The professional pickleball world has had quite the weekend. Late Thursday night, Major League Pickleball (MLP) announced it had made lucrative, multi-year contract offers to a few top players.
While this may seem logical and beneficial in the sport, it’s much more complicated. MLP and the largest professional pickleball entity, the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), have a contentious history but were negotiating a merger.
MLP’s announcement came as a surprise to the PPA, thus ending the merger discussions and setting off a tumultuous race for each organization to sign as many top players as possible.
The history between the PPA and MLP is complex.
Steve Kuhn, an Austin-based billionaire, fell in love with pickleball and dreamed up a new sports team format. He brought wealthy investors to become team owners and created Major League Pickleball.
The first event was held at Dreamland in Dripping Springs, TX, in November 2021. All of the top pros played, and unsurprisingly, Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters’ teams faced off in the finals.
The energy at MLP was like nothing pickleball had seen before, diverging from a more subdued tennis-like environment, and the fans loved it.
On January 1st, 2022, it was announced that the Pardoe family sold the PPA to billionaire Tom Dundon, who had plans to elevate the professional pickleball viewing experience to that of other professional sports.
One of his first acts was to give the top-level players exclusive contracts that barred them from playing on the rival tour, APP, and in the next season of Major League Pickleball. The money and security Dundon offered had never been available to players before, so most accepted.
Without Ben Johns, Tyson McGuffin, and Anna Leigh Waters of the world, the future of MLP was in question, but the product proved to be strong enough to succeed without the best players.
After watching their peers have a blast at MLP events and win significant prize money, many PPA-contracted players expressed disappointment that they couldn’t participate. At the same time, Steve Kuhn knew MLP wouldn’t reach its full potential without the top talent. Something had to change.
Seemingly out of nowhere, in November 2022, the PPA announced their own team-style league, called Vibe, with Mark Cuban as a team owner. He was in attendance at the next PPA tournament, and the players were donning Vibe sweatshirts to promote the league.
Questions about how two leagues could survive considering the number of professional pickleball players swarmed, but ultimately, Vibe lasted about a week before a strategic merger was established between the PPA and MLP (causing many to wonder if Vibe was ever real). In this agreement, PPA-contracted players could play in MLP events, and the PPA would be given 20% stake in MLP and two teams, The Seattle Pioneers and The Utah Black Diamonds.
This paved the way for the 2023 season, which seemed to be going exceptionally well until Thursday, August 24th.
Now that we’re caught up…
This weekend’s events surprised many, but considering the proposed 2024 schedules for the PPA and MLP, maybe it shouldn’t have. It would have been impossible for players to participate in as many tour stops and events as proposed, so the two entities needed to find a common ground.
Negotiations for a more permanent merger were in the works, but they had recently stalled. Thus, the MLP’s sudden announcement of contract offers set off a chaotic series of events.
It must be noted that the announcement came right in the middle of a PPA tournament, adding extra pressure on players to make decisions. Whether or not this was an intentional strategy is hard to say, but Steve Kuhn probably hasn’t forgotten when Tom Dundon took the first shot at MLP by banning his players from participating, a decision that could have had stronger consequences for the league.
According to an article by Jessica Golden, the PPA told CNBC that MLP hadn’t signed the verbal deal they agreed to 10 months ago, and their representatives had ceased communications. Connor Pardoe, PPA Tour CEO, told CNBC, “I don’t know what Steve Kuhn’s intentions were the entire time. I don’t know if he led us down this road to get access to our players to try to be in the stronger position here.” Steve Kuhn responded by saying there are “numerous misrepresentations of reality.”
What we saw was the PPA and MLP race to sign as many players to their rosters as possible and the PPA announcing the return of the Vibe league.
One pro player I spoke with called it “a circus.”
The success of either organization depends on the talent it secures, so every announcement comes with consequences. The PPA quickly locked in several top-level players, including the world’s #1 man and woman, Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters. This was imperative as the PPA advertises itself as the place where the best of the best can be seen.
They also signed other PPA loyalists early, such as Collin Johns, Matt Wright, Lucy Kovalova, Callie Smith, Catherine Parenteau, Leigh Waters, Jay Devilliers, and Tyler Loong. The PPA has been known to take care of its upper echelon, so none of these signings came as a surprise. The PPA’s partiality was evident on championship Sunday when Hannah Johns, PPA’s broadcast talent and Ben Johns’s sister, handed Waters her trophy while wearing the same shirt as her.
After that first onslaught of names from the PPA, MLP started to announce their stars: Federico Staksrud, Anna Bright, Zane Navratil, James Ignatowich, Rafa Hewitt, and the GOAT of MLP, Irina Tereschenko.
The PPA focused immediately on quality over quantity. Still, the success of the team format of MLP doesn’t depend on one or two big names, so they are more than happy to secure everyone else, especially considering they still signed valuable names such as Tyson McGuffin, Lea Jansen, and Parris Todd.
A big turning point that was somewhat surprising was Riley Newman’s decision to sign with MLP rather than with the PPA. He is widely agreed upon as the #2 male player and a fixture on the PPA podiums. This seemed to give MLP an edge.
The PPA had another trick up its sleeve, though. After announcing his retirement from tennis, Jack Sock signed a PPA agreement of his own. We don’t know what his agreement entails, especially regarding time commitment, but he is a significant get for the PPA from a media and ratings standpoint. Bringing in more well-known tennis players seems like a strategy the PPA will continue to use.
While there will undoubtedly be more headlines, the big names we’re still waiting to hear from are JW Johnson, Jorja Johnson, Dylan Frazier, Gabe Tardio, Jessie Irvine, and Lindsey Newman.
JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier are the #2 men’s doubles team, and JW and Jorja Johnson are the only mixed team to beat Johns and Waters in 2023, so their decisions hold a massive impact. Ironically, JW Johnson and Frazier are two of the last players to make a choice, but they were the first to sign with Vibe when it was originally announced, despite not being PPA-contracted players at the time.
There are many reasons why a player would go one way or the other. The obvious one is, of course, money. Some players have gone from getting $1,000-$1,500 in appearance fees to being offered lucrative, three-year guaranteed contracts.
Some may choose MLP over PPA because they find the team format more fun and see greater opportunities to win rather than continuing to fight an uphill battle against the almost undefeated doubles teams currently ruling the PPA tour. On the other hand, Tyler Loong made an excellent point on his podcast, King of the Court, that players may want to stay with the PPA so they have the chance to dethrone the top players in the world.
Decisions are also being made for lifestyle reasons. Wes Burrows, a professional pickleball player who recently signed with the PPA, explained to me that as a father of a newborn, the structure of MLP was too rigid to make sense for him and his family. When you are a team member, you can’t skip events if needed, which he has been able to do on the PPA tour because of the flexibility with partners.
As a newer organization, MLP is still going through growing pains that are more difficult to plan around, whereas he knows the PPA venues and can pick and choose the ones that work best for him. When asked if the PPA put pressure on him to make a decision, he explained that he was never given a specific deadline, but he felt the urgency of the moment and was happy with the offer presented. Many players, like Burrows, have been with the PPA for a long time, have relationships, and feel more security staying with an established entity.
There have been rumblings that the PPA contracts were only letters of intent, but Burrows confirmed that he signed an official contract. This may not apply to everyone, though.
While it seems like there is a general consensus that every player should make the decision that’s best for them and that the pro community is supporting each other, there have been instances of players promoting the side they’ve chosen.
Rob Nunnery, a recently signed MLP player, tweeted: “This is your daily, friendly reminder that Vibe does not exist,” Implying that PPA’s Vibe league will never come to fruition.
There are rumors that the PPA hasn’t fulfilled its financial responsibilities to all players, which Nunnery also mentioned in a tweet saying: “PPA guarantees prize money that I haven’t received.”
In response to the rumors, Connor Pardoe tweeted: “Let’s be clear: – Our money is in the bank – Over $5M of upfront money is going out.” Zane Navratil responded, “I’ll let you know when the money you owe me hits the bank account!”
Every player wants to play for the best tour or league, especially when it’s unknown if both can survive, so it makes sense that they would promote their side.
Things are changing quickly, and there are still many unknowns. There have been predictions that players could switch from one organization to the other this week and that this is all just a fight for leverage before a deal is struck.
Questions that linger:
- Will MLP players fulfill their PPA tournament commitments?
- Will MLP have a redraft before its upcoming Atlanta event?
- Will more extremely high-level tennis players, like Jack Sock, move to pickleball now that real money is involved?
- How will both organizations fill their teams or brackets with enough players to create a valuable product?
- How will the broadcast partners respond to these sudden changes?
Ultimately, most of the pickleball world is happy that the players are making more money and receiving the benefits they deserve. This means that additional players can play pickleball full-time, thereby raising the overall level of play. The concern is that they are being used as leverage in a power struggle between two billionaires, and they could potentially become collateral damage in whatever unfolds next.
We’ll continue reporting the facts as they’re confirmed and stories highlighting the realities these players must face as their pro careers progress.
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