They say competition is good for business. It fosters innovation, leads to better products with more differentiation, drives down prices, helps to educate the broader target market and bring more awareness, and increases efficiency, among other benefits. Overall, competition usually benefits the consumer. Plus, competition helps to validate the business owners’ idea(s).
Competition is an understatement in the world of professional pickleball, as billionaire-backed tours and leagues are battling for market share (notably, the PPA Tour and Major League Pickleball (as well as the APP Tour)). And, currently, each organization is seemingly trying to continuously out-do the other.
For instance, in the past few weeks alone:
Major League Pickleball Makes a Game-Changing Announcement: LeBron “Brings His Talents” to Pickleball
Major League Pickleball (MLP) announced that LeBron James, Maverick Carter (James’ business partner), Draymond Green, and Kevin Love bought a pickleball team in what MLP founder (and hedge fund billionaire) Steve Kuhn calls a “watershed moment” for the sport.
This new ownership group arose from MLP’s “aggressive growth plan” to take MLP from 12 to 16 teams, and from three events to six four-day events across the United States (with a total of a $2.4 million prize pool). These six events will be broken down into:
- Five traditional tournament-style events (with singles, mixed doubles, and gender doubles, and then a feature MLP team event on the final day, which will be Sunday). These five events will comprise the “regular season” of MLP, and will be spread out between January and November 2023 across the United States from Las Vegas to Mesa to LA to Austin to Bradenton. For the final day of the team event, there will be three matches per team (so each of the 16 teams plays each other team once). As an aside, this more traditional format for the first few days seems to be more head-on competition with the PPA Tour and APP Tour formats.
- Then, the sixth and final event (on December 7-10, 2023 at the La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs, California) will be a championship for the top 8 teams, and a MLP Team Champion will be crowned.
Further, MLP has committed to a focus on growth in the sport from the grassroots level to the pro level.
Investment from the likes of LeBron James—who has ownership interests in other sports teams, like the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, as well as production companies like SpringHill with connections to every major media outlet—validates the sport of pickleball, gives it a new platform of exposure, and offers pickleball the potential for explosive growth due to James’ name, credibility, resources, and connections (for instance, maybe a mainstream broadcast or media deal?).
To follow the announcement of this blockbuster ownership group, MLP hinted that more explosive ownership groups would come for the final three teams. MLP is currently in the process of choosing the final ownership groups from about 60 groups (and this may have risen further following the James and company purchase).
The investment in pickleball could have arisen from James’ passion for the game (as he has his own pickleball court at his home in Cabo), from his connection to Jim Buss at the Lakers (who is a co-owner of the Mad Drops Pickleball Club, another MLP team), through Draymond Green (who notably was called out on social media for losing a match to Gary Vaynerchuk, another MLP team owner of The 5’s), or some other means.
Regardless of the reason for James’ entrance, pickleball is winning from the reach and influence of this announcement alone (MLP noted that the announcement had “an estimated reach in the billions”). Plus, James already seems invested—beyond just the dollars and cents (which was noted to be a “7-figure value”)—as he has already announced that the students at the I Promise School (which is a public school he founded) will attend the final MLP event of 2022 in Columbus, Ohio on October 14-16, 2022 (which will have a $319,000 prize pool—the largest prize pool in pickleball history).
Also, noteworthy is that Major League Pickleball indicated that it would try to connect teams to geographic locations. If possible, this would be a strong step toward fan growth and fan engagement, as place connections—along with technology and family connections—are known ways to promote fan engagement—which is something that pickleball is currently in need of more of. Not to mention that James, Green, and Love could all potentially be players for their own team, which would make any one of them the second owner-player in Major League Pickleball history behind Travis Rettenmaier.
The PPA Tour Pushes Back with Names & Team Events of Its Own
Whether directly in response to Major League Pickleball or coincidental timing, the PPA Tour, which is in competition with MLP for the pro pickleball landscape and who has signed a majority of the “top” pickleball pros to exclusive contracts preventing them from participating in any other event (like MLP), had a few announcements of its own:
- The PPA Tour will be hosting its own event with its pro players on October 14-16, 2022—the same weekend as MLP—called the PPA Round Up. This event may be to appease its pro players (like Tyson McGuffin, who noted that he and others desired to play MLP events on a recent PicklePod podcast - and maybe now more than ever with the new ownership moves). Further, at this event, the PPA Tour will be hosting a charity match featuring notable pro athletes from other sports, which include Jordan Spieth (PGA), Dirk Nowitzki (NBA), John Isner (Tennis), and Tony Romo (NFL).
- The PPA Tour also announced its own team-style event on December 16-18, 2022 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada. Twenty-four of the best pickleball pros will battle as teams for a prize pool of $175,000.
And, not quite PPA Tour announcements, but:
- Well-known entrepreneur, Shark Tank investor, and major sports team owner, Mark Cuban, was caught on camera noting that he will be helping “a friend that is running one of the pickleball organizations.” Although not confirmed, we can only think that this may be Tom Dundon and the PPA Tour, as Cuban and Dundon are both in Dallas, own major sports franchises (Cuban with the Dallas Mavericks and Dundon with the Carolina Hurricanes), and both billionaires that may run in the same circles. Cuban is another name that—like LeBron James and the MLP owners—could be another “shot in the arm” for pickleball. However, Cuban may not be as “hot” on pickleball, as he noted that “would not call pickleball another sport as in pro sports, but it is a burgeoning sport that has a lot of upside.”
- The PPA Tour has seemingly been working behind the scenes to create a pickleball documentary, as cameras have been seen with the Johns brothers, Ben and Collin, the mother-daughter duo of Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters, and the Barstool Sports dubbed “Most Electrifying Man in Sports,” Tyson McGuffin. The PPA Tour may be creating some promotional content, or could be thinking as lofty as a sports documentary similar to Formula 1’s “Drive to Survive,” which soared the sport’s popularity in recent years.
With the competitive spirit and the amount of money and resources each respective tour/league has, the benefits of competition could flood in for consumers (i.e., pickleball fans), pickleball players (notably, the pro pickleball players, which may include more and more crossover athletes, like tennis players (such as Sam Querrey), with more money at stake), and the sport of pickleball as a whole. As the Morning Brew characterized it, “The amount of money poured into pickleball clubs, bars, and professionalization is reaching NFT-esque proportions…. But pickleball’s money faucet doesn’t show any signs of slowing to a trickle. It might be the most lucrative-yet-ridiculed product from Washington state since the Frappuccino.” A comparison to Starbucks is some mighty praise for pickleball…
Yet, despite all of this competition, there are some rumblings (but nothing has been confirmed) that MLP and the PPA Tour could find a way to work together or at least peacefully co-exist after all. Maybe it is the pro players demanding to play in all of these big-time money events (i.e., both MLP events and PPA events), or maybe the organizations see a path to creating something bigger together. Time will tell, but either way, both organizations are making massive steps in moving the sport of pickleball forward, and, overall, the sport of pickleball will hopefully be better for it.