Do you follow Major League Pickleball (MLP)? If your answer is no, you are missing out! I can confidently say that because I just attended the MLP event in Columbus, Ohio and I’m still in awe of the whole experience. I had high expectations because I follow MLP, but this event far exceeded my hopes. What exactly is MLP and why is their format so special?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: After writing this, some major news occurred in the pickleball world. Major League Pickleball merged with PPA’s VIBE. This is going to impact MLP’s number of teams and players who can be drafted. Not much information has been released about this merger, but I will monitor the MLP/Vibe news and bring more updates in a future article.
What is Major League Pickleball?
You probably have heard the BIG news lately about LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Kevin Durant buying pickleball teams. You may have thought- how is this possible? Pickleball doesn’t really have set ”teams”.
The team concept in the foundation of MLP. There are currently twelve teams, which will expand to sixteen in 2023. Each team consists of four members- two men and two women. They play four matches: mens doubles, womens doubles, and two games of mixed doubles. All games scored using rally scoring. After those four games, there could be a tie. So what happens? A VERY exciting Dreambreaker Challenge!
I’ll let MLP speak for itself as to what exactly a Dreambreaker is. “An innovative pickleball tiebreaker with modified rally scoring. One team first discloses its 4-person singles rotation order, and then the opposing team with that knowledge counter-designates its singles rotation order. Each player then rotates in for 4 singles points, until the tiebreaker has a winner.” All games are played to 21 points, including the Dreambreakers (win by two), but the rally scoring freezes when a team reaches 20 points. Talk about making pickleball exciting!
Teams strategically plan out the best singles matches possible. Some of these pros don’t traditionally play singles, like Dekel Bar and Lee Whitwell. However, for four points, these players step onto the court and play their hearts out. Invigorating to watch!
Not only is this concept unique to MLP, so is the fact that these teams are drafted. According to the Major League Pickleball site, the draft operates in this way: “Team names are randomly drawn to determine the order in which Team Owners will select players for a dual (but directionally opposite) women’s and men’s snake draft format. This draft format, the first of its kind in pickleball, ensures that doubles and mixed doubles pairings are novel and interesting, and also creates evenly-matched games full of drama and excitement.”
Who can be drafted? Any players not locked into a three year contract with the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) are eligible to be part of the MLP. You will see some PPA Pros, but they did not sign the three year PPA exclusivity contract.
With all of the above being said, there is talk of big changes coming. Some rumors I heard in Columbus included that with the expansion from twelve to sixteen teams, there may be the chance that PPA will allow players to enter the MLP. Also, the draft may be changing in the upcoming year, but exactly how it may change is all speculation right now. PPA just announced the creation of their version of MLP- Vibe Pickleball. This is certain to cause big waves with the Major League Pickleball World. The impact remains to be seen.
A couple more aspects that makes the MLP so unique: in 2022, there were only three events. In 2023, there will be six. Also, the winning team of the Columbus event got paid $100,000, all going directly to the players on that team. That number will most likely keep going up as big names (like Drew Brees, LeBron James, and Tom Brady) continue to increase the popularity of this organization.
What Makes Major League Pickleball Special?
After being in Columbus at the MLP event, I can say there is nothing else quite like it. Held at an indoor pickleball facility Pickle & Chill, there were two courts going throughout the weekend- Grandstand Court and Championship Court. Around each court was stadium-type seating, but only about 3 rows deep. Two sides for general admission tickets (which by the way were FREE), one side for VIP ticket holders, and one side was a giant screen for promotional videos and video replays. The seats were very close to the action, which made it SO FUN! Seating was first come, first serve and my husband and I were lucky to sit in the front row the entire weekend.
Viewers got to sit close to the players (and their families), so meeting pros was non-stop throughout the event. I am a true pickleball superfan; I watch constantly and I follow many of the pros on social media. I am up to date on all pickleball news and these players are true stars to me. As I walked into the venue, I had hopes of being able to maybe say hi to a couple of the pros or maybe have them autograph some merchandise. Within 10 second of walking in, I crossed paths with JW Johnson. I immediately got a huge smile and kept smiling the whole weekend. Over the course of the three day tournament, I am happy to report that I got to speak to just about EVERY pro there. Even though they were in competition mode; they were very open to talking to fans, signing autographs, and taking pictures.
The best part? The players were SO appreciative of the fans. Each one that I spoke to thanked us for coming and for the support. I’ve been to many professional sporting events in my life and never once at any other event did a player come up to me and thank me for being there.
Professional pickleball is pretty fresh and I know things will change as time progresses. Seats will be further away from the courts as they add more, players will be less accessible, price for tickets will go up….but for that moment, I was ecstatic meeting and talking to the pros. A few even talked to us for 5-10 minutes (thanks Michelle Esquivel and Rob Cassidy).
The bonding between players, their teams, the team owners, and the fans the entire weekend was incredible. My husband and I spent the better part of three days there and we left wanting even more. On the 3.5 hour ride home, I looked up the venues for Major League Pickleball events for 2023 and already started thinking about our schedule to see which one we can attend!
Style of Play
Watching pros play on TV and watching them in person is different. I knew going in that these pros were fantastic at pickleball, but just HOW amazing they are is hard to explain. I could go on and on all day about them, but you know they are pros for a reason. I’m going to try to explain a few stand-out elements that I noticed that were far above the pickleball that I have seen in person up until this time.
At the pro level, this sport is more aggressive. Yes, they drop and dink, but the instant the ball is the LEAST bit attackable… it is attacked. Even a ball that looks too low to return is sent over the net with speed and accuracy. The speeds ups were frequent, but so were the resets. My heart would be pounding watching the ball being smashed back and forth, barely clearing the net, and then someone would reset and the point would fall back into a slower rhythm until the next attackable ball. Most of the games I see in-person, a “kill shot” ends the point. Not in MLP. These players were ready to respond to a “kill shot” nearly every time. Points were generally LONG with every element of pickleball being worked into each point.
The dinking was almost hypnotic. I could probably watch Irina Tereschenko’s backhand dink on repeat for hours. I’ve taken a few lessons where the terms “aggressive dinking” and “dinking with a purpose” were discussed. That really sank in watching the pros out-dink an amazing opponent. Every shot had intent and was not just a reaction. The strategy behind the game resonated while watching live.
Players steadily drove opponents back with deeper dinks. Placing the ball in a way that would cause the opponent to make the mistake; either hitting the ball into the net or popping it up just enough to end the point. You could see patterns in their methodical play- whether the shots were cross court or straight on.
I’ve spent hours trying to improve my dinking and I’m pretty steady at this point, but I know now that I need a little more purpose and strategy behind those shots. Speaking of shots, every player on the court could return the ball from anywhere by dropping it into the kitchen. No matter the speed or angle the ball came at them, the reset into the kitchen was almost always there. Letting the paddle do the work in order to slow that ball down to reset the point.
Next standout: their footwork. WOW. I worked with a pro this summer and we talked a lot about footwork. He said to me that pickleball is a game of movement and there are very few times that you should be standing still on the court. From my front row seat at MLP, I was mesmerized by the pro’s footwork. It was almost like watching dancers or ice skaters gliding across the court. The feet were fast and methodical. If a partner was dinking, the other player was moving in sync at the ready to take the ball…staying in the point. No matter how big the players were (think Dekel Bar and Rafa Hewett), they were very light on their feet allowing them to quickly get in place for the next shot. These pros do not over-extend their reach in order to hit a shot- they move to the ball and then hit it. This level of movement just does not translate as well watching on TV as it does live.
Most people underestimate the athleticism of pickleball. These players are fit and they are strong. Watching the pros move and seeing their leg muscles in action drove home just how powerful and athletic they truly are.
Why YOU should go to a MLP event
I’m a couple of weeks out from the Columbus MLP event, and I’m still thinking about it. I know I’m a little obsessed with pickleball, but you must be as well if you are reading this article. For the fanatics out there- events like this are a dream come true. You get to be in close proximity with athletes at the very top of this sport. From what the pros say, the MLP events are just more fun to compete in than other events. The viewers get to see their favorite players playing in a team format like no other.
The personalities truly shine through. Watching Julian Arnold fist pump and scream, “Andiamoooo” live is invigorating. Seeing one of the GOATs of pickleball Simone Jardim playing across from newer players in the sport like Parris Todd and Jorja Johnson showcases the evolution of pickleball. Meeting crowd favorite Lee Whitwell and her fan club that follows the Mad Drops team around with signs and cowbells is so fun! Getting to see Zane’s crazy spin serve in person before it is officially banned in 2023 is pretty cool. Seeing Cierra Gaytan-Leach being put up against JW Johnson in a Dreambreaker challenge as a sacrificial lamb. Losing all the points but ONE and that ONE point making the difference for her team winning was electric. Watching the pros on BLQK work together, play nearly flawless pickleball, and hype each other up the whole weekend up to the finals (where they won it all) was incredible.
Two specific points that I will never forget (and worth a You Tube search) if you missed them: Mary Brascia’s wrap around behind the head shot was insanity! Also, Rafa Hewett’s point where he got called out for getting hit above his wrist by the other team. He was waving his hand to the crowd so we could see the actual red mark where the ball hit him. To say he was fired up is an understatement. After video review, Rafa was indeed correct and the ball hit him below the wrist (exactly where the red mark was). The crowd, team BLQK, and Rafa himself erupted. That momentum carried the team to a hard fought victory.
Seeing the pros sitting in the stands watching and cheering on the other pros from different teams shows the passion behind this sport. My favorite examples of this included JW Johnson cheering on younger sister Jorja and Lauren Stratman coming right from her own matches to support boyfriend Julian Arnold. These athletes are friends, they compete against each other and support each other all at the same time. Does this happen in other sports? I’m sure, but you do not get to see it as up close and personal as you do at a Major League Pickleball event.
My biggest take away from the MLP event is that the sport of pickleball is growing at lightening speed. I talked to a couple of people who run social media accounts dedicated to pickleball and they are quitting their jobs to devote all of their time to promoting this sport. They are not making a lot of money YET, but they believe that the money is coming. A good amount of the pros are working other jobs because being a pickleball pro is not lucrative for all. Will it be someday soon? That remains to be seen. MLP Founder, Steve Kuhn, has a mission to have 40 million pickleball players worldwide by 2030.
The MLP website summarizes this mission perfectly by saying, “We are behind-the-scenes organizing the event, cheering in the stands as fans, and on the court because we play too. This passion for the game and inside knowledge will be felt by all who interact with MLP.
To us, nothing else matters but pickleball. We don’t care for politics, we have no room for unsportsmanlike behavior, and we prove the naysayers wrong. Everything we do is for the game. A win for pickleball is a win for us.” You feel that while sitting at an MLP event. Everyone drawn together by the common factor- a passion for pickleball.
Even with changes of the horizon, I have confidence that MLP will continue to shine. In 2023, you have six chances to make it to an event. More teams, big name owners, elite level of play. Start planning your trip now- you definitely won’t regret it! Maybe I’ll even see you there.