What Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, LeBron James and MLP’s New Format Potentially Means for the Future Landscape of Pro Pickleball

In an ongoing saga between MLP, the PPA and the APP where there are already too many acronyms to keep track of, it feels like keeping track of the next chapter in the story is a full-time job in itself. But alas, here we are. We have been waiting on news of more ownership announcements since the LeBron bomb dropped a couple of weeks ago and, boy, what a doozie. An ownership group headlined by Tom Brady and Kim Clijsters, led by Knighthead Capital Management, LLC, have purchased an MLP team.

This news follows the reporting by Today in Pickleball (run by Megan Hall) a little over a week ago that MLP was shifting to a new format for each of its 6 events for 2023. We have yet to discuss the new MLP format change and there’s no better timing than the present, with the news of a second, transcendent sports superstar being part of an MLP ownership group.

Obviously the Tom Brady/Kim Clijsters news is huge. However, it may not be apparent to onlookers how important MLP’s new format change could be for the landscape of professional pickleball. For those who don’t know, the new format will feature regular, tournament style play Thursday through Saturday only for its 64 players drafted, and then Sunday will showcase the team style format we have come to associate with MLP instead of the entire weekend being solely focused on the team aspect.

The players are going to play singles on Thursday, mixed doubles on Friday and gender doubles on Saturday. For the doubles events, players will have to partner with different people for each of the 6 events, which is the best and most underrated part of this new format. MLP is also upping their prize money as well as providing different opportunities for players to win prize money in 2023:

  • On the team aspect of things, the first 5 Sundays of the year be treated as a kind of “regular season” for the team-based format (including a team event final on those first 5 Sundays where the two undefeated teams will play for a $40,000 total prize with 2nd place getting $20,000 total for that event. The final event will be the Championship weekend with the top 8 teams from the regular season getting a shot at the MLP championship and $100,000 team prize.
  • For individuals, they will have an opportunity to win money at each event for the tournament style portion of the weekend – $6,000 total for first in doubles and $3,000 for first in singles, along with the chance to win year-long awards for cumulative results in the style of the PGA’s FedEx Cup.
  • There will also continue to be appearance fees paid to players, which for 2023 will be determined based on their DUPRs (Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating).

That is also lot to digest. We know. Keep in mind that MLP is maintaining its rally scoring format to 21 and will be using a best 2 out of 3 model for their tournament style portion.

The Brady news only strengthens our viewpoint since we wrote about LeBron and Co. coming on board with MLP, but the bigger story long-term could be the news combined with what MLP has decided to do with its format. The big takeaway for us about the new MLP format is the shift away from their team-based model that has been the foundation of Major League Pickleball since we first broke the story of its inception a little over a year ago.

A big draw for players with MLP has been that it is the best and most fun event in pickleball because you are part of this team competing as one collective group. What we have heard so much of publicly from players since the first MLP event in 2021 is how refreshing it is that the MLP format breaks away from the traditional grind of tournament play. The new format, though, reverts closer to the traditional tournament model that is featured on the PPA and APP tours. While requiring players to partner with different people at each event should be interesting and avoids the PPA’s issues with stale matchups, it unmistakeably diminishes the focus of the team aspect of MLP that was their entire business model previously.

Although we have some disappointment from a fan perspective about MLP moving away from the heart of what makes it so much fun, from a business perspective it sure appears that MLP is putting themselves in the driver’s seat of the tour wars as we head towards the home stretch of 2022. You can’t be liking any of this if you are the PPA or the APP, can you? 

Our read of the shift in format is that MLP understands that the focusing solely on the team aspect makes it difficult to ensure their events are the center of attention in the long run.  That’s not to say they don’t love the team format they created, it’s simply that this shift is a necessity. 

The other aspect of the team part of things is that MLP was putting a lot of its top players in a position that they weren’t able to make big money. None of MLP’s players have anything other than glowing reviews of MLP, but you can bet privately that your Dekel Bar’s, AJ Koller’s and Andrea Koop’s of the world haven’t been overly happy about not making the elimination round in Austin or Newport this year, particularly when other team’s like the Ranchers benefit from a terrible trade. With the tournament style format as more of the emphasis, MLP can take care of its best players, who won’t be at the mercy of the draft and their teammates to such a large degree.

There are limited ways that MLP could keep their team format, stay relevant long-term and keep their best players happy. They could attempt to run MLP as an every week league like the NFL. At this point though, a team league is basically impossible to run unless your owners are all comfortable bleeding obscene amounts of cash. The other option for MLP has its owners took on a free agent model with an auction for players going to the highest bidder, with the option of a salary cap to ensure parity. At the end of the day, neither of these possibilities seem to be viable right now for pro pickleball.

Let’s be clear. We have no information of what MLP’s big picture ideas are or if there have been any internal complaints for its players. MLP also has not come out with anything publicly about the change in their format. We’re just putting the puzzle pieces together from what is happening in front of us. We suspect MLP’s focus publicly will be on the opportunity at increased prize money for all players without the need for restrictive player contracts, but the reality is that the current momentum is a freight train for MLP.

Tying this back to the LeBron and Brady ownership news, it sounds like LeBron’s group has invested in the league itself, not only the team. The vast majority of people do not comprehend how big LeBron’s empire is. There is real investment here and it puts MLP in a position where they could be on a legitimate TV provider next year – if LeBron’s group wants MLP on TV, they should be able to get it on TV. 

It was being teased that big-time owners would be coming to MLP, and that has come to fruition with Tom Brady. There are still two more new ownership groups to be announced so we’ll have to see what those announcements bring to the table in terms of clout and/or practical benefits. You know when Doug Ellin, the creator of Entourage, is part of a potential ownership group that is still in the maybe pile, it is a competitive process. Did we say that MLP is a freight train right now?

The PPA had their CBS moment, their MGM partnership in Vegas announcement and even announced their latest celebrity pro-am event with real celebrities the same day the LeBron news came out. However, MLP has quickly gained the upper hand with a flurry of major moves that must have been in the works for quite some time. The PPAs attempt at a choke hold over the pickleball world forced MLP to recognize that they cannot rely on pros being available for them to play a team event a few times per year. Without taking away player freedom, it appears MLP is making the right moves in order to be viewed as the premiere pickleball brand and for the players to feel that being a part of MLP is non-negotiable.

Again, we are still only speculating that MLP could have all the top players in one place as, to our knowledge, no deal with the PPA has been finalized that would allow its players to attend MLP events. Another ongoing question is whether the PPA can sign any new players for 2023 and beyond. Anna Bright confirmed on a recent podcast appearance that the PPA is in talks with her agent and the PPA is pushing her all over their social media recently. With all that is happening, are any free agents willing to sign with the PPA to restrict their freedom in any capacity, most notably with respect to MLP?

The narrative that is created is key. LeBron and Tom Brady being part of MLP may very well squash the perception that the PPA is the elite pickleball brand. Securing Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters was supposed to propel the narrative that the PPA is where the best pros play. Well, try explaining to your non-pickleball buddy that the PPA is the better tour because they have Ben Johns. Tom Dundon might be richer than LeBron James and Tom Brady, but it’s pretty tough to point the finger to MLP as an “amateur” league that LeBron and Brady chose to invest in. 

Now, MLP has had its share of growing pains this year and that will likely happen in 2023 as they sort out yet another brand new format. Another downside to the new format is that it prevents doubles rivalries and the ability to see how different matchups play out over time. Continuity is vital to engagement. MLP will have to settle on a format so that viewers can know what to expect. In addition, we already heard Anna Leigh Waters complaining about Championship Sundays at the PPA being too much, yet MLP is adding 4th day to each event and putting their team events on the Sunday when the best players will probably be tired. Rally scoring and smaller draws with only drafted players competing in individual events are supposed to limit how much any given person will play in a weekend, but this is still an additional 6 events on top of each player’s regular tournament schedule.

MLP should be able to work out the kinks though. That’s only a small factor in the grand scheme of things.

We were skeptical of MLP’s approach to expansion initially, but that skepticism was based on a limited understanding of what was to come. MLP clearly had a plan all along. 

And that plan looks to be paying dividends.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at nmlpickleball@gmail.com. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too!

16 thoughts on “What Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, LeBron James and MLP’s New Format Potentially Means for the Future Landscape of Pro Pickleball

  • October 12, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    MLP going to regular tournament play may be the dumbest idea ever. They also need to incorporate the Dreambreaker into each match somehow. Why have the best part of the best event used only in rare cases?

    • October 14, 2022 at 6:15 am

      Why not reverse the order of events and allow the players on eliminated teams to move into a tournament bracket for additional points/prizes/money? That way they aren’t “going home” automatically and there may be some interesting surprises and matchups in the Tournament of Second Chances (lol).

      This way, we begin the weekend with the same exciting team play that then continues as teams advance, but you can also follow your favorite players individually and in doubles through a traditional tournament. Trophies/prizes for everyone on Sunday.

      • October 14, 2022 at 7:56 am

        Interesting idea. That would be something to see the problem is partners how you determine that

  • October 12, 2022 at 6:55 pm

    Re: changing partners on each events: Who makes the partner choice and will it be from the full 64 player pool? Maybe MLP hasn’t worked out those details yet. It’d be really interesting if the choice was based on the prior event’s Sunday team results.

    You said 32 players drafted but won’t 2023 draft 64 players? Did you mean to say 32 teams in the brackets? I don’t imagine all players will want to play singles so limiting it to 32 maximum in singles sounds reasonable.

    You mentioned Anna Bright’s podcast appearance (The Pickleball Studio). I thought her breakdown of APP, PPA, and MLP playing experience to be interesting and what I have observed as a spectator. As much as she loves MLP, it is surprising she is still considering signing with PPA.

    It seems like if PPA wants to draft new players then they will have to allow them a contract to also play MLP. Else how many players will want to sign with them? I can’t imagine PPA making it through all of 2023 without any new signed contract players. Talk about getting stale.

    • October 13, 2022 at 11:08 am

      64. Bad math! But we believe they are choosing their own partners for all 6 events so it really hurts the lower players.

      The PPA is probably offering a lot of money. Money talks. But they have to let them play MLP but this 21 and 25 event minimum may not be good enough for new players. Add on Nationals and US Open, that’s a minimum of 33 events to play all 6 MLP

    • October 17, 2022 at 3:54 am

      They will break out into mens and womens singles, so 32 would be the max bracket if all players played. 16 teams max in gender doubles and 32 for mixed. Playing rally scoring best of 3 games to 21 will prevent this from being a hugely taxing weekend. I am guessing the team event simply becomes a 16 team single elimination bracket.

  • October 12, 2022 at 6:58 pm

    One other thing: We don’t know how many PPA players are on the 1 year contract. So there could be a good source of PPA players newly available to the MLP draft. (And maybe we could guess based on the obvious preferential treatment of some of the player).

    • October 13, 2022 at 11:09 am

      Most definitely. Possibly the Waters even? They are sponsored by Richards Rainwater owned by Steve Kuhn

  • October 12, 2022 at 7:15 pm

    Thank you for all the great information. PPA: “Let’s do Championship Sunday with 3/5 games a match. We can make a ton more money on commercials, advertisements, and viewership. Oh… I guess we can make sure the players have lots of water too.”

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