We don’t know if Dallas will be the last MLP of 2023 nor do we really know what MLP will look like in 2024. The joint MLP/PPA schedule release that came out right before MLP gives us an idea of the changes that are coming down the pipe. Once again, we’ll have to get acquainted with a new team structure and format. All that we have learned, or think that we have learned, will have to be adapted to an MLP world where there are 24 teams drafting from one massive player pool. These events go by so quickly and there’s only so much pickleball that any reasonable human can watch over the course of 4 days, but it will still be a shame if we don’t get to see the final event of this iteration of MLP. It looks like this will be a TBD situation to monitor going into the final event of the year at the beginning of December.
1. Are the Margins Really That Small? (Gritty) – If you were creating a drinking game for MLP, you’d have to put the phrase “small margins” at the top of the list. We are not immune to it, but it is something that is constantly said about the MLP product. The introduction of rally scoring to MLP results in closer scorelines than we often see at tour events, especially where there appears to be a fairly large discrepancy in talent between opponents. However, with another event in the books, where we are seeing repeat finalists in both Premier and Challenger, it begs the question of whether the margins are really that small in MLP.
The idea of “small margins” is a phrase that makes a lot of people feel better about their own performance. For players, coaches, GMs, and owners, being unable to convert game points or, sometimes even match points, gives the sense that a couple of rallies here or there could have changed the outcome of the entire event. For fans, it creates a sense that anything goes at MLP, which can make for the ultimate drama that a professional sport provides.
There’s no question that the sample sizes are small over the course of a single event. Grand conclusions should not be drawn from single matches consisting of 4 rally scoring games to 21 that can be end up being decided by a weird Dreambreaker. When you play 3 of these matches in one weekend, it does not necessarily give the best indicator of how good or bad a team is. On the other hand, we now have 8 MLP events over the course of the last 2 years and that’s a lot more data points than we had at the start of 2023.
A potential issue that has been brought up over the past couple of years is whether it is good for MLP that anything goes and that it isn’t always the best teams that come out on top. But is that really true? While we have some fluctuation in results from event to event, particularly for teams lying in the middle of the pack, it appears that the best teams still find their way to the top and the worst teams end up on the bottom.
Let’s start in 2022. There were 3 events where the teams that won were BLQK 2X and the Ranchers. The Ranchers won the 2nd event boosted by a lopsided Jackie Kawamoto trade and a Parris Todd injury. They made the semi-finals of the 3rd event. The Florida Smash had a run to the finals at the first event in 2022 and blew a big lead in men’s doubles, but they couldn’t put it together for another event. The Hard Eights made some moves and had a run to the final in the 3rd event, but they also ended up falling victim to BLQK.
In 2023 season one, the Seattle Pioneers won 2 of 3 events and the LA Mad Drops won the first event, made the playoffs in the other two events, and won the Super Final. The Bay Area Breakers won 2 events, Dallas won 1 event and made a final after picking up Jill Braverman, and Chicago made two semi-finals, one final and won the Super Final of Challenger. In season two, Orlando and DC made the finals both times, and the SoCal Hard eights are back-to-back Challenger champions.
What we are seeing is that any middle of the road team can make a big run at any given event, but the better teams are still going to prevail over an extended period of time. The NYC Hustlers and California BLQK Bears each made one finals run in season one, and we saw this weekend that a team like Brooklyn is capable of making a semi-finals run as is a team like the Frisco Pandas in Challenger. As long as you’re not really bad like Frisco was in season one or the Florida Smash are in season two, there is an appropriate sense of anything can happen at a single event. Look no further than Kyle Yates/Vivienne David beating the Newman siblings in the final event of season one to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
I feel pretty safe in saying that MLP is not nearly as random as many people believe it is and what I previously thought it might be. Obviously this is not a deep statistical dive into the data but, once we figure out who the best teams are, those teams are consistently winning at each event. They may not win the entire event, but they are rarely falling on their faces with a bad performance. Teams are apparently going to play 40 matches over the course of the entire year in 2024, which is a way bigger sample size than the 5 or 6 events we’ll see in 2023.
MLP shouldn’t be considered all that different than the result of many other team sports. The small margins have nothing to do with rally scoring or whatever other reason you can come up with. It mostly has to do with the sample size of a single event. Even so, when you take a step back and look at the results of all the MLP events over the past couple of years, I think an argument can be made that the sample sizes at a single MLP event aren’t as small as they are made out to be. The MLP format is not similar to Major League Baseball where you really need half a season or more to figure out who the best teams are. It’s more like the World Cup where there is also a short round robin that feeds into a playoff bracket format.
As we move into 2024, I think it is fair to say that as few as 6 to 9 matches over the course of multiple events is enough of a sample size to give us a good idea of what a team’s general performance level will be. We are now at 3 separate iterations of MLP, with increased data for 2023 due to the Premier and Challenger separation, and the cream of the crop is rising to the top at all of these different versions of MLP, including 3 different versions of rally scoring.
With 3 of the 4 finalists in Dallas repeating finals appearances from the last event in Atlanta, it’s time to shift how we view MLP and what small margins should really mean. The sample size is going to become exponentially larger over the course of an entire season in 2024 and it could result in a long drag of a season for some of the weaker teams.
2. What is the Point of MLP? (Slim) – With there no longer being Challenger versus Premier on the line for teams, there being questions about whether this Dallas event was actually going ahead and with pretty much all the players having recently secured three year contracts, it seemed like motivation might be an issue this weekend. However, from what it looked like, the vast majority of players really cared, and it was another very entertaining weekend of MLP.
There were some players who did not perhaps look as motivated. We got to see a little throwback to Benny Backdraw all weekend from Ben Johns, who seemed to be pouting about his far from ideal team situation. It also sounded like he may have been more motivated playing side cash games than his matches in the actual event. Julian Arnold is another player who recently got paid, and it sounded like may not have been fully invested in MLP based on some private comments following a loss.
Overall, it will be interesting to see which players next season, and going forward get motivated and perform in MLP and which ones just show up to meet their obligations. All team professional sports come with guaranteed contracts and there are motivators for athletes in those sports.
It would also be cool if MLP actual did put in a relegation system at some point, as it would substantially increase what was on the line each season, and make the standings as a whole much more interesting, not just the top of the standings, but the bottom as well.
3. Premier vs. Challenger Margins (Gritty) – I usually get a kick out of players in any sport getting called up to the big leagues and performing above expectations. The Toronto Blue Jays had a 21-game phenomenon with Davis ‘Babe’ Schneider this past season before he fell back to earth. Regardless of his crash back to reality, the Babe Schneider run was fun while it lasted for Blue Jays fans. The same phenomenon applies at MLP.
The first notable call-up of sorts at MLP happened at the inaugural event, where the undrafted alternate, Rob Cassidy, filled in for Tyson McGuffin, and performed admirably. Last season, Rachel Rettger and Lacy Schneemann stepped into Parris Todd’s role. This season, we have had a number of Challenger to Premier call-ups and it is worth examining whether those call-ups have demonstrated that the separation between Premier and Challenger players may not be as large as they are made out to be.
In Dallas, Susannah Barr and Megan Fudge got their opportunity to play at the Premier level after their Challenger teams failed to make it to the playoffs. This was Megan Fudge’s second opportunity to play Premier as she stepped in for Maggie Brascia in the first event of season 1 to less successful results. Susannah Barr has not had an opportunity to play Premier this year as Dallas was the first event Barr has not made the playoffs in Challenger, having gone unselected in both drafts.
You can talk about the reasons why Barr and Fudge both were not drafted to Premier, but their performances over the weekend demonstrated that they can hold up at the Premier level, which is not surprising. Susannah Barr had a few big wins for the Bay Area Breakers, including a women’s doubles win with Lea Jansen over the Kawamotos in group play (the Kawamotos only loss across 2 events). Megan Fudge showed up in a big way for Columbus as they made the playoffs and were a Dreambreaker point away from making the semis.
There is a fine line between the players who feel they can play at the next level and the players who deserve to be at that next level, whether it is Premier or Challenger. I wrote about sample sizes earlier in these takeaways, and I think that more players are able to hold up in this format over the course of a single event than people may think. Allison Harris played solid pickleball in event 1 despite going completely undrafted and having a limited body of pickleball experience.
This is not to say necessarily that Susannah Barr, Megan Fudge or Allison Harris should have been drafted Premier. Rather, it is to say that there may not be as great a margin between certain levels of players as people may believe. This excludes the top of the pickleball pyramid where there truly is a very different level at the highest level of the game. As we saw at the APP in 2022, that gap after the top few players and the rest was not what the PPA wanted you to believe it was.
It is always fun for me to see athletes make the most of an unexpected opportunity. You get moments like Rafa Hewett picking Susannah Barr up off the ground following a 29-27 match clinching win, or Megan Fudge somehow winning a mixed game with Collin Johns at the Premier level. These things make for great TV and it also tells us that things may not be as clear cut as we want them to be.
4. MVP Selections (Slim) – We, at NML, had one of the MVP votes for the MLP this weekend, along with the Kitchen and a fan vote. In Challenger, we voted for CJ Klinger and he had to be the unanimous MVP winner.
In Premier, we voted for Jackie Kawamoto and had Riley Newman as our second pick, but Christian Alshon ended up winning the MVP. Granted, DC was a bit of a tough team to pick the MVP for because they were so solid and balanced across the board. Here was the Kitchen’s explanation for their selection:
The MVP difference in opinion raised the question of what the criteria isnfor the MVP of a pickleball team. In our minds, the most valuable player means the player that would be toughest to replace for a team for that event. We had Jackie slightly edging out Riley because, while Riley was probably the most valuable player is the finals, Jackie was consistently DC’s best player over the course of the weekend, including the group stage, and played like a top five woman.
Christian played very well this weekend but he may have benefitted from exceeding expectations or outperforming his draft slot standard, in winning votes. This is something we have seen before in MLP, think Lee Whitwell MVP’s, or even Megan Dizon. My take is that outperforming expectations isn’t what the MVP is about. It should go to the best player.
5. Paddles Failing Left, Right and Centre (Gritty) – If you follow pickleball social media closely, you might have seen some people commenting on the number of paddles failing MLP’s testing protocol in Dallas. The first I saw of anything publicly was from Tyler Loong, who tweeted “Just when you thought the paddle issues were behind us…” and replied to the infamous PB44444444 account that “The amount of paddles that they’re storing is wild”. The PB44 account then tagged us stating “Top brands and top players @NmlPickleball”
By the time we were tagged, we had already heard from a couple of people that paddles were failing. Rumors that as many as 75% of paddles were failing and every Selkirk 002 was taken out of play were a couple of the things we had heard. It does not appear to be true that every 002 failed nor do we have any confirmation yet that over 75% of paddles tested failed. Although, apparently Zane Navratil estimates that 90% of paddles were removed from competition, which would seem basically impossible.
Nevertheless, what is clear is that a whole bunch of paddles failed. MLP sent a note to players on Friday morning addressing the concerns about the increased rate of paddles failing testing. MLP confirmed to players that their testing standards and processed have not changed despite the number of paddles failing.
Paddles that were not previously failing MLP’s testing were suddenly failing, and players were having to get their sponsors to overnight paddles to ensure they had something to play with at MLP. Paddles were failing in spades for both deflection and surface roughness, even with MLP only randomly testing 20% of paddles for surface roughness and expanding the allowable limit beyond the USAP standard.
The envelope keeps being pushed but, as long as the merger goes through, we should have better standardized testing for PPA and MLP events in 2024. There should be dynamic testing ready to go within the next few weeks from what we have been told, and that should be of great assistance to creating a definitive set of standards.
I continue to believe that, once clear and reliable standards are in place, there must be consequences for paddle failures. I’m okay with MLP simply ensuring a level playing field in this awkward interim period, but we shouldn’t be far off from being able to implement consequences of some sort. Consequences don’t have to mean penalties to players, especially when a lot of them (although, not all) are simply using stock paddles. The court of public opinion can help ensure people fall in line. Publicly identifying players and manufacturers who are walking over the legality line, regardless of whose fault it is, would likely do wonders for quickly ensuring that most everyone is playing inside the lines.
Jillian Braverman released a podcast on Tuesday morning outlining the PPA’s mismanagement of the most recent paddle controversy involving Irina Tereschenko. As we mentioned on our podcast released Monday evening, Braverman confirms that she was told by USAP Managing Director of Pickleball Standards, Carl Schmits, that Irina refused to yield her paddle for off-site testing after the challenges even though PPA Commissioner, Connor Pardoe, said unequivocally that Irina’s paddle had “100%” been tested. Schmits has been assisting the PPA with their on-site testing in 2023.
You can listen to Jillian Braverman’s podcast for the full scoop, including a lengthy recording of a phone call with Chief Operating Officer of the PPA, Connor Ogden and PPA Head Referee, Don Stanley.
Hopefully, by early 2024, we won’t be talking about paddle concerns. There will always be those who are ahead of current testing protocols, but consistent standards and testing to ensure those standards are adhered to along with a united organization that is more interested in a level playing field than keeping certain players and brands happy is what it will take.
Is that all that much to ask for?
Bonus Takeaway. New Podcast Episode – We released a new podcast episode on Monday evening as we provided our reactions to the results from MLP Dallas. Give it a listen on YouTube, Spotify or Apple, and make sure you hit that subscribe button, so you don’t miss the next one.
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