4 Biggest Major League Pickleball (MLP) Storylines for Season 1

📸 @blqkbears

It’s our final installment of MLP storyline previews. We began the week with the 3 biggest storylines for the Challenger and Premier divisions. Today, it’s our biggest storylines for MLP as a whole heading into season 1. For everyone’s knowledge, we will be live blogging as much as we can throughout this coming weekend and we’ll also have our usual takeaways late on Monday. In other words, keep coming back to the site for all your MLP needs!

1. The Battle for Premier Status in 2024

It has to have been a whirlwind for MLP to get everything together for 2023. Trying to create some kind of system of fairness with all the new teams involved means constant tweaks in an effort to establish stability for the future. With that in mind, the top storyline for MLP has to be the 12 available slots for teams next year to start in the Premier division.

For those who are unaware, 2023 is all about poll positioning for 2024. The teams are essentially qualifying for an opportunity to start the year in the Premier division as opposed to Challenger. What will dictate Premier vs. Challenger for 2024 is total wins for teams that are weighted equally across all 6 events in 2023. For example, if a team goes 2-1 in group play and wins 1 playoff match, that is 3 wins towards that team’s collective total for 2023. The top 12 teams with highest number of collective wins will be in the Premier division for 2024. It should be noted a team that gets a bye into the semi-finals automatically gets an extra win added to their season total – so if a team goes 3-0 in group play and receives a bye, it means they will have secured at least 4 wins total from that event.

The added kicker to the season win totals qualification system is that the #1 overall team in 2023 will get the #1 overall draft choice in Premier for 2024 and so on (#2 gets 2nd choice etc.). The 13th overall team will get the #1 overall choice in Challenger and so on. This creates huge stakes for the teams as every single match not only matters for Premier vs. Challenger, but it also counts for draft positioning. If two or more teams are tied at the end of the year, the tiebreaker will be determined by total number of appearances in the knockout round.

MLP is going to be the first North American professional sports league with a promotion/relegation system, which makes 2023 a foundational year to establish a baseline for future seasons. There are a lot of things still up in the air for 2024 but it sounds like there will either be 2 or 3 teams moving up and down each season starting in 2024. Furthermore, we are hearing that after 2024 it is unlikely there will be complete drafts similarly to what we have seen the last 3 years in the interests of building continuity for franchises. Instead, there will likely be a system where teams either keep all or the majority of their players.

Again, MLP still has lots to sort out and we expect that there will have to be more tweaking done as we go along here. Most of the information in this storyline is not information we were aware of at the time of the draft and it does change the game to a certain degree. In any event, every single result now carries massive stakes and it appears that 2023 is going to be even more pivotal than we realized.

2. The Importance of Dreambreakers

The importance of the Dreambreaker has been one of the hottest MLP topics since the inception of the league. With almost 40% of matches going to a Dreambreaker last year, we have shifted our thinking towards placing a greater emphasis on the Dreambreaker than we had going into the 2022 MLP season. While we have come around to a certain degree on the Dreambreakers, we have not come as far over as a lot of others either have or already were.

As eye opening as the stat is about the percentage of matches that go to a Dreambreaker, the other reality is that the two teams that won titles last year, BLQK and Ranchers, did not have to play a Dreambreaker in any of their championship runs. Sure, BLQK was built to dominate a Dreambreaker, but it was not necessary. Is

It must be gut wrenching for owners to watch their team lose in a Dreambreaker, particularly if you have a team that is not adept at singles. It’s why Ranchers owner, Tim Klitch, opted for James Ignatowich after the first event. The move was applauded at the end of the day, but James did not have to participate in a Dreambreaker en route to the Ranchers’ Newport championship run. Is this an outlier situation?

We still wonder if going 4 points at a time skews who and what is a good Dreambreaker player and team. There just isn’t the data yet.

A storyline that we will be monitoring closely, with such a focus on the total number of Dreambreakers, is whether the total number has clouded the importance of a Dreambreaker, at least from a championship building standpoint? Although having more than one person on a team that is a liability in singles could be detrimental to a team’s Dreambreaker hopes, it is not farfetched to think that teams are overrating the importance of the Dreambreaker.

There cannot be many things more deflating in pickleball than being a Dreambreaker away from moving on. However, the high percentage of matches that go to a Dreambreaker does not take into account how volatile a single Dreambreaker can be. We still also wonder if going 4 points at a time skews who is a good Dreambreaker player and what is a good Dreambreaker team. There may just not be the data yet.

That’s not to say we won’t have winning teams play Dreambreakers this year. Rather, the point is that we have such a small sample size of information about Dreambreakers. There may be more data that is needed before we can make definitive conclusions about its significance and the emphasis that should be placed on it from a team building standpoint.

3. Optimal Draft Strategy

A big question for teams going into the 2023 draft surrounded optimal draft strategy. Following the success of BLQK and the Ranchers in 2022 and the new genderless snake draft format, it seems as though the general consensus is that securing two strong women to anchor a team is the optimal way to go. The lack of depth on the women’s side compared to the men underscores the necessity of having quality women to anchor a team. The Milwaukee Mashers have Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith, the Florida Smash have Jessie Irvine and Jorja Johnson, and the 5’s have Anna Leigh Waters and Lea Jansen.

While we are not necessarily disagreeing that 2 high-end women could be the optimal strategy, there are two big factors we feel are often overlooked in this discussion. 

First off, what we think we have learned from the 3 MLP events in 2022 cannot automatically be translated to the upcoming 2023 MLP. A good chunk of the top players were absent from the 2022 season, which means there is going to be more high-end talent across the board. It may not be as straightforward for 2 women to carry a team in the same way that we saw in 2022. What we learned in 2022 could very well carry forward into 2023’s version of MLP, but there has to be some accounting for a potential change in outlook with a whole new level of competition.

The second factor, one we have pointed out before, is that BLQK and the Ranchers got lucky. Teams missed on taking Parris Todd, opting for more known commodities like Regina Franco, Michelle Esquivel and Lee Whitwell. Even BLQK likely did not expect Parris to improve as quickly as she did. This makes us sound like a broken record but the Ranchers stole Jackie Kawamoto in a trade.

It cannot be forgotten that the foundation of the two strong female strategy is partly predicated on two teams who were super fortunate to secure women that had no business being on their teams.

The two strong female strategy is rooted in other logic beyond how well BLQK and the Ranchers did last year, most notably the dearth of female talent as noted above. We saw in the draft that some really talented men dropped well into the later rounds, but that may not happen next time around for season 2.

It may very well be that the secret sauce to MLP success is either getting lucky with one of your later picks or fleecing another team in a trade somehow. While boiling it down to those two factors probably over-simplifies things and does not give enough credit to the other parts of team building, we think it is important to highlight that it is not as obvious as it may appear to some.

It is conceivable we could come away from this first MLP season in 2023 being more certain that having two high-end women is the optimal way to build a team in the current state of pro pickleball. The 3 teams that have top women look like they could be 3 of the top teams at any given MLP on paper. On the other hand, it also possible that this conventionally applauded approach may not be as sure-fire as some may believe.

4. The Real Value of Team Chemistry and Energy

Team chemistry and energy are easily the most discussed aspect of team pickleball that cannot be quantifiably measured. Chemistry is frequently brought up by owners/GMs as well as players as a crucial part of building a winning team. While chemistry is undoubtedly crucial, it can also be seen as one of those chicken or egg type of questions. 

Does great team chemistry lead to winning or does winning lead to great team chemistry? As with many of these questions, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. 

Regardless of how you feel about team chemistry, it is a huge storyline going into the season.

The NYC Hustlers are the number 1 team chemistry/hype team as we head into MLP. Rafa Hewett has been pegged as the dude who brings his best to MLP. Anna Bright and Tyson McGuffin are as loud as it gets on the court, and Lacy Schneemann is good friends with Anna Bright. If the Hustlers were to be assigned a video game rating for hype, it would be close to a 99. Can team chemistry and energy lift what is otherwise a roster that is flawed in its construction?

The Florida Smash might be the most intriguing chicken or egg chemistry test case in season 1.  Jessie Irvine struggled at the inaugural MLP event and there are questions about her vibes when things are not going well. Collin Johns is Mr. Mopey when all is not going according to plan. Then you have Travis Rettenmaier, the team GM/part-owner who has not been shy publicly expressing his disdain for how his own teammates dealt with certain situations last year. Winning will likely bring this team together, but how will they respond to the adversity they will almost inevitably meet? 

A bunch of other teams beyond the Hustlers made draft selections with team chemistry in mind. The 5’s took James Ignatowich partly due to him being a regular practice partner with Anna Leigh. The Mashers selected Callie and Lucy to bring the heat as a familiar women’s team. ATX put the Kawamotos together and drafted good friend of JW, Gabe Tardio – hype and energy be damned. The Las Vegas Night Owls have this mix of players who are balanced on paper and have familiarity with one another, but there have also been some historical behind the scenes issues that may or may not be water under the bridge – we truly do not know.

The fact of the matter remains that not everyone can be successful from a team chemistry standpoint. There is only one winner at the end of the event and there will only be one winner at the end of this first season. You can also be sure that, one way or another, team chemistry and energy will be one of the key factors discussed as a reason for any given team’s success and failure. Will the conclusions concerning team chemistry and energy be true? 

As one rather interesting man has said before, I guess we’ll never know.

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!

10 thoughts on “4 Biggest Major League Pickleball (MLP) Storylines for Season 1

  • January 24, 2023 at 11:55 pm

    Thank you for your time. Nice thoughts. And it’s nice to know someone else stays up late at night. It will be a fun event, especially seeing almost everyone there. Thanks again.

    • January 25, 2023 at 7:36 am

      Looking forward to it! Let us know your thoughts throughout the weekend in the comments.

  • January 25, 2023 at 5:42 am

    Thanks for breaking it down on how 2023 leads to 2024. Many of us would never have known otherwise.

    I think you nailed in on #3 but disagree about #4. Chemistry leads to winning – not a chicken and egg at all. Okay, obviously you can be right and I can be right – just a matter of opinion after all. I don’t envision a lot of chemistry between Jessie and Jorja. Both can go inside themselves and that may not be the best for WD chemistry. I’ve seen Jorja get really excited and maintain it. I’ve never seen Jessie stay elevated for long periods of time.

    The best test case is probably ATX. No external energy but the friendships in MD and WD could be enough. Many don’t rate ATX very high though due to lack of external energy. Zane said MLP is all about energy. That seemed to be true in year 1 when JW and Dylan failed to make a splash despite their friendship and uber-talent.

    I think Dekel and Vivienne can raise above whatever ended their partnership last year. I don’t see Vivienne as the type of person to hold a grudge. Forgive but not forget. The bigger problem is that Vivienne may be so used to Thomas’s style of play that she’ll have a hard time with Dekel’s style which has never given him very good MXD results.

    The biggest pressure will probably be on Tyler in MD with Ben. Can you imagine if they were to lose a game – everyone would be blaming Tyler. And if Meghan pairs with Ben then she’s going to feel a ton of pressure. I don’t see the same pressure with AL as partner. I think she can win with any of her team members.

    “The top 12 teams with highest number of collective wins will be in the Premier division for 2023”
    *should be 2024 here?

    • January 25, 2023 at 7:40 am

      We could be wrong about the chemistry thing, which is why the Smash are such an interesting case. Team chemistry does not look good on paper but they have a strong team on paper. It does not seem like some of Travis’ teammates last year were overly fond of him. ATX is another very interesting case. The thing with them is that they lack energy but the players have good chemistry with one another. Energy may be somewhat different than chemistry as well. We have so few tournaments of information that we still think there is guessing.

      Vivienne is clearly not the type of person to hold a grudge or she would have vetoed the Dekel pick from the outset. The biggest problem for them may be that they did not get results on the court when they were getting along well while Vivienne has immediately succeeded with Thomas.

      Big pressure for sure on Tyler and Ben is also a mopey loser rather than build a teammate up kind of guy. We saw the pressure Koop and Nunnery had playing with Ben in the first MLP. It’s an underrated thing that it is hard to play with Ben and get used to his style. That seemed to be why they ended sticking Irina with Ben instead of Andrea.

      That should be 2024.

      Thanks for all the comments and thoughts!

      • January 25, 2023 at 10:18 am

        I’ll be watching (at courtside 🙂 Ben and Tyler in mixed doubles for sure. If they are losing a game, will Ben start to completely take over Tyler’s side of the court, which he always does with his brother, and will Tyler let him? I don’t think Vivienne will hold a grudge, but let’s see how aggressive Dekel gets on the court in mixed. Boys are boys.

        Chemistry creates a more harmonious team. A harmonious team creates positive excitement. Excitement creates positive energy. All create a better-playing unit with a winning attitude, which in turn, creates a higher skill level and more wins, and of course, more fun.

  • January 25, 2023 at 6:22 am

    Appreciate all your analysis and research.

    Could you talk a little bit more about current 2024 plans? Not sure I understand the promotion and relegation system, and if in 2024 the team rosters are fixed or redrafts upon team movement between the two levels.

    • January 25, 2023 at 7:43 am

      We aren’t entirely sure either. But the basics should be that there will be 12 teams in Premier and 12 teams in Challenger. It is not clear if it is only at the end of 2023 but likely the case that at the end of the season either 2 or 3 teams from Premier go down to Challenger and 2 or 3 teams go up to Premier for the following year. M\

      There will be a brand new draft for start of 2024 and then after rosters will either be entirely fixed or partially fixed, with the ability for add/drops and trades. The add/drop and trade aspect is still TBD with how that works between Premier and Challenger. Unclear how the moving up and down leaves team fixed, but we imagine the idea is to have continuity in the same vein as in soccer.

  • January 25, 2023 at 7:57 am

    Viv and Dekel won’t be a problem. They practice all the time together at Dreamland. You can see that on multiple different player instagram accounts.

    Having observed Tardio up close at NextGen tournaments, it is obvious his partners enjoy playing with him and he is relaxed on the court but quite energetic emotionally. It’s just not in the Rafa/Tyson/Anna way. And remember, getting loud when up makes it clear to opponents when you are down (quiet). Energy for one team may look entirely different for the next.

    For my vote, I think you nailed #4.

    Keep up the good work!

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