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Inside the three pro pickleball leagues battling it out for supremacy

A look at a match on the Professional Pickleball Association tour, which will broadcast its first event on national TV on Saturday.Ryan Foell

The growing pains associated with pickleball being the fastest-growing sport in the country come in two shapes and sizes.

There are the outsiders, the residents living near courts who complain about the pock-pock of plastic paddles whacking plastic balls, and the pearl-clutching tennis types, aghast at the hordes of cheerful, younger-than-ever pickleballers invading their courts.

That’s static, however, compared to the high-stakes, sometimes sharp-elbowed drama playing out within the sport among its three — yes, three — professional entities.

For now, there is enough money behind the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour, the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) Tour, and the team-based Major League Pickleball (MLP), for each to run successful multimillion dollar operations.

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The latest sign of success: On Saturday, CBS will air a PPA event beginning at 4 p.m., the first national network broadcast of pro pickleball.

For a pastime that shot to the top of the growth chart in sports since the start of the pandemic — its estimated 4.8 million participants by the end of last year represented a nearly 40 percent increase from 2019, according to the Sports Fitness Industry Association — the professional side has a ways to go to catch up.

It’s difficult to imagine the alphabet-soup of groups will all survive the climb to the sport’s summit.

Publicly, pickleball insiders speak politely, mostly, and wish each other only the best. But the internal competition for players, sponsors, and the fans’ attention remains fierce.

Consolidation is not on the horizon.

“There has to be some consolidation in the next two to three years for this to make any sense” from a sustainable business model standpoint, said Thomas Shields, founder of BiteSize Sports, which runs The Dink, a pickleball news site. “The chances of that happening if there’s some unification go up exponentially. But these guys need to figure out how to play nice, and I don’t know that we’re going to see that happen.”

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Rob Nunnery, a professional player with experience playing in all three groups, says the competition isn’t a problem.

“There’s a lot of talk about conflict and how maybe it’s not good for the sport, but I think it is good,” said Nunnery, pointing out that prize money increases with continued competition. “I think it’s fueling the growth of the sport.”

Both the PPA and MLP boast wealthy owners — the PPA is owned by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon; MLP by Steve Kuhn, a former hedge fund investor — who are not expected to cede any ground to the other any time soon.

MLP has a strategic partnership with the APP Tour, which is sanctioned by USA Pickleball and emphasizes community outreach and increasing the sport’s reach among all groups and ages while also running a profitable tour.

MLP’s format stands out with its 12 mixed-gender four-member teams, which count notable franchise owners such as former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, author Brene Brown, and tennis player James Blake. It will hold three events this year, each with a $300,000 purse that’s tops among the groups for a single event.

Expansion is under discussion, with MLP strategic advisor Anne Worcester saying in an e-mail: “The response and demand from individuals, businesses, sponsors, venues and groups across all industries who want to invest on some level is staggering — we’re excited to continue to up level MLP.”

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The other two tours feature singles and doubles for each gender, as well as mixed doubles.

Ken Herrmann, CEO and creative founder of APP, said his tour, which has aired on CBS Sports Network, ESPN+, and FS1, is in advanced talks with a linear broadcaster for 2023. APP says it will award $2 million-plus over its 32 stops this year, with a significant bump in prize money next year.

Pickleball's burgeoning pro circuit features players like 15-year-old Jorja Johnson (right), the No. 1 ranked women's player, and JW Johnson, the No. 1 ranked men's player on the Association of Pickleball Professionals tour.Courtesy/APP

PPA CEO Connor Pardoe said his tour will award a little more than $3 million over its 17 events this year, twice as much as it awarded over 2021′s 16 events, with next year’s purse increasing at a similar rate.

PPA contracts, which tie 25 players to play (with some exceptions) only PPA tour events, are a primary source of irritation with the other two tours/leagues.

When MLP and APP players play in a PPA event, they are, according to Pardoe, competing against “the top players in the world, under exclusive contracts. We know they’re going to be coming in, week in, week out, and it’s a great opportunity for them to continue to affiliate themselves with us and get some great exposure.’'

Whether explicit or not, the notion that the “top players play in the PPA” relegates the APP to something of a development league. Pardoe said that’s “maybe not” the case, but that new pickleball pros are “going to have more success over there than they’re going to have on the PPA Tour, without a doubt.”

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The idea of APP as a junior circuit is “probably that organization’s way of taking a shot at the APP,” said Herrmann. “But when you look at the top pros in world pickleball rankings, there are more pros in the top 20 that have not signed contracts playing APP than have signed contracts. We welcome the PPA pros on the APP Tour if their contract allows them; we welcome them with open arms. The sport’s in its infancy stages right now — nobody should be shut out of playing any events.”

To Nunnery, seeing mostly the same set of elite players meet in the finals of each PPA event gets “very boring and repetitive.” He believes APP already has stronger singles talent than the PPA and while PPA made a “strong move” to lock up top talent, “I don’t think there’s a clear winner at this point. I think it’s still up for grabs.”

On the scale of great sports squabbles, this one won’t crack the Top 200.

Herrmann and Pardoe are each devoutly loyal to their respective tours, and each went to pains to express love for the sport.

Pardoe sounded genuinely weary of media attempts to exaggerate the level of discord within the pro pickleball world.

“I really like both of the other groups, I think there are great people running them and I think what they’re doing is great for pickleball,” he said. “At the end of the day, the story really is pickleball, how great a sport it is and how the professional game’s continuing to grow.”

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To others, the tension accompanying the growth comes at too great a cost.

Terri Graham, who grew up in Bangor, Maine, and is a co-founder of the come-one, come-all US Open Championships in Naples, Fla., every April, is distressed by how professional pickleball has become a “very toxic” industry.

“I am hopeful sometime in the near future to get all these people together to kind of get on the bus and drive it in the same direction because right now, everybody’s on their own bus, headed in a different direction,” she said.

Even though Saturday’s broadcast is a media-buy — PPA paid CBS for the time — Pardoe said commercial spots sold out a month ago and will feature several non-endemic (non-pickleball related) sponsors. The belief within the industry is that an assortment of linear and cable networks will eventually start paying the tours to air their content.

“We’re putting pickleball on because we believe in the sport,” said Billy Stone of CBS Sports. “I’m excited that we’re putting it on the big network Saturday. I think that’s great growth for this sport.”

Stoughton-based Franklin Sports has been riding the pickleball wave as successfully as any other company. Franklin’s growth has been mainly in the recreational department, but it is a major partner with both APP and MLP, and hopes to renew its partnership with PPA. President Adam Franklin considers his company to have a neutral stance on how the professional landscape shakes out.

“If they continue to operate in their own silos, I do think that all three can be successful on their own, but I do think the sport would be in a better place if there was collaboration between the three,” said Franklin. “I think in the current state that feels unlikely. But this sport is moving so fast I wouldn’t be surprised about anything happening.”


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.