The pickleball event of the year in 2021 is back in a big way for its second season in 2022. If you have not heard of Major League Pickleball, then it is about time to learn because Major League Pickleball is making waves for both pro pickleball and the sport of pickleball itself.
The Format of Major League Pickleball
Major League Pickleball (MLP) is an innovative format for pro pickleball, as it features teams of two men and two women, who compete as a team (as opposed to the traditional singles or doubles competition in pickleball tournaments to date). Let’s breakdown this format:
- The Teams – The MLP teams (currently, there are 12 teams) are just like any other major league—they have owners (many very prolific (like Gary Vaynerchuk, Brene Brown, James Blake, among others) that bring extra spotlights to the league) and are comprised of players selected through a draft.
- The Draft – MLP uses what is called a snake draft. Team owners are randomly given a place (1 through 12). Then the first team picks its choice of a female player from the draft pool. That first team will then have the #1 and #24 women’s picks and the #8 and #9 men’s picks. The second team will have the #2 and #23 women’s picks and the #7 and #10 men’s picks. And so on, so that each team has two male players and two female players. The idea of the snake draft is to distribute talent equally amongst the teams, in order to have as many exciting match-ups as possible.
- The Matches and Road to Finals – From there, the 12 teams are randomly placed into 3 pools of 4 teams each. Each team will play each other team in its pool, for a total of three match-ups in pool play. Each match-up consists of one women’s doubles game, one men’s doubles game, and two mixed doubles games. Each game uses rally scoring (first to 21 points, win by 2). If there is a tie (i.e., 2 games to 2 games), then MLP uses a unique singles tiebreaker called the “Dreambreaker,” in which each player on a team will play singles for 4 points before rotating with another player in a pre-selected order (again, first to 21 points, win by 2). This format is exciting as it can put men against women and women against men.
This format is intended to create excitement around pro pickleball. The team format allows fans to root for both players and teams. The team format also invigorates energy, as players are rooting for their teammates on the pickleball court. It also generates unique match ups with players that do not typically play with each other, and, with the snake format and rally scoring, features very comparable teams that lead to tight scores with games coming down the wire.
The Lead Up to the 2022 Austin MLP Event
However, during this one-week period, a lot happened. Two pros had to bow out due to injury at the APP New York City Open, as Adam Stone suffered a calf injury and Rob Nunnery suffered a knee injury. Two replacements were chosen—Stephen Auvergne and Pablo Tellez—to take their places on Mad Drops Pickleball Club and The 5’s, respectively.
Then, two pro players had to be replaced due to positive COVID tests. Wes Gabrielson was replaced by teenager, Hayden Patriquin, on the Jackrabbits, and Stephen Auvergne (who was just selected as a replacement) was replaced by Ben Newell on Mad Drops Pickleball Club.
The First Round – Pool Play
With the teams finally set and present in Dripping Springs, Texas, it was time for the first round. As noted above, the first round of the MLP event is pool play. So, the 12 teams were divided into 3 pools of 4 teams each. Each team played each other team in their respective pools, vying for one of the top two spots in the pool in order to move on to single elimination.
Pool A featured the highest DUPR rated teams (DUPR stands for the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Ratings). In other words, on paper, Pool A was the most difficult pool with BLQK, ATX Pickleballers, Team Clean, and the Jackrabbits. In fact, BLQK had the highest DUPR in both singles only and combined (both singles and doubles—and thought to be the best indicator for success in the MLP format). ATX Pickleballers had the highest DUPR rating for doubles only. With that said, you can probably guess the top two teams from this pool. BLQK (who came out of the pool as the second team) showed solid performances amongst its four pros, Zane Navratil, Rafa Hewett, Irina Tereschenko, and Parris Todd. And, ATX Pickleballers came out undefeated with the #1 spot. Their strategy of having a lefty and righty pairing on the pickleball court at all times proved to be successful in this new MLP rally scoring format, where the players did not switch sides (so ATX Pickleballers had two forehands in the middle at all times).
Pool B was dubbed “easy streets” by DUPR, as Pool B had the lowest combined DUPR strength (despite Pool B having both the #1 men’s pick and #1 women’s pick in the MLP draft). So, on paper, this was the “easiest” pool with the Florida Smash, The Bus, the Chimeras, and Mad Drops Pickleball Club. With that said, this Pool B may have been the most exciting with each team winning at least one match (to note, the other pools had at least one team go 0-3). Pool B came down to the last day of pool play—including Dreambreakers in both of the pool play matches on the last day. The teams that rose to the top were the Florida Smash (which had both the #1 men’s pick) and Mad Drops Pickleball Club (who had not only one, but two, replacement players).
Also, to note, in the last day of pool play, sisters, Andrea Koop (who played for the Chimeras) and Maggie Remynse (who played for the Florida Smash), were playing on separate courts. However, after Andrea Koop played her mixed doubles match in a tight game against The Bus, Koop snuck over to Championship Court while her teammates were warming up for the final mixed doubles match. For a few minutes, Koop was a fan for her sister, as she stood on the sideline, hidden by the bleachers, cheering on Maggie. A moment that is likely to go completely unnoticed is one that highlights the power of pickleball in bringing families and communities together.
The final pool, Pool C, was in the middle according to DUPR. However, many making predictions before the event were very “high” on teams in Pool C, which included The 5’s, the Hard Eights, the Lions, and the Ranchers. The 5’s (marketing guru, Gary Vaynerchuk’s team) had advantages off the pickleball court, as Gary Vee, in his marketing genius, invited some of his fans that own certain Vee Friends NFTs to get rowdy in support of their team, The 5’s. Whether they knew anything about pickleball or not, these fans at least knew to cheer for The 5’s and get loud when The 5’s scored a point. This fan base gave The 5’s an advantage off the court by being able to throw off opposing teams and essentially give The 5’s a little “home court” advantage. This—along with the stellar performances of their players, including Lina Padegimaite, who went undefeated in doubles at the event (a perfect 8-0)—led The 5’s to a flawless pool play. The Hard Eights were the other team to join The 5’s in the next round. Pool C also saw a disappointing 0-3 for the Ranchers, who many thought to have a favored line-up (with fiery Anna Bright, DJ Young, Austin Gridley, and Maggie Brascia).
The bracket was set. Six teams were now still in the running for $100,000. ATX Pickleballers and The 5’s cruised with a bye into the semi-finals. The remaining four teams would face-off, with BLQK playing Mad Drops Pickleball Club and the Florida Smash playing the Hard Eights.
BLQK looked solid in their match up against Mad Drops Pickleball Club, winning both the women’s doubles and men’s doubles. Just one mixed doubles game win would give BLQK the victory. Mad Drop Pickleball Club won the first mixed doubles match to force the second, but it only delayed the inevitable BLQK victory. Curious minds want to know how Mad Drops Pickleball Club would have fared if they put their player combos similar to ATX Pickleballers—with one lefty and one righty on the court at all times. Like ATX Pickleballers, Mad Drops had two left-handed players and two right-handed players (one of each gender). However, Mad Drops chose to play women’s doubles with backhands in the middle at all times (as opposed to forehands), and chose to pair the right-handed players together and then the left-handed players together. With two more events this season, we will see how Mad Drops (and each other team in the league) will adjust their strategy to grab the bigger prize money.
The second quarterfinal pitted sibling against sibling with JW Johnson representing the Florida Smash and Jorja Johnson representing the Hard Eights. Jorja Johnson got the better of JW Johnson in the mixed doubles head-to-head match-up. In fact, Jorja seemed to get the better of JW in a lot of hands battles (which JW is known to typically come out on top for against most players). However, it was JW and the Florida Smash that would win the war in a thrilling Dreambreaker against the Hard Eights. In particular, JW seemed to be the team savior, winning four straight singles points against John Cincola (a top singles player) in a crucial moment to keep his team in the hunt.
On to the semi-finals… BLQK moved on to face ATX Pickleballers (who BLQK lost to just the day before in pool play), and the Florida Smash were to take on The 5’s.
In the first semi-final, BLQK dropped the women’s doubles game to go down 0-1 to ATX Pickleballers. After that, however, BLQK went on a tear and took over, winning the next three games to win the match 3-1. BLQK, the defending champions of the 2021 MLP season, redeemed themselves after losing to ATX Pickleballers the day before and made their way back to the finals to defend the team's title.
In the second semi-final, The 5’s and the Florida Smash, on paper, were evenly matched. In fact, DUPR, using all of its data and algorithms, thought the match was too close to call. And, based on the on-court performances, that is exactly how it played out. The 5’s and the Florida Smash split 2-2, forcing another Dreambreaker in the event (in fact 10 out of 23 matches went to the Dreambreaker).
Looking at the line-ups, the Dreambreaker seemed as if it should have favored The 5’s. However, The 5’s decided to have Simone Jardim as its first player in the line-up, facing singles king, JW Johnson. Typically, teams were deciding their singles order based on strength in singles pickleball (as a reminder, each player on the team plays 4 points and then rotates with the next player). But, The 5’s seemed to think that JW would prove too much for any of its players, hoping that Simone could at least take a point off of JW in each round. This proved to be a mistake for The 5’s, as JW won all 10 points against Simone (including the winning point for his team). After this win, JW showed emotion in the form of a paddle toss (which is very unlike JW) before being lifted in the air by his teammate (and minority team owner), Travis Rettenmaier.
The MLP Finals
Heading into the finals, BLQK (the #3 seed) won its previous two matches 3-1. BLQK looked strong coming into the finals with these definitive performances, and DUPR even picked BLQK to win based on the data (this pick was determined even before the event started, based purely on the draft). On the other hand, BLQK’s opponent, the Florida Smash (the #5 seed), won its previous two matches 3-2, after squeaking out wins in back-to-back Dreambreakers.
Looking at the intangibles, BLQK had an owner that was courtside on every match, cheering as loud as anyone around the court. BLQK also housed its players under the same roof in an effort to help build team chemistry that would translate on the court. On the other hand, the Florida Smash’s owner was literally on the court playing. The paddle was in his hand and his fist pumps and screams of emotion were in the faces of his players and teammates. In other words, both sides of the pickleball net had the intangibles and the team chemistry.
Florida Smash player and owner, Travis Rettenmaier told Pickler prior to the event that he picked his team to win. Further, Rettenmaier admitted that he never enters a tournament that he doesn’t think he can win. He brought the energy, along with last year’s MVP, Lee Whitwell, who clearly knows how to play to a crowd. Their emotion brought out the best in JW Johnson, who is known not to show any emotion, as well as Maggie Remynse, who played solid pickleball all weekend long.
All of that said, BLQK was too overpowering. Parris Todd and Rafa Hewett came to play, having strong performances alongside their more well-known teammates, Irina Tereschenko and Zane Navratil. Rafa Hewett, in fact, could have arguably been named the MVP based on his performance in the final, which included overcoming a 12-20 deficit in the men’s doubles final. In other words, BLQK took three straight games (including a wild 25-23 final mixed doubles game) to take the championship and $100,000. BLQK became back-to-back MLP champions.
Although losing the finals, Lee Whitwell was named MVP of the event for the second year in a row, and Travis Rettenmaier was honored with the Sportsmanship Award.
The Takeaways from the 2022 Austin MLP Event
In no particular order, here are a few other takeaways from the 2022 Austin MLP event:
- Team dynamics matter. MLP is a team event with pretty evenly matched teams. The one that gels the fastest, and is really in it for the team (teamwork make the dream work), will come out on top. The final two teams certainly played as a team and for the team. For instance, Lee Whitwell of the Florida Smash was even called the “third man on court” at one point, as she cheered for her teammates who were playing (and, to make it clear, she was on the sidelines not playing) and gave them high fives on the court after killer points.
- Rally scoring here to stay for MLP. I admit I am very weary of rally scoring personally. I would like to see more data on how it affects the game and even play more games with rally scoring myself to better understand it. With that said, I do think rally scoring made MLP exciting, as it was essentially built to make matches close. Teams stop rally scoring when they get to the 20th point and must win on the serve, which allows the other team to go all out and go for difficult shots, with no consequence of losing the final game-winning point. This allows the trailing team to more easily come back and make it close or even win (which happened a lot). This was intentionally designed to make the games more entertaining, and it seemed to work. However, I remain skeptical outside of this format for a number of reasons, including that recreational players struggle to make the third shot as consistently as the pros, which will lead to a lot of quick points and quick games at the recreational levels. Nevertheless, rally scoring seems here to stay for MLP.
- Entertainment is paramount. As alluded to with the rally scoring format, MLP is built to be entertaining. Steve Kuhn, the visionary behind MLP, wants pickleball to be entertaining, to make pickleball exciting, to keep players and fans engaged, and to make pickleball “sticky” (in other words, to keep people coming back). And, MLP seems to be succeeding on that. With that said, the runway may be longer than just two years. The number of fans in the stands and online was modest. MLP will need to continue the course to convince the masses that pickleball is entertaining.
- Gateway for tennis players. Recent tennis-to-pickleball convert, Travis Rettenmaier was the former #57 doubles tennis player in the world. Other recent converts, Parris Todd and Anna Bright had stellar junior tennis careers. The list can go on, but the point is, with these tennis players crossing to pickleball and making real money just months after being in the sport, could this be the tipping point for more pro tennis players to convert to pickleball?
- Better location to bring more fans in. Dreamland in Dripping Springs, Texas is amazing. However, Dripping Springs is a pretty good drive outside of Austin (about 45-60 minutes), the biggest city around the area. Dripping Springs is a smaller town. Since pickleball is still so young and so small as a community, MLP may be better suited to hold the event in an area with a larger pickleball population nearby or even hold a pro and amateur event, like the tours. The amateurs are usually the fans in the stands, so having them participate in the pro event somehow would help. MLP seems to already be ahead of this with their next stop in Newport Beach, California, which has a pretty sizeable pickleball following and which will have a DUPR Waterfall event for amateurs in addition to the pro event. Lastly, an event in Texas in the summer is HOT (in the mid 90s on the court) and sweaty for fans and players alike. Having the event in Texas during another season could help.
- Bring back the mics. In its inaugural season, MLP mic’ed up the players. This year, they skipped the mics. In my humble opinion, the mics were one of the most interesting things about last year’s MLP. You could hear the players comments, trash talk, cheering, and strategy. With that said, the broadcast team was top notch at MLP. MLP even had courtside reporters for each team on the final day of the event, which added great diversity to the commentary and captured a little bit of what was missing from the players themselves being mic’ed up. Again, kudos to the broadcasters, who I personally thought were great and added value.
- Save on the cameras. As much as I liked the broadcasters themselves, the camera angles and on-screen quality was a little behind. I appreciate the innovation and trying new things with the cameras. However, the camera angles and fish-eye effect left much to be desired. Pickleball itself is very hard to appreciate for new fans coming in, as there are chess moves being made on the court, which are hard to see or understand for new fans. The new camera angles chosen seemed to make that even harder, rather than easier, for the fans. Also, the on-screen graphics were out of place and covered most of the court on the screen.
- Strategy is important. Most of the players that are partnered together have never played a competitive tournament together. This means that they need to figure out their strategy and figure it out fast. Some teams were better at this than others. However, the real question is how the strategy changes going forward, as there are two more events this season? Will teams drop or trade players? Will teams change up the mixed pairings? Will teams switch sides of the court? Will teams change their pickleball strategy overall? Time will tell, as the next two events are scheduled on August 5th-7th in Newport Beach, California and October 14th-16th in Columbus, Ohio.
- DUPR was crazy accurate. DUPR (Dynamic Universal Pickleball Ratings) not only predicted the winner of MLP, but DUPR also predicted the top four teams (although not in the correct order). That is pretty wild.
- Draft smart (or lucky). The #1 men’s pick in the last two events has made it to the finals. Is this a trend or coincidence? If this is a trend, then the team that luckily gets the first male pick has a pretty good shot at winning. Also, owners are smart to draft players that are multi-faceted as both doubles players and singles players (as 10 out of 23 matches came down to the singles Dreambreaker). With that said, the winning team, BLQK, did not play any Dreambreakers on their route to victory. Lastly, if you were an owner would you pick yourself? Well, Travis Rettenmaier surely didn’t hold back in picking himself last, but proved he belonged by bringing the excitement and helping his team make it to the finals. Hopefully, he is motivated to drill and work on his game to help his team best their second-place finish next time.
- Regional teams bring a following. Most of the MLP teams do not identify with a specific location, except for the Florida Smash and ATX Pickleballers. Having this geographic identifier, in my mind, is smart. It instantly ties in fans to not only players, but also teams. Plus, if MLP can grow and expand, it could have each team host an event in its area (like other major leagues). Root for a player or get behind your team from your “neighborhood”—it may just bring in more fans. Also, shout out to the Ranchers, including owner, Tim Klitch, who came in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat to help create a team persona and make it fun.
- PPA players second guessing? A few PPA contracted players were included in the MLP event. However, most of those players were known to have signed the less restrictive one-year agreement. Only one, Lauren Stratman, is thought to have signed the restrictive three-year exclusive with PPA, but she played the MLP anyway and likely took home more money on the weekend than she would do at a PPA event (and maybe even had more fun, despite having to face and lose to her boyfriend, Julian Arnold, in a singles Dreambreaker). Will more players follow suit and break the PPA contract? We will have to wait and see if new faces show up in Newport Beach. But, if the LIV v. PGA dilemma in the pro golf sphere is any indication, the pro players will likely follow the money (and MLP had the largest prize money for the winning team of any pro pickleball event to date).
- There is a bigger picture. At the end of the event, Steve Kuhn notably said that his goal for pickleball is to have 40 million players by 2030 (which is in less than 10 years). MLP seems to be just the tipping point. There is a bigger picture to make pickleball a huge sport across the world for Steve Kuhn and his team. And, we are on board with that…