What the hell is going on with pro pickleball?

Many of you are probably wondering why a wave of “signed” posts have been flooding the social media accounts of pickleball. Others of you couldn’t tell the difference between a PPA bracket and an MLP Dreambreaker.

If you are in the former camp, let me explain, to the extent that I have been able to figure out, what is happening between the MLP and PPA. 

I have spent the last 5 days at the center of this breakup. Starting on Thursday when I flew up to New York City for an event The Kitchen was helping produce. 

Jared and I had arranged to meet up with MLP founder, Steve Kuhn and their new CEO, Julio DePietro for lunch. They text to let us know they were running late. When they arrived, we could tell something was up, but the magnitude of what was unfolding had not revealed itself just yet. 

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back and recap how we got here and introduce some of the key players in this saga. 

In 2020 Connor Pardoe, then a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Utah, saw an opportunity and started the PPA tour. He managed to launch and navigate a professional tour of a fledgling sport in the midst of a global pandemic. To his credit, the PPA emerged as the premier tour in the sport and has played a vital role in raising the awareness and exposing the sport of pickleball, at the highest levels, to the American public. 

Steve Kuhn, a former hedge fund manager-turned-self-professed-pickleball zealot, is one of the sport’s visionary leaders. He reimagined what the sport could be and created Major League Pickleball, a team-based event that launched their first event in November of 2021. 

Major League Pickleball, or MLP as it is known, was an instant hit. I can say this with certainty, because I was there, at Dreamland in Dripping Springs, TX.  Dreamland is an eclectic pickleball complex on a sprawling plot of land about 30 minutes outside of Austin, which happens to be owned and developed by Steve Kuhn. Dreamland is an incubator of sorts and is Steve’s gift to pickleball. It was at Dreamland where DUPR, Minor League Pickleball, Picklemall, and a few other ideas around the sport were born. Steve’s ability to spin up new businesses is rivaled only by the generosity he shows to those in his orbit. Part of the vision he had in building Dreamland, was to be able to host pickleball players to live on the property, free of charge, to practice and train together. 

The first MLP back in 2021 didn’t have the crowds we have seen in 2023, and while it was still raw and taking form, it was clear this was an exciting and fun format. The winner of the first MLP was team BLQK which featured Ben Johns, Rob Nunnery, Irina Tereschenko, and Andrea Koop. Ben and Rob were living at Dreamland at the time and co-hosted a podcast called The Freestyle Boys. On the episode after their MLP victory, Ben and Rob discussed how much fun it was and alluded to how going back to the tour was going to be tough. Not that many people were listening to pickleball podcasts back then, but when Ben speaks, things happen.

MLP was a new wrinkle in the sport as the rise of pickleball became palpable across the country. It was at this time, after the first MLP in November, 2021 that the PPA was either acquired or significantly invested in by Tom Dundon. 

Tom remains a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve never met the man, but one thing is certain, he is a very successful businessman having made a fortune in TopGolf, Carvana, and a few other lucrative endeavors. 

Tom was an early entrant to the game of pickleball and saw the opportunity to grow the sport and create a lucrative business in the process. He quickly acquired and rolled up Pickleball Central, Pickleball Tournaments (and Pickleball Brackets), and a few other pickleball related entities along with the PPA tour to create what eventually became pickleball.com, primed to be a powerhouse of a business within the world of pickleball. 

Maybe Tom was listening to that episode of Freestyle Boys, but sometime between mid November and Christmas of 2021, Tom Dundon flew Ben Johns out to Cabo on his private jet and the world of pickleball changed forever. 

As 2021 came to an end, the PPA began signing players to exclusive contracts, limiting their ability to play wherever or whenever they wanted. At the time, and from my perspective, the APP tour was competing with PPA for the top talent. As the top players began to sign these contracts, which provided them secured salaries, free entry into PPA tournaments, and higher purses for winning, it shook the pickleball world and the APP really had no answer. 

The PPA locked up the majority of the best players and secured their position as the tour where the best players would be playing week in and week out. 

But these contracts also affected other pickleball entities, such as the US Open, Nationals, and MLP, as these PPA-signed players were no longer allowed to participate without permission from PPA. These contracts and rules were something new to pickleball, where the “let’s just have some fun” and “community feel” of this grassroots sport were now exposed to the realities of a cutthroat business. 

MLP carried on and fielded the best teams available, and proved that the team format was a winner. 

In 2022, MLP hosted three team events and the PPA continued to be the premier tour. But the questions loomed, why couldn’t these two organizations play nice and allow the best players in the world to compete in both. Pickleball needed this to happen and most pickleball fans hoped the powers-that-be would come to their pickleball senses and do what was best for the sport and not just their bottom line. 

Whatever hope we had of that happening was shattered when PPA announced the formation of their own team league, VIBE. 

VIBE was going to directly compete with MLP, using the same team format and leveraging the very best players that PPA had locked up. 

Now, you can look at the formation of VIBE in two ways. It was either a brilliant business strategy or a kick to the groin of MLP and Steve in particular. 

But before we could figure out which one it was, it was over. Just as quickly as VIBE had arrived, it was quickly shelved as MLP and PPA reached an agreement to allow the PPA-signed players participate in the 2023 season on Major League Pickleball. This was great news for us pickleball nerds who were tracking this stuff. It appeared to be a pretty shrewd business move by PPA to start VIBE and force MLP to part with a significant chunk of their business. 

To Steve’s credit, he put his ego aside and a deal was promptly done (although never formally signed by PPA). As part of this deal, it has been reported, MLP gave PPA a 20% ownership stake in MLP and 4 teams. (Terms of this deal are not public, so this might not be accurate, but I believe this to be in the ballpark of the deal.)

MLP continued to evolve, aligning teams into city locations, expanding the league, and bringing on huge names as owners, including LeBron James, Tom Brady, the YouTubers Dude Perfect, Gary Vaynerchuck, Drew Brees, and many more. As the league grew, so did the value of the teams, currently boasting a $10 million dollar value per team. The deal PPA had negotiated was now incredibly valuable less than 12 months later and it appeared, from the outside at least, that they had hit the jackpot. VIBE, an idea (Steve’s idea if we are being fair) had been screen printed on a few sweatshirts and formally announced and a week or so later those sweatshirts had netted the PPA a 20% stake and 4 teams in MLP. My back-of-the-napkin math puts the value of that investment at over $100 million. 

The plan was for six MLP events to be played in 2023 with the season split into two halves. 

The first half was a roaring success with events in Arizona, Florida, and California. The second half of the season is set to kick off in Atlanta in late September… 

Now, back to our lunch in New York. Steve and Julio’s phones were blowing up and it was clear the unsigned partnership that had gotten us through the first half of 2023 was in jeopardy. 

Meanwhile in Kansas City, it was over 100 degrees and the PPA was hosting their first event where gambling was legal. This gambling partnership that Connor had secured with FanDuel would ordinarily be the stuff of headlines (pickleball headlines at least) but they picked the wrong day to get some PR buzz. 

Instead of the tournament being the story, Kansas City became the stage and the story became these contracts. It was deja vu all over again, just like at the end of 2021, players were receiving contracts that would force them to once again make a choice and be exclusive to a tour (or a league). But the difference this time was 1) that there was money in the sport now and 2) there were contracts coming from two entities. There was an actual choice to be made and whichever side you chose, you were being treated like a real, professional athlete.

Over the last two years, and with the help of both PPA and MLP, America has a new favorite activity – pickleball. And when America falls in love with something, the money follows. 

On Friday, after it was clear this partnership had fractured, Jared and I went to Julio’s apartment in Manhattan to interview Steve for a Kitchen Konversation. (We extended the same invitation to Connor as well, but understandably, he was on the ground in Kansas City running a tournament)

From this point on, it was a blur. MLP began securing players and PPA quickly followed suit. 

But the question remained, why had this happened? I have spoken to both Connor Pardoe and Steve Kuhn. I have spoken to dozens of players and agents and employees of these two organizations and the “how and why” we have gotten to this point is still up for debate. 

But a narrative has emerged. Steve Kuhn and Connor Pardoe are both fighting for what they believe is right, for the sport and for their own organizations. Both have built these businesses from nothing and both believed in pickleball before pickleball was cool. If it were not for these two men and the tireless work they have done, pickleball probably wouldn’t be America’s current obsession. 

Steve’s vision of pickleball is not a conventional one, but little of what Steve does is conventional. Steve’s approach to pickleball is team based, uses rally scoring which makes it easier to predict the timing of, and ultimately more efficient to organize and run large tournaments. He has also emulated a proven and successful model from other sports leagues, with teams and owners and diversified revenue streams ranging from brand sponsorships, team merchandise sales, to broadcast rights. It’s no wonder MLP has attracted as much investment as it has. 

Connor is an entrepreneur who is mature well beyond his 28 years. Connor believes this is an individual sport that has room to experiment with the team format play.

But the question I set out to answer was ‘why did this partnership not work?’

I believe both these men want what is best for the sport. But they are also business owners who want what is best for their businesses and the means to get there do not always have shared paths. 

Steve has investors to whom he must deliver a return on their investment, so his actions are not purely altruistic. But he is also an anomaly of sorts. A capitalist with a nasty streak of altruism coursing through his veins. His instincts come from the “let’s just have some fun” and “community feel” for which pickleball was known. But the game changed and Steve recognized that in order to see his vision of pickleball saving America and putting the professional player’s best interest at the forefront, he could no longer hope this unsigned deal was going to work out. Taking a page from Tom’s playbook, MLP decided they would make the first move.

From a player’s perspective, MLP’s format provides a much easier path for players to maximize not just their income, but for the players not named Ben or Anna Leigh, to compete for championships. The MLP contracts also provided players with health insurance, long term (3 years) deals, and travel expenses covered. 

So as we enjoyed some pasta at lunch on Thursday, the tectonic plates of pickleball were shifting. The MLP contracts were amazing for players and the feedback must have been immediate as the PPA was quick to counter with their own offers. I have not seen a PPA contract, but it is reported that the PPA contracts also provide players with similar economic stability and benefits.

This wasn’t the way Tom, or Steve, or Connor, or the fans, or anyone who loves the game wanted pro pickleball to shake out. But while it feels messy at the moment and potentially unnecessary, it is actually an amazing time for these pro players. This is a proxy battle, but it isn’t just about money or power, it is about a game that we all love. And this fracturing of the alliance has led to a sustainable profession for dozens of players, the majority of whom have been living paycheck to paycheck, working second jobs, and debating if they can even afford to continue. These contracts provide a stable paycheck to the athletes who have given everything they have to make this sport so entertaining to watch. So, at the very least, something very good has happened out of what could appear to be a messy situation. 

Both sides have resisted taking the nuclear option. While they can’t seem to find alignment in working together, there is respect for what the other has built. The air of decorum makes me hopeful that reconciliation is not completely out of the question. But the terms of whatever deal the two sides could possibly strike will certainly look significantly different than last year. 

At the end of the day, the best pickleball will be a mix of individual singles and doubles tournament play and team league play. Pickleball doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be a zero sum game. I hope these two sides can find a way to work together, because unlike the game of pickleball, the business of pickleball doesn’t need winners and losers, everyone can win… and if nothing else, today the players have won. 

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