With the latest articles on the sport of pickleball from Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker, it is no surprise that there is no love lost between Major League Pickleball (MLP)—a team-style professional pickleball league—and its founder, billionaire hedge fund executive Steve Kuhn, on the one hand, and the PPA Tour—a professional pickleball tour that hosts pickleball tournaments—and its owner(s?), Connor Pardoe and billionaire entrepreneur Tom Dundon (*reports have been made that this deal is not final yet), on the other hand. As the story goes, in January 2022, Kuhn and Dundon sat across from each other at a conference table, with their respective teams, to negotiate a way to “play nice in the pickleball sandbox.” However, not long after, the two sides departed, and not as friends. Rather, the two would seem to become clear competitors in the pro pickleball landscape.
As time passed, the PPA Tour and MLP seemed to co-exist. The PPA Tour continued its events with its contracted players, who were restricted from playing MLP events. MLP held its events on different dates from the PPA Tour and, after its first event, proved that it could be entertaining without the contracted pros from the PPA Tour. MLP also increased its prize pool to award the winning team $100,000 (or $25,000 per player), and announced new ownership in some teams along the way (like famed entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, Super Bowl Champion Drew Brees, LA Lakers co-owner Jim Buss, and reality star Ryan Serhant). With the increase in cash prizes and affiliated names, MLP (and fans of MLP) maybe had hopes that the PPA Tour and its contracted players would reconsider the opportunity to work together and play in the both events, or maybe at least try to have another attempt at a meeting.
New PPA Event Puts the PPA Tour in Direct Competition with Major League Pickleball
With the next Major League Pickleball event staged to take place August 5-7, 2022, the PPA Tour announced a new event and format—the Selkirk Labs Showdown—on the same dates, positioning the PPA Tour in a head-to-head match-up with MLP. And, with that announcement, any hopes of collaboration and cooperation were certainly dashed.
Briefly, the Selkirk Labs Showdown has been described by the PPA Tour as “a thrilling, unconventional show featuring wild matchups, and unlikely partnerships.” Further, the PPA Tour describes the format as follows:
This format seems to try to compete with the MLP excitement that it creates with different match-ups (which will be a good thing for the PPA, as Championship Sundays are getting repetitive with the same match-ups week in and week out). However, the PPA Tour did not go as far as creating a team event like MLP. The PPA Tour is seemingly still creating an individual-driven event. But, the event will be aired live on the Tennis Channel, as well as on its Facebook and YouTube channels.
This new event is in addition to the other seemingly head-to-head event—MLP’s Pickleball Night in America (held on Tuesday nights) versus the PPA Tour’s Tuesday Nights (in collaboration with one of its sponsors). Although on a smaller scale, these two events are also in direct competition for eyeballs, viewership, and fans.
With that said, this head-to-head competition is not surprising. The PPA Tour has made decisions to chart its own path, which has clearly worked for the PPA. The PPA Tour has not worked with USA Pickleball, but instead decided to be “self-sanctioned.” The PPA Tour has not worked with the APP Tour (another professional pickleball tour, more similar to the PPA Tour). In fact, the PPA Tour has referred to the APP Tour as its “little bro.” And, for the better part of the last 12 months, the PPA Tour has not worked with MLP.
Further, the head-to-head competition is not surprising because, well, it is business. As previous articles have put it, “pickleball is big business”—especially when you have two competing billionaires at the front of the sport. (But, they are not the only ones competing. There is competition all around the pickleball industry. For instance, look at the latest paddles from two of the top paddle manufacturers—Engage Pickleball just launched Omega Pickleball, while Selkirk just launched SLK Omega. Is this a coincidence or is this also direct competition?)
The two billionaires—in other words, the two organizations—are competing for the pro pickleball landscape. Currently, there are over 50 pro pickleball tournaments and events between the four organizations—the PPA, the APP, MLP, and USA Pickleball. Not all of these events will make it to primetime. Rather, the four organizations will be jockeying for a handful of prime events (think of tennis, where most people will only recognize the Grand Slam events of the Australian Open, US Open, French Open, and Wimbledon). (And, it seems like the PPA may be at the forefront of this primetime race with its announcement of an invitational summer championships being aired on CBS (the main network) on August 13, 2022 from 1:00 to 3:00 pm PT, which is the first time pickleball will be aired live on a major broadcast network (as opposed to CBS Sports, Fox Sports, the Tennis Channel, YouTube, Facebook Live, etc.). These championships will feature the top two seeds in each event as of the midway point through the PPA season.)
Let’s not forget that Major League Pickleball is competing, too. MLP raised the pro player prize funds and raised the game with its format, ownership structures, and PR stunts (like taking over the New York Stock Exchange). This seems to be an effort to lure the best pro players (including some PPA-contracted players). MLP is also competing in the press, and it seems to be coming out with a more glowing review in the latest Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker. And, they are of course competing to have a handful of those prime pickleball events each and every year.
Is the Competition Between the PPA Tour and Major League Pickleball Bad?
But, is all this competition really a bad thing? Two billionaires are pumping millions of dollars into the sport of pickleball. This capital infusion has to lead to growth of the sport, as there will be (1) more visibility and more investment of time and money from others in and around the game (such as sponsors and brands, and hopefully from the public and private sector by way of more courts); (2) more innovation and more entertainment, which is beneficial for the fans and the fan experience; and (3) bigger prize pools, which will certainly benefit the pro pickleball players, but also draw more talent to the game.
On the flip side, a failed pro pickleball organization with so much publicity around it—which would be true for either the PPA Tour or MLP—could be a “bad look” for the sport of pickleball. Could a failed organization stunt growth? Are all of these organizations over-saturating the market? Is there enough demand for pro pickleball to sustain them all?
In reality, the sport of pickleball is so early in its growth cycle that competition (and all of the money that comes along with it) will likely benefit everyone in and around the sport of pickleball, in the form of growth of the sport, progress, and creativity.
And, if we can learn anything from the centuries old game of golf, new competition can come regardless of where you are in the growth cycle. After almost 100 years of existence, the PGA now has a new competitor in LIV Golf. So, competition lives on. It comes with the territory of “big business.” And, if you want the top pro players, show them the money…