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    Emerging Talent:

    A Pro Pickleball Agent's Perspective

    Pro pickleball continues to evolve rapidly, and pro and rec players alike have seen the rise in popularity and the quality of pickleball games. As the sport grows its player base, pickleball has become much more competitively viable, attracting a wide range of athletes. Whether it’s a player with a rich history with racquet sports or an emerging talent who’s only ever held a pickleball paddle, there’s no arguing that the pro scene is home to better talent each year!

    At the epicenter of this growth, Sam Flaxman is guiding its transition from a backyard pastime to a professional sport with a global footprint. As a pro talent agent with a vision for the future of pickleball, Flaxman has emerged as a pivotal figure in shaping the trajectories of professional pickleball athletes.

    Flaxman told us the story of his foray into the world of pickleball, the evolution of the sport, and the nuanced dance of talent management in this swiftly expanding landscape. We discussed how Flaxman’s career turned to pickleball and why his instrumental role as a player agent will continue to impact the sport at the highest level.

    leland orfield

    By Leland Orfield – 03/27/2024

    The first question I typically like to ask people is how did you first get into pickleball? How did you first hear about pickleball, and what inspired you to eventually end up in this kind of career path?

    Sam: I actually ended up in real estate for seven years, and I would go coach tennis down in Palm Beach where I met an awesome core to guys who own Hyperspace Ventures. So, I ended up investing in the Series A for Top Court. Eventually, Tom Dundon purchased it and bought it under the Pickleball Topco umbrella.

    I met the PPA team at PPA Atlanta in 2022. I saw what they were building, and I saw the future of pickleball as a very viable business. Eventually, I fell in love with watching the game probably in late 2021, and I knew there was an opportunity for me. I just had to knock on enough doors and bother enough people, and I just stayed in touch with the PPA Tour. 

    All of a sudden, the PPA had a Pro Player Director Position open up in about July of 2022. I went through the interviews, and the next thing you know, I was fortunate enough to take on that position for about a year. I’m so grateful for my opportunity there; it led me to my position now of being an agent for pro players over the last year, which has been an even greater opportunity to continue serving the pro players, do work for them, and see them grow. It’s an unbelievable field that we get to work in.

    Tell me about how you first got involved with Top Notch Management, and what Top Notch has to offer pickleball athletes.

    Sam: Our firm founder, Sam Duvall, wanted to build out a boutique agency that serviced players, not just here in the States, but all across the world. We represent the likes of Reilly Opelka, John Isner, Caroline Garcia, Cam Norrie, and JJ Wolf, but we saw another opportunity in the pickleball space because we knew the stickiness of it. 

    People love it, not only just recreationally, but also to watch the pros play. It’s grown tremendously from its first inception, from the APP Tour in 2018, the PPA in 2020, and the MLP in 2021.

    What we provide to our players, you know, it’s all about care. At the end of the day, we’re a little bit of babysitters, therapists, hand holders, but ultimately we love working for athletes and having them succeed. Not only on the court, but off the court. So we focus on talent management, talent marketing, hospitality, consulting, and strategic advising.

    Pickleball has grown astronomically in the past few years, and there are now thousands of players who have aspirations of going pro. What is the talent discovery and development process like? What qualities does Top Notch look for in players that leads to the partnerships you now have?

    Sam: So I kind of helped with our player development and scouting; that’s really my specialty, you know. As a pro player director for the PPA, I was fortunate enough to see hundreds of pros, if not thousands of pros, come through the door. 

    And I think when it comes to finding the right athletes to work with, you want to find those that are very composed, those that are very personable extroverts, willing to go out and meet with the sponsors, and willing to spend time with them. Invest in the brand that’s investing in them, that’s the most important thing. 

    Then there’s being able to execute, because there are some athletes that are in it for the money, and there are some that want to grow the game in the right way. And I think the most important thing is building that relationship from the grassroots, meeting the marketing managers, meeting the vice president or the president of the marketing business, in some of the other C-suites. You know, that takes time, and getting in front of those people is the most important thing and that’s what we try to do and bring to our athletes.

    Can you talk about how you build and maintain trustful relationships with your athletes? What’s your approach to ensuring their needs and career aspirations are met?

    Sam: I think what it comes down to is setting realistic expectations. You know, telling them that we’re there for them all the time – being on the phone, being available, making sure that they’re being heard is really the most important thing. And that comes over time. It doesn’t happen overnight. 

    Fortunately I’ve built a relationship with a lot of pro players from my time at the PPA Tour. My name is my reputation, and the most important thing is that you’re there for them. It’s showing up day in and day out, and doing that over and over. Once they see that hard work, and once they see that you’re really busting your ass for them, they take that in, they’re like, “Wow, this is a team I want to be a part of. This is a group I want to work with.” And fortunately now we do it time and time again.

    At the end of the day, letting our athletes know that you’re human too: You’re going to make mistakes. Also, just listen to their needs and hear them out. I think that’s the most important thing. Less talking is better, more listening is what’s needed.

    Contract negotiation is crucial in your line of work, and that seems like a difficult process to navigate, especially with the turbulence pro pickleball has faced in the last year or so. What are some of your strategies and principles that help guide you during negotiations in pickleball’s evolving market?

    Sam: I think that constant communication is the most important thing making sure everyone’s on the same page – Everyone understands where each party is at. Because one party, let’s say an athlete, expects this, and the other side is expecting this. So you have to manage that relationship from both ends. 

    We are the middleman in this case, and setting those realistic goals is the most important thing. Deals just don’t happen overnight. Educating players is letting them know that deals can take anywhere as little as two months if we’re lucky, but most of the time, it takes somewhere between six to eight months, maybe even a year. 

    When it comes to the tour negotiations, you’re working with, at a time which was very turbulent for a lot of players, two tours that didn’t necessarily get along, and they were trying to figure out how to merge. That being said, you had to manage a lot of personalities, and with that comes understanding the dynamics, understanding the current ecosystem, and where the pro sport is going. I think it’s just being reassuring to both sides that in the end, everything’s gonna be okay. Things are turbulent, but no one has a crystal ball. So the decision you make now, although it does affect your future, won’t have as large a repercussion on you, because where pickleball is going this far beyond what we can even comprehend right now.  

    So it’s being a calming voice for not only the player, but for the tours as well, letting them know that our players want to play. Along with both of these tours, they just want to go out there and they want to compete. That’s the most important thing for these athletes.

    How do you see pickleball evolving in the next 5-10 years, and what role do agents and advisors like yourself play in shaping the future of the sport?

    Sam: So agents like ourselves, we’re evolving every day. It’s helping the non-endemic brands. So let’s say like a Rainstorm, a Miller Light, a Vizzy, a Chase, any of those brands that are looking to expand beyond and sponsor those tournaments over there, find unique opportunities to activate. 

    That’s where we help deliver, and at the same time, it’s helping the endemic brands, so like your paddle companies, for example, those are really gonna be the first ones. The endemic brands are gonna be the first ones to penetrate the global markets because in the US it’s already a saturated market for paddles, balls, and anything else. 

    Our job is to bring those endemic brands like Joola, like Selkirk, introducing them to opportunities like MLP Australia and PPA Australia, introduce them to the Indian Open, and introduce them to the China Open. For them, it’s gonna be huge because they can sell into a whole new market. They can go sell to almost 100 million customers, if even 10% of the population in China wants to play, or 150 million people play in India. That’s a huge source of revenue for these paddle brands, these ball brands, nets, court distributors – Anything that wants to touch pickleball, you’ve got to get into these markets. And that’s our job. We find opportunities for them to grow their name and grow their vision.

    "Things are turbulent, but no one has a crystal ball. So the decision you make now, although it does affect your future, won't have as large a repercussion on you, because where pickleball is going this far beyond what we can even comprehend right now.  "
    sambw 1
    Sam Flaxman
    Strategic Pickleball Advisor - Topnotch Management

    For young athletes aspiring to turn professional in pickleball, what advice would you give them about choosing an agent and managing their early career?

    Sam: I think it’s great. With what happened with the tour wars, there was a small gap in time where players had control and really could carve out their own destinies. And whatever these players got, I’m so happy for all of them because they deserved a little bit more of the pie than what they weren’t getting. 

    At the end of the day, it’s created this whole tsunami of players who are like, “Oh my God, there’s money in pickleball.” So now that’s ignited a whole generation of collegiate tennis players, young athletes who are eight, nine years old, who may be playing tennis and now are picking up playing pickleball. Because of that, you’re gonna see a whole different generational talent come in, in the next five to ten years, because of what happened in August of last year.

    So my advice to new players coming in: Just have fun with it. You know, just because someone is somewhere else in their career and you’re not maybe getting the podium finishes or you’re finishing in the qualifiers. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes commitment. It takes sacrifice. It’s not gonna happen overnight. 

    When it comes to finding the right agency, you want to put yourself with people that you trust because trust is the most important thing. And if you don’t like what someone’s saying, or you’re not liking what you’re getting from your agent, you should look elsewhere. There’s always there’s always a home for somebody, and you just have to find the right home for you.

    Lastly, reflecting on your journey so far, what has been the most rewarding part of working in pickleball, and what advice would you offer to others looking to enter the sports management field in emerging sports?

    Sam: I mean, it’s as cliche as it sounds. It’s the opportunity to work with these awesome athletes. You know, we have a great portfolio of clientele. And showing up day in and day out for them because I love the sport and I love what they’re doing. 

    I want to see that what they’re building now is going to help them reap the rewards and benefits down the road because pickleball is a special sport. At the end of the day, it’s these relationships that are going to last forever. I’ve been able to have a relationship with every pro in some way or another and getting to spend time with them is amazing. 

    I mean, they’re humans, too. They have families, they have friends, they have their own lives, and you get to learn about them. You get to hang out with them and just be around them. It’s really a special experience.

    For anyone who wants to get into the talent management space, the first thing I’d say is you have to learn the game of pickleball. You have to learn how the brackets work. You have to learn how the tournaments are run. You have to learn the point system. Until then, I think we’ll see more competition come into the space. But at the end of the day, if you don’t know anything about how the program is run. Sure, you can work with brand partners and sponsors, and you have whatever relationships that you’ve built, but if you don’t know the game of pickleball, it’s not really easy to manage a pro pickleball player’s life. I think very few people have the insight we do into managing our professional athletes.