The world of pro pickleball has been the “wild west,” as competing organizations—each led by a billionaire out of the State of Texas—jousted over the best players, the best events, and the claim over the pro pickleball landscape. Two such organizations at the head of the pro pickleball land grab were Major League Pickleball (MLP)—which was the first organization to introduce a team format at the professional level—and the PPA Tour—which locked up many of the best pro players to exclusive contracts to play in tournaments across the country.
The temperature between these two organizations continuously rose over the past 12 months—as the PPA Tour locked up players, MLP started to make waves with major ownership announcements (like LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kim Clijsters, and Anheuser-Busch (dilly dilly!), and particularly when the PPA Tour unveiled a new pickleball league (called VIBE) to directly compete with MLP in early November 2022. However, just a week after the announcement of VIBE Pickleball League, the two organizations cooled their fire, joined forces, and elected to merge as one under the Major League Pickleball brand and format.
The billionaires backing each organization—Steve Kuhn of MLP and Tom Dundon of the PPA Tour—released a joint statement explaining their merger to unify the sport:
Coming together as one team league allows us to build much bigger events, offer more prize money, enhance player development, pursue larger media and sponsorship deals and, most importantly, grow the game we all love.
Today marks a real milestone in the evolution of pickleball. In a world desperate for more social connection and reasons to celebrate, we are so excited for this merger and what it means for our community and our beautiful sport.
This merger announcement is significant on a number of levels:
- First, it was unexpected. After the VIBE Pickleball League announcement, it seemed that the pro pickleball world was destined to be fragmented. However, things happen quickly in the pickleball world, as just a week later, the pro world flipped about-face. Just like strategy on the pickleball court is critical, the announcement of the VIBE Pickleball League might just have been a critical negotiation strategy and tactic to get the best deal possible.
- The pickleball tour wars seem to be over, as two of the major players are now seemingly on the “same team.” This is positive for the sport of pickleball, as—just like a row boat or pickle boat—the more people rowing together in the same direction, the farther the boat will get. If pickleball wants to go far, then we need to work together. With that said, how these two organizations and, notably Kuhn and Dundon, work together in practice is yet to be seen. The devil may be in the details. Also, it is interesting to see how this merger will affect other organizations in the space, such as the APP Tour.
- The merger will lead to a pickleball “super league” with 24 teams (per the Boardroom, which has ties to one of the new ownership groups of MLP). MLP has already announced its expansion from 12 to 16 teams, as well as the ownership groups for the new 4 teams. There will be 8 additional teams from VIBE Pickleball League, which will include the one announced ownership by yet another billionaire entrepreneur (and friend to Dundon) Mark Cuban. The remaining teams are expected to be announced before the league draft in December.
- The number of wealthy and influential people now working together as part of this pickleball super league is staggering. These people are throwing a lot of money, time, and resources into promoting and developing this league, which is evident from the sizeable investments to own a team, growing player prize pools, and significant media coverage. These kind of resources are invaluable to the sport of pickleball that is looking to grow and legitimize its presence in the pro sport landscape.
To note, however, just because influential people throw money at something does not mean that it will be successful or the mainstream population will crave the product—in other words, that the mainstream population will watch or pay attention to the league. With that said, the good news for these wealthy, influential individuals jumping into pickleball is that the sport of pickleball is not only growing from their efforts at the top-down. The sport of pickleball is growing from the bottom-up—and likely in a more significant and meaningful way. What I mean by this is that the grassroots of the sport of pickleball is fueling growth. The ambassadors of the game—whether they are dubbed official ambassadors of USA Pickleball or unofficial ambassadors that love the sport—are voluntarily teaching others to play, encouraging others to try, exclaiming how pickleball will change their lives, and convincing local parks and recreation departments to build more pickleball courts. This is the growth that is even more impressive and even more staggering than any other action in and around pickleball, and this is the growth that will sustain the sport for lifetimes to come. And, this is the growth that the new super league is likely counting on.