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.
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.