There is a war going on. It is a war that is taking place behind closed doors. But like any war, it is going to have casualties.
The players: the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP), and Major League Pickleball (MLP).
What are these organizations?
§ The USAPA has been the traditional organization that has developed and promoted the growth of pickleball in the United States. They publish and drive the pickleball rule book and maintain the UTPR rating system.
§ The PPA is a professional player’s league whose original purpose was to promote and increase the revenue stream and payout for professional players. Their tournaments also include a complete list of amateur events that take place at the same venue as their pro events. Their tournaments are not USAPA sanctioned. While the PPA uses most of the USAPA’s rules and guidelines, they have shown a trend that will eventually move away from the USAPA altogether.
§ The APP is a professional player’s league led by CEO Ken Herrmann, and like the PPA holds tournaments that have payouts for the winners of their professional events. Their product also includes a complete list of amateur events that take place at the same time and venue as their pro events. Their tournaments are USAPA sanctioned. The APP by design has worked closely with the USAPA and has shown a desire to be in congruence with the USAPA in whole.
§ MLP is a league with currently no amateur events associated but look to provide broadcasted events featuring pro players and content that is pickleball related. Their inaugural event in 2021 proved to be a success. It does not aim to compete directly with the PPA or APP. Their events take place in Dripping Springs Texas at their Dreamland facility.
What is happening:
On January 2, 2022, it was announced that the PPA was acquired by Tom Dundon of Dundon Capital Partners LLC. Dundon also acquired Pickleball Central and Pickleball Tournaments. They also aggressively pursued a list of the top 30 pickleball players in the country with purported 3-year contracts with exclusivity to the PPA. Exactly how many have signed on is not clear. In addition, there are player by player negotiated exemptions of which we still know even less.
On January 8, there was an announced strategic partnership between the APP and MLP. We know almost nothing about what this means other than it is a definite move either caused by the PPA’s new ownership, or maybe who’s timing was usurped by the PPA’s announcement. There is more clarity coming about this move in a scheduled release of information following the APP’s Boca Raton event schedule to end January 23rd. It is rumored that this announcement will define a more direct association between the APP and USAPA.
The undertone is that there is a pro-USAPA and an anti-USAPA movement at play. The PPA has openly made moves in opposition of the USAPA’s direction, not to undermine the organization, but in advocacy of their own mission which is in benefit of pro players. The APP has always played well with the USAPA which on the surface benefits the amateur player.
To exacerbate the situation, at last year’s USAPA Nationals, arguably the most anticipated tournament of the year for pickleball playing amateurs, the tournament implemented what some pros considered an anti-vaccination and pro-mandate stance. Ben Johns, widely considered the best men’s player in the world, reacted negatively to the USAPA’s policies and has been quoted as saying that it makes him want “to never play at Nationals again”. He and Kyle Yates, who also had an adverse reaction to the policies, was among several other players that did not attend the Nationals Tournament. It is noteworthy that the USAPA Nationals is held at the Indian Wells Tennis Center, and it was alluded that these policies were those of the Tennis Center.
The result is a quickly growing divide between the PPA and the USAPA friendly APP. Amateurs may also be adversely impacted if the new PPA umbrella of companies, in specific Pickleball Tournaments, chooses to escalate the situation by not allowing APP tournaments on the Pickleball Tournaments website and portal. For those unfamiliar, the majority of tournaments nationwide are advertised on Pickleball Tournaments. Additionally, the USAPA has not endeared itself to its base ever since it implemented its “new and improved” rating system a couple of years ago.
While the events and actions taking place are amongst forces outside the average pickleball player’s circle of influence, the result could be catastrophic to the game. If you believe the statement an exaggeration, research the popularity of racquetball, which at one point had the same exponential growth trajectory as pickleball. As the popularity soared in the 60’s and 70’s, and as different investors and promoters steered the growth, the result was a collapse in the sport’s popularity. An argument can be made that all the things that sunk racquetball are different than what is facing pickleball. However, the challenges and perils are similar, and one can only hope the result will be different.
In my lifetime, golf was the fastest growing sport in the world as NASCAR was the fastest growing sport on television. While both still have their large following, that projected dominance worldwide and nationwide respectively never materialized for these sports. Ten years ago, I purchased tickets and attended a Ladies Professional Golf Association event, (LPGA). The pros were delightful and accommodating because they knew the future of their leagues was in the fans. I find that pickleball’s top pros and possibly the growth of pickleball, is moving away from what has endeared pickleball players to this sport. While I sincerely wish the USAPA, the PPA, the APP, and MLP the best success, I hope that the game of pickleball does not become a casualty of a war in which the average amateur players have no interest.