The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) sent an interesting marketing email last week, which included the subject line, “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines…” This “engine talk” reminded me of a thought that I have had ever since watching the first episode of season one of the popular Netflix series, Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which is that I have been convinced of the parallels between F1 Racing and the PPA Tour. Now, you may be hard-pressed to believe the similarities between the two. I mean how similar can the game of pickleball really be with high-speed racing? Even my podcast co-host on Pickler The Podcast pretty quickly disagreed with my initial thought when posed. But, I am still convinced and more so now than ever that the PPA Tour is following the Formula 1 playbook. Plus, I think it is a smart move. Here’s why…
Similarities of the PPA Tour and Formula 1
First and foremost, let’s discuss the parallels or similarities between the PPA Tour and Formula 1.
- Both are fast-growing sports. The PPA Tour presents the fastest growing sport in the United States—pickleball—which has grown 39% in the last two years. Formula 1 presents racing for open-wheel single-seater formula racing cars across the globe, and has experienced the fastest growth in viewership of any sport in the United States, growing 131% in the last two years alone. Further, both sports have widespread participation at some level. Pickleball is definitely a participatory sport, as anyone—regardless of age, skill, gender, demographic, socio-economic background—can play pickleball (although maybe not at the level of the PPA Tour pros). Likewise, most anyone can drive a car, although not at the level of the Formula 1 race car drivers.
- Both have a traveling tour. Both the PPA Tour and F1 travel to different sites to display their sport and compete. The PPA Tour travels across the United States (with aspirations to travel internationally, such as to Canada), and Formula 1 travels across the globe (notably, Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Asia, but also to the United States). In the traveling tour, players and drivers compete for points to climb up the respective rankings.
- Both have a confined subset of professional athletes. The PPA Tour has 24 contracted “touring pros,” while F1 has 21 drivers. This leads to similar match-ups on the tour, as the same pickleball players and drivers are frequently pitted against each other.
- Both have multiple days leading up to a Championship Sunday. The PPA Tour was the first in pickleball to adopt a “Championship Sunday,” meaning that the brackets (e.g., women’s doubles, men’s doubles, mixed doubles, women’s singles, and men’s singles) play out Thursday through Saturday up until the gold medal match. Then, on Sunday, all of the gold medal matches are played on one day. This is a similar format for Formula 1, as teams and drivers practice one day, have qualifying the next (to get starting positions for race day), and then have the championship race on Sunday.
- Both try to create a pop-culture, celebrity atmosphere. The PPA Tour has certainly leaned into this phenomenon, which is evident with its slogan, “Play Where the Pros Play.” The PPA Tour has also tried to capture this by hosting its events at more luxurious venues, like the Life Time Fitness facility in San Clemente, California, which is sunk into the mountainside, as well as by bringing in celebrities like Michael Phelps and Larry Fitzgerald for celebrity events. Formula 1 has been successful with this—just look at their events in Monaco, or even Miami, Florida, where celebrity after celebrity embraced the race (from Michael Jordan to Serena Williams to Ben Stiller to Ben Johns (yes, Ben Johns and Collin Johns even attended the F1 in Miami).
- Both try to have entertainment beyond the competition and try to embrace storytelling. Both the PPA Tour and Formula 1 have events and happenings around the court or around the track. For instance, there are Q&As with drivers and players (e.g., the PPA Tour has the player lounge, where fans can ask questions of the pro pickleball players). F1 also raised the bar with its Netflix docu-series, which gave a behind-the-scenes look at the sport and has become one of Netflix’s most popular shows to date. In fact, this Netflix series is single-handedly credited with F1’s huge growth in the United States (and elsewhere). And, based on recent Instagram posts, it seems that the PPA Tour may be trying to emulate this growth strategy for pickleball, as a few of the PPA Tour’s touring pros were spotted behind very expensive videography equipment for a docu-series on the sport of pickleball and the PPA Tour. However, this is not the first time a docu-series was promised in connection with the PPA Tour, as Hollywood producer Randall Emmett was once spotted filming a “Sundance Films” quality production, but has not made much waves since, possibly due to personal issues.
There is certainly potential for storytelling and enough drama in pro pickleball—both among the pro players and between the pro pickleball organizations—to make a docu-series entertaining. However, the challenge may be to balance the drawing out of the real, authentic drama (and not doing a superficial promo video for the PPA), while not affecting the sanctity of the sport (which Netflix was criticized for in connection with the 2021 championship and top driver, Max Verstappen, has even refused to be interviewed with Netflix as a result). Maybe even more of a challenge is matching Formula 1’s perfect timing of a sports docu-series airing season two when the world was shutdown with the COVID pandemic, making it the only “new” or live sports to watch or stream. Whether it was the timing or the storytelling, Formula 1: Drive to Survive will be a challenge to match.
If these similarities aren’t enough to draw any real parallels between the PPA Tour and Formula 1 playbook, look at the logos. Although the colors may differ, there is certainly inspiration from F1 logo in the PPA logo, as both have similar track-like lettering.
The PPA Tour Is Smart to Follow in Formula 1’s Footsteps
Pickleball is a relatively new sport (beginning in 1965) that is relatively early in its growth cycle. However, there are plenty of sports that have come before it that have had similar struggles. So, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. As they say, “history repeats itself.” So, we should look to history so as not to repeat the same mistakes. And, what was successful in one circumstance may be successful again. In other words, if, as hypothesized based on the similarities outlined above, the PPA Tour is actually following Formula 1’s playbook, then it is smart business.
As alluded to above, Formula 1 has experienced insane growth in the past few years, particularly in the United States. The viewership in the United States—thanks to Netflix and a deal with ESPN—grew 131% in the last two years. The viewership globally for all of the 2021 racing season hit 1.55 billion.
With these viewership numbers, comes broadcast and sponsorship deals. For ESPN alone (without considering any other media outlets across the world), Formula 1 increased its broadcast deal from $5 million per year prior to the growth with the Netflix documentary, to $75-90 million per year. You can only imagine similar dollars for broadcast rights across the globe, as well as for sponsorship rights for each of F1, each team, and each driver. One team principal in F1 even predicted that the F1 teams (of which there are 10) will be valued at $1 billion each in the next five years.
The massive increase in viewership and broadcast and sponsorship dollars is a dream for any sport, including pickleball. If the F1 blueprint resulted in these kinds of numbers and success, it only makes sense for pickleball to copy some of Formula 1’s moves.
What the PPA Tour Is Missing from Formula 1
Other than race cars that travel upwards of 200 miles per hour, the PPA Tour is missing one thing from Formula 1 – the concept of teams. Although pickleball players compete in pairs in doubles pickleball events, they compete for themselves. They are individuals on the PPA rankings. And, while there may be celebrations between partners on the pickleball court, these celebrations pale in comparison to the team celebrations seen on the Formula 1 track.
In Formula 1, although drivers drive for themselves, they are just one part of the larger team, which can be composed of 300 to 1,200 people. For instance, Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull, etc. They race for their individual standings, but also their team standings (which F1 calls the constructor standings). This team atmosphere (which is sometimes more than the number of people even at a pickleball tournament) brings an extra level of drama to the track. Plus, teams are invariably from different regions, which helps get more regional fan engagement. For instance, Ferrari is from Italy, Mercedes from Germany, Williams from England, etc.
This team element is missing from the PPA Tour… but not necessarily from the sport of pickleball. Major League Pickleball has proved that teams can be a very entertaining part of pro pickleball. And, the PPA Tour has proved that it is not afraid to go head-to-head with Major League Pickleball (MLP).
With that said, it will be interesting to see if the PPA Tour takes this additional step and incorporates the concept of team into its mix—whether by introducing team events that emulate the Major League Pickleball format (copying is the highest form of flattery, right?), or maybe even creates a paddle manufacturer standings—similar to the constructor standings of Formula 1 and based on player performance with the manufacturer’s paddle (like the constructor standings in the specific constructed car). This could bring a different element to the game and maybe even more big brands to the sport. Some in the sport, like pro pickleball Rob Nunnery, strongly believe that professional pickleball should be a team sport (like MLP), rather than more of an individualized sport, which is the current PPA format. So, this team element seems to be an important missing piece for the PPA.
Step one, though, just like any business… become profitable. Speculation is that the PPA Tour may not quite be out of the black. And, negotiations with billionaire entrepreneur Tom Dundon may still be ongoing, as reports have been made that these negotiations for new heavyweight investment have not been closed (despite announcing ownership in late 2021). However, if the PPA Tour is really following the Formula 1 playbook, then the PPA Tour seems to have not only a path forward to profitability, but also to explosive growth for the sport of pickleball with increased viewership and participation, particularly in the United States, where pickleball is by far most popular. If the PPA Tour is not following the Formula 1 playbook, then maybe they should.
Let’s see if pickleball can match F1...