Pro pickleball players band together as chaos, a merger and pay cuts grip the sport (2024)

Major League Pickleball finals at Pickle & Chill on October 16, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio.

Emilee Chinn | Getty Images

Dozens of professional pickleball players have formed a collective to voice their concerns about recent pay cuts and the future of the sport.

In a letter obtained by CNBC, the collective shared their dissatisfaction with how they have been treated by Major League Pickleball and the Pro Pickleball Association Tour.

It comes after MLP on Nov. 28 asked players to take a 40% percent pay cut in return for a reduction of work obligations to help the league become financially viable over the long term. The MLP and the PPA Tour are currently negotiating a proposed merger.

"We understand the economic reality of pay-cuts, however, lies, threats, deceitfulness, false deadlines, and the refusal to honor written addendums and agreements have no place in the league that we know and love. If we are going to collaborate on contract modifications, we deserve honest answers to honest questions, and we have not received them," the letter says.

CNBC spoke with multiple players who say they feel like they've been unfairly treated or received threats for not agreeing to the proposed pay cuts. Many were not so much against the proposed cuts but the lack of transparency and the way the leagues have handled it. They all spoke on the condition on anonymity out of fear of retribution.

Fueled by a boom in the sport's popularity, Major League Pickleball has attracted A-list ownership groups featuring superstars such as LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kevin Durant and Patrick Mahomes, to name just a few. Julio DePietro, who bought a stake in the Florida Smash MLP team in 2022, and most recently served as MLP CEO, told CNBC in Julythat MLP team valuations had soared to $10 million after being acquired for as low as $100,000 since the league began play in 2021.

But recently the league undergone major leadership changes. MLP founder Steve Kuhn and Commissioner Brooks Wiley have departed in recent months. DePietro, who was hired as CEO in July, quietly left that role, too.

Steve Kuhn, MLP Founder, Major League Pickleball at NYSE, May 25, 2022.

Source: NYSE

Despite the proposed merger still being in the works, the players say PPA Tour CEO Connor Pardoe did a lot of the negotiating with MLP players over their contracts, which they found unusual. Many say they had chosen MLP over the PPA Tour to get away from Pardoe, and now they are being forced to negotiate with him.

One player said they were threatened that if they don't take the pay cut by the following day, the cuts would increase to 60% from 40%. The player requested additional information and for a written proposal which the league failed to provide him.

MLP pay ranges from $30,000 to $2 million a year, according to an owner who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.

Other players said they were threatened by MLP and PPA Tour leadership that if they didn't take the cuts they may be scheduled to work in their developmental program coaching clinics or camps – even on their kids' birthdays.

"We decided to form the collective in response to the immoral, unethical and arguably illegal negotiation tactics that are being used," another player said.

The collective represents the interests of the vast majority of MLP's approximately 100 players, according to former MLP Challenger champion and MVP Jillian Braverman, one of the group's leaders. The group started as a WhatsApp chat and has evolved into a forum where players can collectively share their experiences. Braverman said they have received funding from an angel investor and have hired both an employment attorney and an antitrust attorney.

In a joint statement, MLP and the PPA Tour told CNBC: "The players have shown overwhelming collaboration during this process and have largely understood that we are all collectively making adjustments to build an operation that can ensure the long-term health and success of professional pickleball for all key stakeholders."

One owner told CNBC he hopes the collective is a wakeup call to the other owners about the proposed merger and how dire things have become.

"It isn't all rainbows and butterflies, players are not happy. It's not going well and they feel rightfully aggrieved," said the owner, who declined to be named, as he was discussing confidential matters.

Ritchie Tuazon, who owns MLP's California BLQK Bears, said he sees the value of the collective, especially as some players don't even have agent representation.

"Moving in the direction of a unified player voice is only a positive thing for pickleball," he said.

The collective's letter to MLP stakeholders, which includes all owners, also included survey results reflecting the opinions of roughly 65 players.

When asked whether they feel they have been treated fairly during the pay cut negotiation process, 89% of the respondents said no. The vast majority (92%) said that MLP leadership has failed to successfully answer the majority of their questions.

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The poll results regarding the PPA Tour were even more damaging, with 57% saying they have felt victimized, harassed or bullied by the rival league. More than 75% said Connor Pardoe and the PPA Tour leadership team are not of high moral character and integrity.

"We believe that MLP has departed from the ethos that we know and love and is instead embodying the exact ethos that we fled from when we signed multi-year deals with Major League Pickleball in August," the letter says.

Braverman said Major League Pickleball has yet to respond to Sunday's letter. The group sent a follow-up note Thursday, telling MLP leaders that the collective has retained counsel.

MLP did send a letter to players Thursday, but without explicitly addressing the players collective. Titled "Where We Stand," the league letter said "over 85% of all 2023 Premiere Level Players" have accepted reductions as well as new agreements with the "NewCo," which would be the merged MLP and PPA Tour.

The MLP also said they are "at capacity," and not doing any more reductions. It added that if players who have accepted a reduction want to change back to their original deals "we would be open to that."

Pickleball Union, a pickleball news website, and the collective challenged these claims. After reaching out to players and agents, they determined the number of people to have accepted the cuts to be closer to 25% to 30% at best.

In MLP's Thursday letter, the league also touts that MLP owners have pledged an additional $10 million annually to fund operations and will be receiving another $50 million on Jan. 1. Overall, after amended player agreements, there will be a 300% increase in total player salaries in 2024 vs. 2023, it adds.

The league ended the letter with a warning, though.

"If the merger is not completed by Jan. 31, 2024, these new agreements will be null and void, and deals will revert to the contracts you signed with MLP or PPA, which will leave the future viability and sustainability of MLP uncertain," the letter says.

Pro pickleball players band together as chaos, a merger and pay cuts grip the sport (2024)
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