Pickleball was the fastest-growing sport in the United States in 2021 and 2020, according to a recent report. The sport has 4.8 million players in the U.S. and has grown by 39.3% from 2020 to 2022. The rapid increase in interest in the sport has spawned several professional pickleball leagues. Two of the highest-profile leagues, the VIBE Pickleball League (owned by the Professional Pickleball Association) and Major League Pickleball, are now merging.
Professional Pickleball Association
The PPA is one of two professional pickleball tours in the United States. The other is the Association of Pickleball Professionals. The PPA hosts the Professional Tour of Pickleball, which is one of the premier pickleball tours in the United States. The PPA boasts that its tour has the top professionals and offers the largest payouts in the sport.
The Professional Tour of Pickleball consists of multiple tournaments that take place in venues nationwide. The PPA broadcasts tournaments on its YouTube channel and has a deal with cable sports network ESPN to broadcast its Bubly Team Championships. The league also sometimes broadcasts events on network television and the Tennis Channel. In January 2022, Tom Dundon, the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes NHL team, purchased the PPA.
Major League Pickleball
MLP is another of the top professional pickleball leagues in the U.S. The stated mission of the league is to show the world how extraordinary pickleball is. MLP events are currently all team format competitions. The number of events the league offers will expand from three to six in 2023 and the league will be expanding from 12 to 16 teams, with several of the new teams having high-profile owners, such as Lebron James and Anheuser-Busch.
VIBE Pickleball League
Unlike MLP, most of the Professional Pickleball Association events are individual tournaments. The PPA said it would create the VIBE Pickleball League on October 28, 2022. The VIBE league was set to feature six co-ed teams, similar to the MLP, and begin play in 2023. Mark Cuban signed on to be the league’s first team owner.
The PPA Tour’s top five female and male players were to be part of the player pool for the VIBE tour. The six teams were to select players through a live draft process in December 2022. VIBE announced that it would televise matches utilizing the PPA’s relationships with ABC, FOX, CBS, NBC, and Tennis Channel. There were to be four season events and two championships.
Major League Pickleball and the Professional Pickleball Association VIBE Pickleball League agreed to merge in November 2022. The new league will keep the Major League Pickleball name. The owners of the two leagues called the move a strategic effort to unify the sport as a “global, co-ed, team-based league.” They claim the combined league will offer fans the best players, the largest events, and the most visionary owners. The PPA will continue to operate as a separate tour from the new combined league and will have exclusive rights to singles play while MLP will have exclusive rights to the team format.
Reason for the Merger
According to the league owners, the two leagues are merging so that they can offer larger events, increased prize money, better player development, and bigger sponsorships and media deals, and grow the sport of pickleball. There had been some friction between the PPA and MLP in the past, due to the PPA not allowing its players to compete in MLP events, and some people speculated that the two leagues would clash. The merger between the two leagues could usher in an era of cooperation, rather than competition, between MLP and PPA and lead to more opportunities for top players.
The merge ends the restriction on PPA players competing in MLP tournaments. This is good news for both players and fans because now the top players can play in all of the events instead of having to choose between the two leagues.
History of Team Pickleball
MLP hosted its first event in November 2021. In 2022, the league expanded from eight teams to 12. That same year, the PPA signed exclusive contracts with some of the sport’s top players, which prevented them from participating in MLP events.
Despite this setback, MLP increased the prize money for its three 2022 events to $300,000, which was the largest prize pool in pickleball history. The popularity of the team format resulted in further expansion plans for MLP in 2023, a slew of big-name investors, and the formation of the VIBE Pickleball League by the Professional Pickleball Association.
How the Current MLP League Works
The team format makes how MLP works a bit different than the other major pickleball leagues.
Steve Kuhn, a billionaire former hedge fund manager, founded the league. He shares ownership of the league with the owners of all of the other teams in the league.
The 2022 season began with a snake draft. The owners of the 12 co-ed teams were all randomly assigned a draft order and then the draft began with the first team choosing a female player from the draft pool. That team would then get the 24th women’s pick and the eighth and ninth men’s picks.
The second team got the second and 23rd women’s picks and the seventh and 10th men’s picks and so on until all of the teams selected two women and two men each. The purpose of the snake draft was to ensure that all of the teams have an equal amount of talent so that the matches stay competitive.
The tournaments consist of a men’s and women’s doubles match and two mixed-doubles matches. If there is a tie at the end of these matches, they decide the winning team by playing a singles tiebreaker.
The tournaments work by randomly sorting the 12 teams into three pools with four teams each. Each team plays all of the other teams in its pool. The two teams with the best records from each pool move on to the next round and are seeded according to how many matches they won. The first and second seeds automatically advance to the semi-finals. The remaining seeds play single-elimination quarter-final matchups.
There were three tournaments in 2022. The first took place in Austin, Texas on June 3rd-5th. Team BLQK won that tournament.
The second event was in Newport Beach, California on August 5th-7th. The Ranchers won this tournament.
The final tournament of the season took place in Columbus, Ohio. BLQK also won this tournament.
How the New League Will Work
The new post-merge MLP will feature 24 teams. However, the league hasn’t announced whether there will be 24 teams at the start of the 2023 season or if the season will open with the previously announced 16 teams.
The 2023 season will feature six tournaments and a draft that will establish all new rosters for all of the teams. MLP has not announced the rest of the details about how the combined league will work, including who the owners of the additional five teams will be or whether it will incorporate the planned Professional Pickleball Association VIBE tour events into the MLP schedule.
Insiders expect that the merger between the two leagues will result in a significant increase in available prize money for players and that the 2023 season will crown an overall winner, rather than just individual tournament champions. MLP had already announced a planned $2.4 million prize pool for 2023, which is more than double the amount awarded in 2022. However, with the significant resources the PPA brings to the table, the prize money could go even higher.
What the Merger Means for Pickleball Fans
The merger between the two leagues should mean good things for fans of the team format. Instead of having two rival leagues splitting players and hosting separate events, fans will be able to watch all the best players playing against each other in the same tournaments.
Additionally, the combined resources of the two leagues, along with their growing list of sponsors, should enable the league to host more tournaments in nicer venues and with more media coverage. This means more opportunities for fans to watch the sport in person and on television and streaming platforms.
Ultimately, the hope is that the new combined league, along with its celebrity ownership, will expand the reach of the sport and grow its popularity. The more popular the sport becomes, the more the tour can expand and the more athletes will pursue a career as professional players, which should continue to improve the level of professional play.
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Two racquet sports enthusiasts with a passion for all things pickleball started Pickleball Portal. The site covers everything related to pickleball, including the latest news about the Professional Pickleball Association, Major League Pickleball, and the other leagues and events around the country. Whether you are already a pickleball enthusiast or are brand-new to the sport, you will find something of interest on our site. In addition to the latest news, we offer tips and strategies, product reviews, advice for new players, and more. Stop by our blog for the latest updates.