The APP vs the PPA – Wrestling Style

In the late 80’s the WWF reigned supreme when it came to “professional” wrestling. It was at a climax of their popularity that an upstart rival promotion, the World Championship Wresting, WCW, exploded onto the scene. They did so by signing a large number of the “sports” top pros exclusively to the WCW brand. It was a “real” explosive move in the world of a “make belief” sport. In the coming years, it played out like one of wrestling’s conjured bits, with bitter rivalries, heated exchanges by their respective ownership, and strong legal maneuvers. In the end, only one promotion came out on top.

What Happened

The WCW came into being by baiting the WWF’s top talent with larger contracts and hopes of being part of a better company. While all the WWF’s stars did not jump ship, many of the top names did. The result was an immediate jump in popularity and ratings for the new promotion.

This left the WWF reeling, but only in the short term. The WWF was an empire built by the shrewdness of one Vince McMahon. Vince never tried to play the “we will pay you more than the other guys” game. Instead, he relied on a stable of new up and comers along with those stars loyal to his company. The WCW was successful at continuing to poach some of those new stars. However, this strategy was unsustainable. The WWF continued to successfully promote new story lines and create new stars.

It was years in the making, but after short run of success, the WCW began to fade in popularity and viewership, and eventually was purchased and absorbed by the WWF. Some of those wayward stars never recouped their status with the WWF, but most were eventually welcomed back, if not immediately, over the time of their remaining careers.

What is happening with the APP and PPA?

In case you were not aware, late in 2021, the PPA made a splash by signing a large number of Pickleball’s most recognizable names to 3-year exclusive contracts. While they were successful in signing some of the sport’s top names, they were not successful at signing all of the top pros. In the short term, they have made a flashy start. The PPA quickly marketed themselves as the premier league and the APP as a secondary D league. However, they did not deliver the knockout punch they had hoped to their adversary, the APP.

They APP survived the initial hay maker the PPA threw at them, circled around, and looks to possibly positioning themselves to win the long game. They have done so by relying on their stable of up and comers. In a young sport, the field of future stars seems vast, untapped, and almost incalculable. The APP has done a great job at showcasing this new talent and that bodes well for the viewer. I am a fan of all Pickleball Pros, but I can tell you, I can’t watch another match where Ben Johns pummels and then submits Tyson McGuffin. I have spent the last five years watching the stars the PPA has signed and it’s welcoming and refreshing to watch all the new talent that the APP showcases.

What does that mean for the Amateur Player and the Viewers?

The PPA has come across to me as unapologetically unfriendly. They tell you their sole purpose is to exist for their pro players. They tell you that as an amateur you should be happy to “Play where the Pros Play”, and that, is your reward for being a fan of the PPA. It is intangible, but the PPA feels like an institution. It feels corporate cold.

On the flipside, the APP feels warm and grass roots. Look, I am no fool. I understand they are both organizations that are out to build an empire. However, I personally approached the year, excited for the two professional tours, and now, I have quietly started to root heavily for the APP.

On a positive note, the PPA has done a great job on televised presentations of their product. Taking a cue from baseball, they have opted for smaller seating designs which make the crowds look bigger and the atmosphere livelier and fun.

What I find unappealing about the PPA is the hard sell. Their pros routinely push the company agenda. In a recent post-match interview, Leigh Water, a player whom I greatly enjoy watching and actively root for, concluded by reciting a canned and seemingly exercised statement about how only the PPA has all the best pickleball players. In another recent interview, Ben Johns was asked about possible rivalries and he opted only to mention two players whom he handedly disperses on a regular basis. No mention of a JW Johnson who has beaten him both in singles and in doubles, and who is an APP player. In fact, when APP players enter a PPA tournament, they routinely show up PPA contracted players.

Although hard core Pickleball fanatics are growing at all ages, the 40+ age group still comprises the bulk of the fan-ship. This is a group with a lifetime of experiences. You may be able to hard sell your product to a younger fan, but the older fan is more savey. At times, I find the PPA’s rhetoric an offense to the viewership’s intelligence. Look PPA, don’t piss on my leg and call it rain.

What does the future hold?

As we all know, the future is unwritten. However, like the WCW, the PPA cannot continue to handout 3-year contracts to all the new talent that is bound to arise. While PPA ownership has deep pockets, I can tell you from experience that companies with big pockets don’t get that way by throwing money around. Companies with big pockets get that way by demanding better performance by those under contract, and right now, its going the other way.

This week, the APP along with Major League Pickleball, two organizations in close affiliation, are coming on strong with a New York coming out party. MLP will ring the Wall Street Bell, a group of APP/MLP players will have an exhibition match in a NYSE ball room, the APP will have its first annual tournament in Flushing Meadows, the Mecca of USA Tennis, and the whole thing will be capped off by MLP’s next team league draft.

The future of Pickleball may go like the battle the WWF and the WCW waged. After an early PPA splash, it looks like the APP is coming on strong. Like the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare. Slow and steady may win this race.

What the Hell Happened at the Pickleball US Open this Weekend?!?

This weekend an unprecedented event happened in Pickleball. Unfortunately, it did not happen on the court. What did happen was that CRBN paddles were banned mid tournament for use at all Pro and Non-pro events. If you keep close tabs on the Pickleball world, this should not have been a surprise. There are very few facts coming out about what actually happened, and this has led to wild speculation happening on social media and at local courts. What will follow is a brief summary of what we know transpired.

What we know

On March 15th of this year, “Today In Pickleball” reported on their social media feed, that the PPA was about to ban CRBN paddles at their tournaments. People began to throw major accusations stating that this was due to the recent defeat of Ben Johns at the hands of JW Johnson who plays with a CRBN paddle. The PPA then chimed in and stated that these rumors were false and that seemed to simmer the outrage.

Nothing else seemed to surface in the following weeks except from Ben and Collin Johns who separately discussed in different interviews that the CRBN paddles were rougher than USA Pickleball tolerances allowed. Collin Johns, on the podcast “Picklepod”, explained his sponsor Electrum had a similar issue with a bad “batch” of paddles. In any case, two of most prominent pros discussing the matter publicly were the Johns’ brothers, and neither play with CRBN paddles.

The matter seemed to be put to rest going into the US Open. Early on, with what has to be, in my opinion, the best Pickleball match in the history of Pickleball, Ben Johns playing with his new Joola paddle, narrowly defeated JW Johnson, playing with a CRBN paddle. There was a nervous energy in the crowd, that seemed to be pulling for the young JW. Ben was pushed to the limit as JW actually had several match points but was unable to pull out the victory.

Then…a few days passed…and it happened. Mid US Open Tournament, USA Pickleball banned all CRBN paddles from use at any sanctioned Pro or Amateur event, including the US Open. This left may players, Pro and Amateur alike, with no paddle of preference to play out their tournament. What lead up to this? What we know is that someone challenged the validity of CRBN paddles mid tournament. And let’s face it…if a regular Joe makes this challenge nothing happens…but someone or some organization of importance made the challenge. Field testing was done which then led to laboratory testing which then led to the decision to ban the paddles.

Then it gets crazy. A video surfaced on social media where Joola paddles also got field tested, and they also did not pass a field test. Chatter can be heard where the paddle repeatedly fails all the while someone requests for more tests. And that’s all we know about the video. People then started to post negative remarks on Joola’s social media accusing them of being behind the CRBN ban. Then, Joola made a formal statement, CRBN made a formal statement, USA Pickleball made a formal statement and none of them actually shed any light into what is actually happening. As it turns out, looks like the report that “Today In Pickleball” originally posted was most likely correct. The PPA probably saw the backlash and opted to pursue a more covert option by pressuring USA Pickleball into doing the actual banning of the CRBN paddle. Joola paddles were not banned.

What I believe

I am professional with 25 years of business leadership experience, and that has allowed me to experience a hand full of mergers, acquisitions, and startups. What I know is that Big Money means big expectations. Everyone is happy to sign on the dotted line, but most don’t understand the responsibility that comes with these expectations. Major investments have been made, notably with the PPA, the APP, and Ben Johns. It would be a major setback if the face of the PPA gets toppled off of the throne on year one of his reported three-year contract. JW Johnson has already beat Ben in both singles and doubles this year. After the doubles lost, PPA players were vocally towing the PPA line, stating that play was too windy and that future tournaments needed to have provisions for too much wind. In any case, had Ben lost to JW in the US Open, we what we are seeing right now, would pale in comparison to the crap show that would follow.

It has been rumored that Ben and those who have banked on Ben are leading voices of dissent with regards to CRBN paddles. This has put pressures on Ben that he undoubtedly did not expect. In his last appearance of the Freestyle Boy’s podcast, he depicted a 2022 where the APP would quickly become a second-tier organization, the PPA would be the leading organization in all things Pickleball, and the sun would shine every morning on his Pickleball kingdom. What has actually transpired is the field has gotten tougher, the APP is flourishing, and his Big Money backers have been flexing their muscles in order to protect their investment. But it’s getting ugly. The luster of Ben’s name is beginning to tarnish with some fans. People are calling him the poster boy of Joola and the PPA in negative connotations. Some are saying it’s time for a new face of Pickleball.

I take no pleasure in seeing this for Ben or any other person for that matter. However, being the face of an organization means being put in situations that may be unexpected and uncomfortable. Joola and the PPA have made an investment in Ben’s name and status and people will support him or be dissuaded on his brand by the events that are happening right now. To quote the Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Money, Mo Problems”. Good luck Ben, it’s going to be a more interesting year than you expected.

Big Pickleball Is Coming for Us

I started playing Pickleball late in 2018. Back then I knew nothing about dinking let alone what it meant to play in tournaments. When talking about tournament play, I remember the old guard complaining about the rising cost of tournaments. Back then $50.00 would get you lunch, a shirt, some kind of goodie, and if you won, a nice heavy medal. Still the old guard thought rising cost was outrageous. I remember thinking their worries were unwarranted.

After a short while I mustered the courage to sign up and play in my first tournament. That tournament was the Duel in the Desert in Casa Grande Arizona. It was and still is one of the best Private tournaments around, with their 32 courts and multitudes of players. I emphasize private because today we have “Big Pickleball” running tournaments. In fact, they are proliferating so fast they may run your local tournament out of existence. It’s an exciting time for Pickleball, but also one that is changing the face of pickleball. I am hopeful that the changes will be for the better, although there is no guarantee I am correct.

Today, you can still attend very fun community run tournaments. For example, a very well run and very fun tournament in our area is the Robson Ranch Desert Slam 9th Annual Pickleball Tournament in Robson Ranch in Eloy AZ. This tournament will run you $65.00. The community treats you very well and you run into many of the same players you see at the “Big Pickleball” run tournaments. In contrast, I just attended the PPA Tours Foot Solutions Arizona Grand Slam. I spent in the neighborhood of $140.00 for registration alone. Gone are the days of any extras. For my entre fee I received no shirt, no goodie bag, not lunch ticket, and nothing else but the “privilege” of playing where the pros play. I earned a gold medal which was great for my pride. However, the medal I received was unworthy of the event. I showed it to several of my tournament competitors; one of them called it plastique. In fact, it was so low grade, it bent in my bag on the way home. I understand that “Big Pickleball” is a business and they need a return on their investment. But the excitement of the tournament was definitely tarnished by the sub-par medals that were given out.

In his November edition podcast, The Freestyle Boys, Ben Johns talked about how the PPA pros are now requiring minimum amenities and conditions in order they attend any tournament. He talked about how he would strongly consider not attending such tournaments as the USAPA Margaritaville Pickleball National Championship and the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships unless they met their minimum standards. I believe that the intent and plan is that these tournaments will not meet said standards. After all, a tenant of the PPA’s business plan is for their brand to provide the only venue where you can “play where the pros play”.

I understand the Pro’s perspective, however, the issue is that people like me and my fellow amateur players are a main source of the revenue that is going to pay for these minimum standards. And it is very clear the PPA’s expectation is that we the amateur should do without, in order the pros get their amenities and minimum requirements. Going without means no referees until the medal rounds, no shirt, and a low-grade reward for those of us who reach the podium. What I don’t understand is how quickly we went from the privilege of having pros in our sport, to having entitled professionals that demand their amenities come at the expense of the amateur’s tournament experience.

Not all “Big Pickleball” is the same. The APP still provides you with a very nice shirt and a nice medal if you happen to place. Additionally, I learned that the Legacy Sports Complex in Mesa Arizona recently hosted a tournament and provided referees for every match. However, make no mistake, this is a battle ground. The amateur tournament player needs to understand that we can control our destiny based on our decision and what tournaments to attend. Also, we will have to live with the consequences of decisions and the journey it takes us. I can only urge you to choose wisely and above all, support your local clubs, your local gear provider, and continue to support your local tournaments. Remember, We Are the Revenue.