In the last six months, there has been a flurry of activity surrounding the official and unofficial leagues representing the highest level of professional pickleball play. The questions that come of these leagues fighting for control are, does anyone care, and what is it doing for the sport?
Who Are The Major Players?
The PPA (Professional Pickleball Association) and MLP (Major League Pickleball) have seemingly joined forces to gain control over the professional pickleball landscape. The VIBE pickleball league was also a key player in this three-piece pickleball band.
On November 3rd, 2022, the VIBE league announced: “The VIBE pickleball league has formally launched as the elite professional pickleball league for team competition and announced its first team owner, Mark Cuban.” Here come the celebrities! The VIBE league was “powered by the PPA,” which was a precise play by the PPA to enter the team-based pickleball format.
The MLP was formed in 2021 by Steve Kuhn, a billionaire executive and philanthropist turned central “player” in pickleball. The MLP had always focused their attention on team-based play and took note of the PPA’s creation of their VIBE league.
On November 9th, 2022, less than one week after the VIBE announcement, the PPA and MLP announced a merger of their team-based leagues. Combining these two entities allowed for creating of a frontrunner in the fight for professional pickleball supremacy.
The combined leagues gathered for a draft held in Las Vegas on December 19, 2022. Insert all of the major celebrity owners that have captured all the headlines in the last few months.
Many assumed that this merger meant the other professional pickleball league, the APP (Association of Professional Pickleball), would roll over. With their eye on all the leagues, Pros began to comment that it was a foregone conclusion that the APP would just be absorbed into the super league of the PPA & MLP. The APP was having nothing of it.
The APP wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet and proclaiming that not only were they here to stay but, for various reasons, considered themselves the purest and preferred league of pickleball players of all levels and circumstances.
Do Amateur Players Care About the League Drama?
A better question is whether the average amateur player understands all the moving pieces?
Christopher McGee, an avid pickleball player in the greater Milwaukee area and former college tennis player, nailed this sentiment, stating;
“I don’t view professional pickleball as key to the game’s success. Interestingly, I believe that our interest in pro pickleball is a commentary on the game’s success on a grassroots, amateur level – rather than being the other way around. I think pro pickleball will only succeed as much the sport continues to grow its player base at this grassroots level.”
Recently, it became apparent to amateurs that given that the PPA restricts its players from playing in other events, there would be no participation by top-name pros in the 2023 U.S. Open held in Naples, Florida, this April. That did not sit well with the average player who enjoyed playing in the same event as the top names and being present to watch the leading players.
Amateurs may not care about the league drama, but they do care about access. Access and relatability will be keys to capturing and holding an amateur’s attention.
“I’ve seen snippets of professional matchplay. I primarily consume pickleball-based content on Instagram.”Chris McGee
Regarding pickleball in the news, there is no shortage of PR. PT Barnum once said there is no such thing as bad publicity. Of course, he was most famous for creating a circus, which is why SI has recently dubbed “Pickleball the wild, wild, West”.
Regarding the leagues, the best guess is that the average player is enamored with the celebrities associated with the teams and players in the PPA & MLP, but what that translates to is foggy at best.
“I am peripherally interested in the professional leagues. I feel there’s been so much growth and investment over the last couple of years from prominent business figures and athletes like Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, so I’m very interested to see how this plays out. It will be interesting to see if fans prefer a tour format like tennis currently has or a more team-based league like we’re familiar with in other American professional sports. I believe the team-based structure will appeal more to an American audience.”Chris McGee
When you combine these formal leagues, with other league-like events, for example, the WSOPickleball (World Series of Pickleball), a take-off of the World Series of Poker, which promises big payouts but will have a limited field given the exclusivity of the PPA, the average player is left to try and figure out where they will focus their attention.
Players Want to Play
As a Pickleball Professional, the old saying is that players want to play. Most players enjoy the social nature of the game, fun competitions, tournaments, making new friends, and talking at a peripheral level about the pickleball scene at large.
The best guess is that the coming years will see a fight to the death as more and more money comes flooding into the game from celebrity owners and sponsors ready to grab a piece of the pickleball pie.
Meanwhile, we’ll see if the millions of amateurs not tied to a tour will even take note. The average player is more concerned with finding an available court than carving out time to watch an hour or two of pickleball. The fight for professional supremacy may be more interesting than watching professional matches. We shall see.
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