Inside professional pickleball’s civil war: ‘All hell has broken loose’

A spending war between billionaires battling for control of professional pickleball has thrown the sport's future into chaos.

SAN CLEMENTE, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 11: Tyson McGuffin hits a backhand volley shot against Connor Garnett during the PPA Men's Singles Finals at Life Time Rancho San Clemente on June 11, 2023 in San Clemente, California. (Photo by Bruce Yeung/Getty Images)
Tyson McGuffin hits a backhand volley shot against Connor Garnett during the PPA event in June. McGuffin is one of the players targeted by MLP. (Bruce Yeung/Getty Images)

Connor Pardoe remembers when he became concerned that the uneasy partnership between professional pickleball’s two biggest entities might not last.

The founder of the Professional Pickleball Association says he sensed something was wrong a couple weeks ago when Major League Pickleball executives suddenly stopped returning his calls and texts.

“I’m not saying this to be conceited, but usually when I call someone in pickleball they call me back,” Pardoe told Yahoo Sports. “When they went radio silent for four days, I thought, ‘Oh no, what’s going on here?’ ”

What came next was an ambush worthy of Greek mythology or a Hollywood blockbuster. The two competing organizations had been operating under an agreement where players could compete in both leagues. Out of nowhere, Major League Pickleball owner Steve Kuhn blindsided the PPA by offering dozens of the sport’s top players multi-year exclusivity contracts that guaranteed extra money and perks in exchange for them playing nothing but MLP events.

Pardoe discovered the plot only eight days ago on the eve of a PPA tournament in Kansas City. Multiple players told him that the money MLP had offered was life changing and that they had only a day to decide whether to accept.

“I ran straight to the airport, no bag, no cell phone charger, no toothbrush, no clothes," Pardoe said. "I flew to Kansas City and I tried to save my business.”

Players who were in Kansas City last Thursday and Friday describe a surreal scene in the player’s lounge. The sport’s biggest stars spent their downtime between matches confiding with their agents in quiet corners of the room, their phones pressed to their ears and their voices hushed.

Pardoe spoke to as many elite players as he could on his way to Kansas City. Then he and his executives redoubled their efforts once he got there. They pleaded with players not to sign with MLP without giving the PPA the chance to match or surpass the contract offers.

“I had one of the PPA guys come up to me five times saying, ‘Hey let’s get a deal done, let’s get a deal done,’ ” veteran pickleball pro Kyle Yates told Yahoo Sports. “I’m like, hold on! I need something in writing. I need to send it to my agent. I need to make some calls. It was like we were almost getting bullied into it.”

The result of the bidding war is newfound financial security for players who previously worked second jobs or taught at camps and clinics to support themselves. Industry sources say that a select few elite players signed deals worth as much as $1 million per year and even those ranked outside the top 20 received six-figure contracts. The proposed deals also guaranteed a defined offseason and stipends for medical insurance and travel expenses.

And yet it's fair to wonder if the gains made by the players are worth the chaos and upheaval in the sport.

As veteran player Tyler Loong put it, "All hell has broken loose."

Calling a ceasefire

Less than a decade ago, pickleball was known as the last athletic refuge for graying retirees. Now the pingpong-tennis hybrid is America's fastest-growing participation sport, with nearly nine million players across the U.S. as of 2022.

As pickleball leaped out of obscurity and into the mainstream, there has been a rush to profit off the sport’s surging popularity. Opportunistic investors have poured money into professional pickleball, wagering that they can turn America’s growing obsession with playing the sport into enthusiasm for watching it.

Pardoe founded the PPA in late 2018 and quickly built it into the sport's dominant tour by aggressively pursuing the brightest stars in the pickleball galaxy. He signed world No. 1s Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters and other elite players to contracts that paid extra money in return for not playing events put on by rival tours.

“That was the most important thing we’ve ever done,” Pardoe told Yahoo Sports in January. “TV partners, venues and sponsors wanted to know that the best players were going to be at our events every week. Once we could tell them, 'hey, we have 16 of the top 20 men under contract' or 'we have 16 out of the top 20 women under contract,' it became a lot easier to put those deals together.”

At the same time that Pardoe was building the PPA in the image of professional tennis tours, Kuhn sought to bring the fist-pumping, chest-bumping camaraderie of team competition to pickleball. In 2021, the Texas billionaire’s inaugural four-day MLP team event was an instant hit among players and generated unprecedented mainstream media buzz.

The PPA's relationship with MLP remained cordial until Dallas businessman Tom Dundon acquired a majority stake from the Pardoe family. Under Dundon’s leadership, the PPA offered Johns, Leigh Waters and other top pros contracts that not only prevented them from competing in rival tours but MLP events as well.

Kuhn approached Dundon in hopes of negotiating a compromise, but the two billionaires initially butted heads and failed to find common ground. As Pardoe put it in January, “I tried to put both of them in a room. It just didn’t really work out.”

While discussions regarding a potential partnership with the PPA continued behind the scenes, MLP executives left that meeting knowing they would need to compete to secure elite players. MLP increased its prize money to $1 million across three 2022 events and began recruiting the likes of Drew Brees, Tom Brady and LeBron James as celebrity team owners who could help drive awareness of the league.

In response, Dundon landed a flurry of uppercuts of his own. In late October, the PPA announced that it was forming the VIBE Pickleball League, a direct competitor to MLP with a virtually identical team format. Days later, two of MLP’s top players revealed they were defecting to VIBE. Then VIBE confirmed that Mark Cuban, one of Dundon’s good friends, was its first team owner.

It was full-blown war. Then, out of nowhere, both sides declared a ceasefire.

Last November, Dundon and MLP board member Zubin Mehta held a summit and hammered out the framework of a deal. The PPA and MLP would work together to draft contracts, promote each other’s events and snatch up all the top pros. Elite players would play singles and doubles on the PPA tour. Those who won enough earned the chance to be drafted onto an MLP team and to compete for extra prize money.

For a few short months, professional pickleball had a clear direction. And then Kuhn made his move.

MESA, AZ - JANUARY 29: MLP Founder, Steve Kuhn, is interviewed by MLP sideline reporter, Kamryn Blackwood,  during the MLP Mesa Challenger League Championships at Legacy Sports USA on January 29, 2023 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Bruce Yeung/Getty Images)
MLP founder Steve Kuhn has offered dozens of pickleball's top players multi-year exclusivity contracts. (Bruce Yeung/Getty Images)

Making of a coup

The man who can best explain why the MLP ended the partnership with the PPA without warning isn’t ready to provide those answers. Kuhn, through an MLP spokesperson, declined comment to Yahoo Sports.

In its announcement that it had begun signing top players to guaranteed contracts last Thursday, MLP made no mention of breaking any agreement with the PPA. MLP painted its contract offers as a response to player feedback “about what they need to earn a professional living and continue pushing the sport forward.”

“The players spoke, and we listened,” the announcement said.

Player salary was an area of disagreement between MLP and PPA, Kuhn said in his only public comments since the partnership disintegrated. He told CNBC last Friday that MLP had previously “asked the PPA to join us in paying players more and their reaction was that we pay the players too much.”

Others across the industry wonder if MLP and PPA leaders also had clashing visions for the future of professional pickleball. Kuhn favors rally scoring and a team sport model in which players compete for a team championship. Pardoe argues that pickleball as a team sport works only as a complement to a strong tour model like golf and tennis have.

Whatever the explanation for MLP’s breakup with PPA, Pardoe suspects the plan “had to be in the works for quite some time.” Without his knowledge, MLP laid the groundwork for a coup that targeted some of the sport’s top players.

The stable of players represented by sports agency Topnotch Management was a logical place to start for MLP because that meant nabbing star Tyson McGuffin and several other highly ranked talents. Those signings were the first that MLP announced, suggesting that Topnotch might have received the proposed offers ahead of time, shown them to their clients and sent word to Kuhn that they would accept.

Among the other players who followed suit were some who previously felt devalued by the PPA’s penchant for taking care of its top stars but neglecting its middle tier. For example, Yates had to pay a $300 registration fee anytime he entered a PPA tournament this season. He said that the PPA didn’t bother to return his calls when he sought a 2023 contract.

“So when they tried to negotiate with me in Kansas City, it was like, 'hold up, now you want me?'” Yates said. “'I haven’t heard from you in a year and a half.'

"I had a better relationship with Steve Kuhn and I trusted him more. That at the end of the day was the final decision for me.”

It was the opposite for some of the players who were under contract with the PPA this season. Ben and Collin Johns, Anna Leigh Waters and Catherine Parenteau all chose the PPA over the MLP. So did Loong, who said his decision was pretty straightforward because of his loyalty to Pardoe and his preference for the PPA tour’s format.

“If MLP offered me millions of dollars, it would have been hard to say no to that,” Loong said, “but as long as they were similar, I wanted to stay with the PPA. I’ve been with them for over three years. They’ve been really good to me.”

In the end, it’s tough to declare a clear-cut winner in the latest pickleball arms race. MLP caught the PPA flat-footed and pried away the likes of McGuffin and Riley Newman, but it didn’t come close to delivering a knockout blow. The PPA still has the two No. 1 players in the sport, other longtime PPA standouts and some newcomers from the tennis world in Jack Sock, Sam Querrey and Donald Young.

Of course, for both leagues, self preservation came at a price. It’s unclear how the MLP intends to pay for its flurry of new signings that’s now exceeded 70 players. Pardoe said the PPA will cover its spending spree by dipping into the revenue from some of the other pickleball-themed companies that Dundon owns.

The lingering question in the wake of the bidding war is what professional pickleball will look like when the dust settles. Will the PPA follow through on its threat to relaunch VIBE as a direct team-oriented competitor to MLP? Does MLP intend to organize some sort of traditional tour? Can either MLP or PPA emerge as the sport’s lone dominant entity?

Pardoe’s only prediction is that professional pickleball isn’t done growing. Besides that, he doesn’t rule out anything — not even setting aside the raw emotions of the past two weeks and revisiting another partnership with MLP.

“I’d do the same deal we had again,” Pardoe said. “Tom and I both would.

“We gave clarity to TV networks. We gave clarity to sponsors. We were able to put the Wild Wild West to bed. We had a tour where the best players played. We had a league that had six events a year where teams played and it was fun. If I could bring that back, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d be more than willing to sit down and try to figure it out.”