As player signing announcements continue to trickle in as part of the latest ‘Players Get Paid’ edition of the Tour Wars, there has finally been some time to breathe and reflect on the aftermath of an unprecedented influx of cash in the hands of pickleball players. As we said in our Johnson 5 column, we think the war is far from over, but there are inevitably winners and losers following this chapter of our story so we decided to recap them.
Winner: Team Pickleball
The consensus opinion from casual and hardcore observers of pro pickleball is that MLP came out ahead in this round against the PPA. The signings of the Johnson 5 solidified MLP’s status as an organization that included the significant majority of the top talent in pro pickleball. While the PPA retained a few of the bigger names outside of Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns, most notably the recently tennis retired Jack Sock, the biggest concern on the PPA side of things will be how little competition there the top two players in the world will face and what that means for their product going forward.
The choice by so many players to sign with MLP means that team based pickleball is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Rob Nunnery has probably been the biggest proponent of the pro pickleball needs to be a team sport bandwagon and it looks like we’ll get to see if that is true.
MLP’s road to get here has not been without some hurdles, including toying with the idea of going with primarily individual events last fall. But with fans of the two biggest individual sports in North America, golf and tennis, primarily focused primarily around the 4 major tournaments in a calendar year, MLP’s team concept provides an opportunity for more of a year long focus with all the storylines that come along with team sports.
We have always been two people who are generally unsure of the prospect of pickleball as a pro sport that is as viable as even something like Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States. As likely as it is that pro pickleball becomes the next pro beach volleyball or pro lacrosse, there is an outside chance it could sneak into the conversation of where MLS is currently.
MLP has separated itself from the PPA and APP as an event that offers unmatched energy and excitement along with unique storylines that only come from trying to construct a team around an individuality based sport. Interestingly, it sounds like MLP will have an even, or close to even, mix of team and individual events in 2024. With that in mind, it is unknown if that MLP energy is sustainable over the course of an entire year. Although the NFL’s shorter regular season consisting of 17 games allows football to maintain the high stakes energy for a full season, the grind of the long MLB, NBA and NHL regular seasons are often an afterthought for a lot of casual fans of those sports.
Whether an entire calendar year of team based pro pickleball is the way to go, it appears that we’ll have the opportunity to see if MLP can operate as a full service tour. That opportunity, in itself, is a major win for the idea of team based pro pickleball.
Loser: PPA Trust
With so much of the top talent in the game opting to sign with MLP over the PPA, often for 30% to 50% less money than what was offered by the PPA according to Florida Smash part-owner Graham DAmico, the lack of trust players had with the PPA became abundantly clear.
Even though most pros have not come out publicly with their negative feelings towards the PPA the way Zane Navratil has (deleted Pickle Pod not included), players who have stated anything publicly about the situation have been quick to acknowledge the level of trust they have for MLP and the relationships they have there.
When the PPA was first purchased by Tom Dundon at the start of 2022, they were undoubtedly the leader in the sport from a player relationship standpoint. Connor Pardoe had forged good relationships, especially with top players. Those relationships, and the perception from players that they wanted to be part of the premier tour in pro pickleball, helped propel them to signing the majority of the top talent at that time to exclusive deals.
However, the way the PPA initially went about signing players to exclusive deals during the Dundon takeover was likely the real start of the lack of trust that permeated the pro ranks over the past couple of weeks.
The PPA has never been shy about using high pressure tactics to sway players into choosing them over their competitors and, by all accounts, that strategy reached a breaking point with players during negotiations once MLP announced they had already signed players for 2024.
There’s a laundry list of items over the years one can point to as potential factors that may have led to the mistrust amongst the player pool – failing to distinguish between prize pools and appearance fees, preferential treatment to certain players, questionable draws, paddle testing transparency, not paying players, contractors and vendors on time (or sometimes not at all) and withdrawing offers made to players who lost leverage.
Players don’t forget things like being led to believe they would be able to play MLP prior to signing the exclusive contracts back at the start of 2022. Tyson McGuffin was the first player to publicly express his discontent with not being able to play in MLP last year and you have to wonder how he felt about the PPA despite generally being treated very well on the whole.
Right or wrong, the sentiment that we can infer from those players who went to MLP was not only were they unsure of aligning themselves for 3-years with an organization they trusted significantly less, but they also didn’t know it the hefty contracts being offered would be honored. It’s really quite straightforward when JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier are reportedly leaving literal millions of dollars on the table.
The way the PPA handled the feeling of being backed into a corner in this round of negotiations does not appear to have assisted in alleviating player concerns. The same high pressure tactics used in the past were less effective in circumstances where the PPA was in desperation mode without as much leverage. The PPA announcing Riley Newman as a signed PPA player before actually being signed was the most embarrassing public misstep on the PPAs side of things. However, the Newman situation is only one public instance that highlights the PPA’s general approach that players may have been getting tired of.
As much as Connor Pardoe may have wanted to tell the new MLP signees to take a hike for 2023, it would have been a bad look to do what so many expected the PPA to do and prohibit MLP players from attending the remainder of 2023 events. Same goes for the PPA’s committed players and whether they will be prevented from playing season 2 of MLP. Ben Johns playing in a recent Wrigley Field MLP on Tuesday night is a good indication PPA players will be in Atlanta in a few weeks for the first MLP event of season 2.
So it is going to be business as usual on the PPA Tour for the time being. It will be interesting if we see any change in the PPA’s approach following this chapter as it is clear their more cutthroat way of doing business put them behind the eight ball this time around in spite of the advantages it had given them over their competitors previously.
Regaining the trust of the entire player pool will likely prove be crucial for the PPA if they want to represent themselves as the premier organization in pro pickleball.
Winner: Pro Tennis Players
It is a no brainer to say that a big winner from the latest chapter of the Tour Wars have been pro pickleball players on the whole. Stars are getting paid tax bracket changing money and the lower to mid-tier players are making an amount where they don’t have to supplement their income in other ways. However, the weird group of winners in this situation has been pro tennis players.
With the exodus of players from the PPA over to MLP, the PPA has been offering up bags of cash to a variety of those players and those bags were extended to former and current pro tennis players with a very limited pickleball background. The Jack Sock signing was a real win for the PPA and it is not surprising Querrey went that direction as well considering he went undrafted in the season 2 MLP draft.
Then, on Thursday, the PPA announced the signing of former top 10 player and major finalist, Genie Bouchard. These are real tennis players with real followings getting real big money. Another familiar name who got a contract was Donald Young and you have to think the newly retired, John Isner, might be getting one himself.
The PPA has had to take what they could get and it would appear the tennis player signings are bets that one or two of them can turn into stars for the sport and possibly be a gateway for other well known tennis pros to join at a later time. The PPA has also not been shy about signing players with any high level tennis background to contracts. It’s a potentially clever pivot in strategy on their part as it represents an edge that MLP can’t offer with the quality of play and dedication level of players like Bouchard and Young being so unknown right now.
Regardless of the reason for the PPA putting together the best team of tennis pickleball players that money can buy, it is a good time to be a pro tennis player transitioning to pickleball.
Loser: Billionaire Pocketbooks
For both the PPA and MLP, the billionaires involved on both sides are paying a lot more money to players than they ever could have anticipated at the start of the year. MLP probably has money stowed away with all the new teams and investors in the league from last year, but using that money for players instead of other growth opportunities cannot be what they wanted.
The PPA is not in the same position of MLP being flush with cash from team investors and who knows if they can convince anyone to pay real money for a Vibe franchise. The PPA is only profitable with their adjacent amateur investments – Pickleball Central and Pickleball Brackets/Tournaments software. Like MLP, the PPA is losing money running their pro events so you have to ask what position it puts both them and MLP in by spending an excessive amount of money on pro players in 2024. Pro pickleball is a long-term investment and it is evident that these very rich people will have to swallow more risk if they want to reap the benefits of their investment in a silly game.
An additional consideration is that 3 years for some these contracts is a long time and it is quite likely a good chunk of the players who signed longer term deals are going to be irrelevant by the end of their contract. This would mean the entities will be paying irrelevant players a lot of money to either not play or be irrelevant in whatever the tours look like at that time. It should be mentioned that the more recent PPA deals are for a shorter term, usually just 1-year. While the longer contracts may not be a Bobby Bonilla length of time, these contracts are already a sunk cost for the tours.
Losers: Pickleball Fans in the Short Term
Unless something changes, there is going to be a divide of the top talent in pro pickleball. In this divide of players, there is also clearly a divide in fans who prefer the tour model over the team concept and vice versa so both sides not being able to get the absolute best product for their favored model is a loss.
There is a world in which the failed merger is a long-term benefit to the sport, possibly allowing one entity to come out on top and ensure that the professional side of the sport is secure without the on and off in-fighting that has dominated the past almost 2 years on and off. That’s a pretty big if, though. Even it does end up better in the long run, fans are still the losers for the immediate future, assuming nothing changes before the start of 2024.
Winner: Pickleball Pros
This is such an obvious one, but we had to stick it towards the end because no one is a bigger winner than pro players. Even if there is still the possibility that the growth of the sport stagnated and one or both of these entities are unable to 100% honor contracts that have been signed, the fact is that players are getting paid at this moment.
Both the PPA and MLP are going to be paying a larger than expected number of fringe “pros” to play pickleball full-time, no strings attached. The upper-middle and above tier of players are also making bank as they are suddenly guaranteed more money than most Americans earn over an entire decade. Their agents have to be just as es ecstatic as well.
It has to suck for players that are on the fringe of pro that did not get paid. There’s very little difference right now on paper between a PPA signed Aanik Lohani or unsigned Michael Lloyd, but some players are inevitably going to be left behind.
Whether this type of money is on the horizon for new or unsigned players who breakthrough the fringe tier remains a mystery. However, that doesn’t matter for the current pros, who come out literally laughing all the way to the bank as we head into 2024.
When is it not the lawyers who win when there are disputes? Surely, MLP and the PPA have been scrambling to get contracts together along with getting on the fly legal advice with respect to the ramifications for the actions that have been taken. All of that means lots of work for lawyers on retainer for the entities, particularly if we see a lawsuit get filed somewhere down the line.
Winner??? The Association of Pickleball Players (APP)
We can’t forget about the APP in all of this. Having fallen out of the main scope of pro pickleball since the PPA-MLP merger, the APP has been hanging around. Even if there appears to be a lack of direction and some questionable decision-making, the APP has been lurking in the shadows for their opportunity.
That opportunity may be right now. Steve Kuhn was seen at the APP Chicago last weekend talking with the everyman leader of the APP, Ken Hermann. We don’t have any information if the discussions were anything beyond due diligence on the part of MLP or part of a ploy to show the PPA that they have options.
Most of the gold card PPA players turned MLP signees are in Cincinnati this weekend, but we have no idea if that will continue for the remainder of the year. If MLP pros bail on the PPA or are prohibited from attending PPA events, the APP could be a great place for those players to keep getting reps.
A lot of the top APP stalwarts signed contracts with MLP and there may be a place for the APP in pro pickleball as a feeder system, whether that’s what they want to be or not. With MLP planning to run individual events next year, the APP could be a useful resource for them to assist in running these events. Thursday was an announcement day of sorts in pro pickleball as the APP released their 2024 schedule, which apparently includes significantly increased prize money at their major events.
There is something to be said to be running a solid (maybe not operating in the red?) business that isn’t throwing around 7 figures to pro players. It also means they might not be as desperate to strike a deal as their immediate viability is not dependent on any other entity. At some point, the APP will have to decide what fork in the road they are going to take. For now, they can bide their time and it could end up with them as the most unexpected winner of this Tour Wars chapter. However, that is still to be determined.
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