially back on in a big way. We started off today with a short article summarizing at a very high level the goings on in pro pickleball. Essentially, on Thursday, MLP announced they were signing players to guaranteed contracts, which led the PPA to tease their own announcement for Friday – we reported this to be the re-launch of Vibe Pickleball League. While no announcement has been made by the PPA regarding Vibe, it is quite apparent this is in the works in some capacity and this news has been reported elsewhere (apparently Dave Fleming said on today’s PPA broadcast an announcement is coming Championship Sunday).
We are continuing to gather information on the sudden split between the PPA and MLP (by we, it really means Jer as Chris will be away on vacation for another week and a half at an inopportune time). There’s a ton of moving parts and things in flux right now, but we wanted to give a notebook dump on the current state of things with the information we have right now.
Thomas Shields and Jimmy Miller had a very good chat on The Dink’s YouTube Channel Friday morning about the situation. From what we have heard, most of what Thomas and Jimmy said about the situation appears to be correct.
It is interesting that MLP seems to have made the first move this time. One thing we have seen in the past is that the PPA has been the first to move in locking down players. This has resulted in the PPA having a substantial leverage advantage over MLP and the APP. We have to think this was a big reason why Steve Kuhn and MLP tried to do this quietly behind doors, perhaps having learned their lesson from the ghosts of negotiations past.
We have been told that MLP has signed a good chunk of players. We don’t know the exact amount but it is definitely a significant number of the top 30 players, including most of the roster from the sports agency, Topnotch Management. The biggest names mentioned by Jimmy Miller ands Thomas Shields of confirmed players are Tyson McGuffin, Anna Bright and James Ignatowich.
From a money standpoint, this has suddenly presented another massive opportunity for players to increase their earnings in a big way. We had thought the MLP-PPA merger could suppress player earnings, but it is not looking like the pickleball money train bubble is bursting anytime soon.
The contracts reportedly being offered to players sound like they are into six figures over a 3-year term, and into seven figures over a 3-year period for the players with a bigger star presence.
The new contracts also include health insurance and travel expenses, which have not been part of any deals previously. Importantly, the MLP contracts will require players to attend less events and provide them with a longer offseason.
Players are probably still not maximizing their leverage by operating together, but players are also probably desperate to get a signed contract with the high dollar figures being tossed around, and not wanting to fall victim to a pulled offer, which we saw happen in the past go around towards the end of 2022.
While pickleball agents have been around for longer than a few minutes now, this is probably the first time we are seeing agencies play such a key role in where players are going. There are still big fish out there who remain in limbo so the next dominos to fall one way or the other could legitimately make or break things for MLP and the PPA. We have heard this line of thinking before, but it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to write this today.
You may be thinking that the PPA players are already under contract, are they not? Well yes, they are. Our understanding is most, if not all, PPA contracts extend beyond 2023 at a minimum. However, we also understand there is a liquidated damaged clause in the PPA contracts that, if it is enforceable, would mean players are liable to pay $75,000 to the PPA should they breach their contract.
While the liquidated damages clause may not be enforceable as written, MLP is apparently telling players they will cover the $75k for each player along with paying remainder of any money the PPA owes them for 2023, if the PPA does not honor their contracts due to the breach.
We should note that the new MLP contracts may very well mean that players must be exclusive to playing only MLP events, but we are not 100% clear on that.
A potential concern with players has to be how do they become stars if they are only playing MLP team style events, but it seems that MLP is already taking steps to deal with this. They are promising to hold at least one ‘regular’ tournament this year with doubles and singles events, with a minimum payout of at least $200,000 in prize money.
Now, the players that appear most likely to remain loyal to the PPA are Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, the two best players in the sport. The PPA, by all accounts, has been good to those players, and have built them into superstars of the sport.
The PPA really can’t afford to lose either of those players because losing even one of them could be close to a death blow for the PPA. If one were to make a move, we speculate it would probably be Anna Leigh. Ben has been the Tom Dundon golden boy from day one so this could be ALW’s chance to earn the true number one billing. With that said, we still think it is unlikely either player leaves the PPA.
The bigger question is whether the PPA can keep other top players considering it is sounding like MLP has made significant strides with signing players.
If it somehow ends up being basically just Ben and Anna Leigh is the PPA stable of players, their tournaments will essentially become exhibitions featuring Ben and Anna Leigh and you can’t imagine that would be sustainable for the 40 event schedule they are aiming to attempt next year. The PPA has to be desperate right now to retain some of the other top talent.
Another interesting aspect with this is that both of these parties involved, MLP and PPA, are heavily committed to pickleball, and pro pickleball is only a small part of that equation, but neither party will want to cede control of the professional game. Dundon seems less likely to just pull the plug on the PPA, as he did with the AAF, because he has Pickleball Central, Pickleball Brackets, Pickleball Tournaments, etc. He loses some control over the future of those business and the sport if he just admits defeat in the pro pickleball landscape.
At the same time, Kuhn and the MLP cohort also want to control the professional pickleball landscape to help them push DUPR and the Major League Pickleball format to the masses. With so much riding on the line for all the parties, it is hard to believe that this will end in anything other than a that this is not going to end without a real fight from everyone involved.
It’s amazing to think that the other big thing that happened yesterday, that now feels like it happened an eternity ago, was that the PPA actually brought gambling to pickleball. Gambling potentially provides the PPA with a revenue stream and product advantage if MLP cannot get its act together on the gambling front.
So that’s all we have for the time being. We won’t have a podcast still for a couple of weeks until Chris is back, but we’ll keep pumping out some content as more news comes in. There’s tournaments going on in KC and Philly this weekend too, in case you forgot.
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