The final MLP event of 2022 took place in Columbus, Ohio over the weekend. MLP is a reminder to us that just because something has not been done before, does not mean it cannot be done. Team formats are not a constant in any individual sport, but MLP has a formula that shows it can be viable from an excitement and watchability standpoint. This 2022 event will be the final iteration of MLP as the sole focus of the event and it will be interesting to see how much intrigue next year’s individual events garner from fans in comparison with the team events. There is so much unknown as we head into 2023 and it is really anyone’s guess as to how the pro landscape plays out in the immediate future, including those intimately involved in the sport. We’re here to enjoy all the action and, of course, we must give our most important takeaways from MLP Columbus.
1. Irina Tereschenko and Parris Todd’s Supremacy (Slim) – Parris Todd won the MVP at this weekend’s MLP event, and really there was no one close to being as valuable as she was, as she went 9-1 in her matches this weekend – she was the obvious pre-tournament pick too. BLQK getting Parris with the 19th pick in the MLP draft, was basically a cheat code for the season. If Parris had not of gotten injured at the Newport event, it seems almost certain that BLQK never loses in MLP this season. Given when the draft occurred, it was not egregious that Parris was drafted where she was, but with her rapid improvement and ascension to where she was, easily a top 5 female at MLP, it just made things too easy for BLQK. The rest of the pieces also fit well for BLQK. Irina Tereschenko is a very solid woman in the MLP field, but when she suddenly becomes your second best female, the other teams are in trouble. Zane Navratil and Rafa Hewett as hard serving players, who are probably a little more dominant in mixed then men’s doubles, made for dynamic pairings in mixed with Parris and Irina.
It should also be noted that Irina Tereschenko is the early GOAT of Major League Pickleball, as her teams have won 3 of the 4 MLP titles awarded to date. Perhaps she has gotten lucky with her situations, as getting Ben Johns in season 1 and Parris with the 19th pick in season 2 has certainly helped, but you do have to give credit where credit is due. To date, pretty much all Irina has done at MLP is win. So she definitely has some bragging rights as the winningest player in MLP history.
The BLQK owners, also have the same bragging rights as winners of three of the four MLP championships. Can anyone knock BLQK off of the throne next year? I am sure there are numbers of owners, a competitive group in their own right, who want to make sure BLQK are the champs again next year. It will be very interesting to see what happens with player franchising and draft order next year (it sounds unlikely to be a clean slate draft again), as that could have a large effect on who ends up holding the trophy at the end of the season.
2. Dreambreaker Revaluation (Slim) – One area where we were obviously wrong (I know, I know we are wrong about a lot of things) is the importance of the Dreambreaker. This is one a lot of people pushed back hard on us. It has become abundantly clear through the larger sample size that the Dreambreaker is a huge part of the MLP competition and pretty much unavoidable for teams. Gritty and I both had, to some degree at least, the opinion that it was best to try and build teams that were suited to winning the doubles matches, and that you were better off having stronger doubles players and trying to win matches 3-1 or 4-0 than to put too much stock into a players singles prowess. We particularly felt this after watching the Dreambreakers last year, as it seemed to play as an extremely high variance competition. Lee Whitwell, lighting up the boys last year in the Dreambreakers would be exhibit A of this variance.
This year, though, the data has just shown that Dreambreakers are too prevalent and unavoidable that you can’t rely or count on your teams doubles prowess to carry your team through an entire tournament. The Ranchers and BLQK appear to be anomalies, although it is still noteworthy that they faced zero Dreambreakers combined in their 3 respective championship runs. Also, while the Dreambreaker has some variance, it is clear that if a team does not have a couple singles studs on its roster, they are in trouble. A team can hide or get away with a weak singles player, but if a team has two or more players that are not strong singles players, they are at a huge disadvantage in the Dreambreaker.
One area where I think this was particularly noticeable, is the second male roster spot. It was pretty clear this year, that generally it was a bigger advantage to have your second roster spot filled with a singles stud, with high mixed upside, who maybe wasn’t as great of men’s doubles player, than to have a player who was just a solid men’s doubles and mixed player, and did not provide much in singles. Think of the impact Federico Staksrud and James Ignatowich made on their teams after they were picked up this year. Rafa Hewett, of the two time champs BLQK, probably fits this profile, as high mixed doubles upside and strong singles players, who might not be as consistent in men’s doubles.
It will also be interesting to see if there are any changes to teams roster building philosophy heading into next season based on this, and if it could also lead to some market inefficiencies later in the draft if teams overreact to the singles prowess of certain players, while ignoring some players doubles dominance, and who may just be competent at singles.
3. Upside Rules the Day (Gritty) – I talked a lot about upside throughout the year when it came to adds, drops and trades. Upside is a concept we really felt teams had not turned their minds to enough throughout this process until the transaction window before this final event in Columbus. With such a big discrepancy in prize money between first and everyone else, there was finally a realization that there was nothing to lose by going for it.
While upside moves can only pay off for a certain number of teams, it’s clear to me that these upside decisions paid off for a number of teams in Columbus. The Hard Eights are the prime example of upside paying off. We were somewhat skeptical of the Hard Eights approach swapping out Susannah Barr for Kyle Yates to give them two strong men instead of two strong women, but we still liked the idea behind what they did. The swap for Yates and bringing on Cierra Gaytan-Leach for Milan Rane ended up paying huge dividends with a Championship appearance for their team after both Yates and Gaytan-Leach had strong tournaments.
At the same time, It’s easy to forget that the Hard Eights were a Jorja Johnson wrist winner off a JW Johnson speed-up from being eliminated in their first playoff match. If not for the fortunate hand/wrist winner, we might be talking more about the great move the Florida Smash made going upside with their Lacy Schneemann pick-up for Lee Whitwell.
What about the Bus? They were probably our favorite upside team going into Columbus and struggled in two Dreambreaker losses before winning their third Dreambreaker against the Chimeras. However, it could have been a different story altogether for the Bus, who blew a 20-11 lead in mixed with Barr/Lange over Kawamoto/Ignatowich to defeat the Ranchers on Friday. Notably, Stratman/Barr were the only team in two events to beat Bright/Kawamoto.
You also had the Mad Drops and Team Clean both making the elimination round for the first time, with big swing moves. The Mad Drops acquiring Julian Arnold and Lee Whitwell, and Clean picking up Federico Staksrud.
Although the format of MLP is changing with a regular season and 3 more events, I have to think there will be more of an emphasis placed on upside for the 2023 draft. Outside of the playoffs for the top 8 teams at the final event of 2023, where the payouts go $25,000 per player for 1st, $15,000 for 2nd, $10,000 for 3rd and 4th, and $5,000 for 5th through 8th, the big money comes from getting 1st or 2nd place in the Team Match Final for each regular season event ($10K and $5K per player). The structure still emphasizes how important it is not to be stuck in the middle. With a top 8 appearance only paying out $5,000 each player guaranteed, there should be a lot of incentive on owners to figure out a way to get to the top.
As much as we talk about upside, we can’t forget that BLQK was the ultimate upside group as the only team to make zero transactions in 2022. They picked two very steady, if unspectacular, players with their #1 selections in Irina Tereschenko and Zane Navratil, but paired those rock-solid players with not fully realized, high potential talent individuals in Parris Todd and Rafa Hewett. In our draft grades, we wrote that Parris “may very well be the steal of the draft”, but we were more reticent about the Rafa Hewett selection. Hewett more than proved his worth across the 3 events and showed the hot and cold nature of his play actually fits in pretty nicely for this MLP format. The early upside selections paid off massively for BLQK.
Calculated upside swings are not always going to work. Teams who take this approach will have to accept that there is a real possibility of it backfiring in a big way. At the same time, it’s not like these teams are being run by General Managers who have to constantly balance the long-term best interests of the team with their short-term job security. There’s no reason for ownership groups to shy away from taking some risks. At the end of the day, the owners are only accountable to themselves.
Overall, MLP Columbus was a win for upside thinking and I believe it will be a serious mistake for owners who do not carry that mentality into the 2023 MLP season.
4. Lights, Camera, Action (Gritty) – Being receptive to feedback is something we all expect others should be able to do, but it is not all that often it happens at a level that is needed. People in positions of power often are in those positions because they believe they know what is best. Think about how well a lot of tournament directors take feedback from its participants. One of the best things about Major League Pickleball is that they truly seem to want feedback and they try to implement that feedback into their product.
While MLP had some issues with the production side of things at their last event in Newport, some of which was to no fault of their own, it was very apparent that MLP has listened to the criticism and taken steps to improve their product. The most significant improvement surrounded the video challenges. We have written about it numerous times on the blog that, in general, we had major concerns with their reliability with the reviews happening from camera angles not directly on the line. MLP implemented a challenge system for its first MLP event in 2021 and the PPA has had regular challenges for center court matches on and off for a good chunk of time.
Outside of the CBS Sports finals broadcast, MLP had Boxcar Productions doing all its production stuff for MLP this time around. Lo and behold, we had cameras right on the lines for the video challenges in Columbus, which made an immense difference to the reliability of the review system. Not only did Boxcar have cameras down the lines, the players and spectators at the venue could see the review in real time with the on-court video screen (similar to how tennis players can see the Hawkeye challenges in the stadium). It made for a much more professional and dependable challenge system. As difficult as it may be from a budget standpoint to consistently have the cameras on the line setup, the standard has now officially been set for how video challenge systems should be operated in pickleball.
From a viewing standpoint, I will continue to bang the drum that the optimal angle for watching a pickleball match is from directly behind one side of the court rather than a side of the court angle. However, I also understand other people seem to like some of these side or kitchen angles. Even though I wasn’t terribly happy with the use of different angles, I thought the production team did a fantastic job with the number of different camera angles they had for replays as well as even having cameras on spectators of note like Julie Johnson or the Hard Eights team owners.
Highlighting the great use of camera angles and top notch camera work was one very key play during the semi-finals of the Clean vs. BLQK match. Federico Staksrud was convinced a ball went off of Rafa Hewett’s arm during a rally rather than his wrist. While Rafa was adamantly trying to show Staksrud the mark the ball left on his hand, Team Clean challenged the call. The broadcast had one camera angle that showed the ball clearly hitting Rafa’s hand as opposed to his arm (Foster Keirn was the one responsible for the camera work and I only know this because his Dad responded to our Twitter account on this. Shout out to all the proud Dad’s).
The Hewett-Staksrud hand question demonstrates how far pickleball production has come as we now have all these different angles that allowed us to turn a potential controversy into a complete non-issue.
One negative comment I have is that I was not a huge fan of the split screen showing the replay vs. the live action. Understanding that they are trying to find creative ways to show replays during the very limited 10 seconds or so in between points, I think they had to be more careful to avoid the split screen when the match was at a very important moment. Where the match is getting down to the wire, I’m far less concerned with a replay than I am with seeing what happens with the 19-18 point. It’s a minor gripe of mine for a feature that was brand new for the production crew and one that I’m sure they’ll be looking to improve upon next time around. I like the idea of the split screen but there were times that I simply wanted to see the action.
All in all, a really good job on the production side of things for MLP.
5. Bidding Adieu to the Best Format in Pickleball (Slim) – It seems undeniable that at this point, MLP offers the most fun, exciting and viewer friendly format. Color us a broken record. The live crowds are by all accounts the most energized in pickleball and that is not surprising. The team aspect creates more passion and intensity for the players themselves, and that, in turn, seems to be passed on to the fans.
I know from a personal perspective, I am much more engaged watching MLP at home than I am watching any other pickleball event. Once I start watching a match, I pretty much have to watch it to the end. Whereas most of the time when watching streams of tournaments, I find it easy to leave and get on with my day. Part of this could be due to the novelty of MLP and the team event, and I don’t think it is something I would probably want to see 32 weeks a year, but I think unique format and team aspect does just make it more compelling.
We can’t help but worry with the new MLP format next year whether this same enthusiasm and passion will carry over. Will the team aspect be as exciting and compelling, and will players care as much when it is the team aspect is the fourth day of events? We understand why MLP is making the switch but that does not mean we can’t be sad to see the original format go.
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