As the Brooklyn Aces prepare for the second half of the season, they’ll need to learn from their first half — both the good and the bad.
July is a crucial month for the Brooklyn Aces as they move from Major League Pickleball’s Challenger Division to the Premier Division for the second half of the 2023 season. It all starts with the draft on July 12, where the Aces will pick fourth overall, providing the opportunity to select one of the best players in the sport to lead the club to permanent Premier status.
“We want a player who isn’t afraid of big moments and can lead our team to a championship,” said Samin Odhwani, 35V’s director of business.
Framing the First Half
For the uninitaited, here’s how the 2023 MLP season works:
- There are two separate player drafts, one for each half of the season
- All 24 teams compete in three tournaments during each half
- All 24 teams compete, 12 at a time, in the Premier and Challenger Divisions
- All six tournaments consist of group stage play with three matches each and the top six teams advancing to the knockout stages
- Each team earns event points based on tournament performance. The top 12 at the end of the season will earn a permanent spot in the Premier Division.
This is the first time any major professional sports league in America has tried promotion and relegation, raising the stakes for each point in each game. After three tournaments in the Challenger Division, the Brooklyn Aces have 19 event points, good for 15th in MLP. That’s also just two points behind the coveted 12th-place cutoff that would ensure Premier status moving forward.
“I would say the first half overall was a success,” Odhwani said. “We set out to be one of the best ownership groups in MLP, and we resoundingly achieved that. In terms of on the court, at the end of the day there isn’t a Challenger team that faced more adversity than us and we fought through everything and came out stronger for it.”
Both female players the Aces selected in January’s draft — Cierra Gaytan-Leach and Corinne Carr — withdrew from the first half of the season due to pregnancy. Odhwani called Brooklyn’s answer, Hurricane Tyra Black, one of the top pickups of the first half in the division.
It was the June tournament in San Clemente where 35V co-founder and CEO Rich Kleiman first saw the Brooklyn Aces compete in person, supporting the team as an owner after falling in love with pickleball over the last few years.
“The environment and the excitement of knowing that it was a team with our logo and players that were supporting what we’re building, I was blown away,” Kleiman said. “I can’t thank the players enough that were part of our first season together, our first three tournaments. And I’m just excited to be present at all these events moving forward because there’s nothing like it in the physical.”
In witnessing in person every point the Aces have ever contested, Odhwani noticed that the most important aspect of game play is getting off to a fast start. In MLP’s rally scoring format, it’s hard to come back from a deficit if a team starts a game out flat.
Odhwai plans to emphasize a fast start in warmups moving forward and will try to make sure the players the Aces draft will focus on that in practice, with plenty of time before and in between the three second-half events in the Premier Division. Yet despite not advancing past the group stage in the final two events, Odhwani maintained the Aces got stronger as a group in each tournament.
“Even if the results may not match that,” he said, “it gives us a ton of momentum and confidence for our ownership group going into season two.”
There are, however, still plenty of areas for improvement. Ownership let itself down a bit, Odhwani said, by not doing more research on the players’ personalities and how they fit together before the Challenger Division draft. That will be a major focus leading up to the Premier draft. Ownership also did not knowing the exact nature of some of the rules and their interpretations, preventing them from taking full advantage during matches.
“There is a learning curve for all owners, however I should have been more prepared to challenge some rulings and calls,” Odhwani said, specifically mentioning a service fault in Daytona Beach and an incorrect line call in Mesa. “Though they may not have dramatically changed the outcome, there were some potential opportunities for us to change the course of some of our matches that if we could do over, I would have made sure to push on.”
Another major adjustment Brooklyn may make heading into the second half of the season is bringing in a coach, which other Challenger Division teams employed during the first three tournaments. That coach, Odhwani said, has to fit the Aces’ culture, chiefly, treating their players with respect and helping the team be the best prepared group leading into each event. Unfortunately, there aren’t many available coaches in professional pickleball, making it less likely that one fits the Aces’ requirements. The team, Odhwani said, is prepared to forge ahead without one.
Once An Ace, Always An Ace
One of the most important principles of the Aces’ culture is treating its players like the pro athletes they are. It seems like a straightforward thing to do, but Aces players from the Challenger Division said they heard stories from fellow players that suggested otherwise. With gear like Theraguns and a pair of Kevin Durant sneakers in tow, the Aces players were made to feel like part of a top notch organization.
The Aces hope to further expand that approach on the court, which may include bringing in a professional trainer, providing more options for post-match rest and recovery, and implementing a workout regimen that balances players’ current routines with adding a layer of accountability. Another objective is to build a connection and culture with every former and current Aces player, whether inviting them to practice or going out to dinners or events, making sure they feel, as Odhwani put it, “once an Ace, always an Ace.”
That mentality also needs to extend to marketing and drumming up more support for the team. Odhwani feels like the Aces need to do a better job of that, which would bring more fan support at the events and give their players an energy boost.
“We need to get creative for how we can do this at some of the events that are farther away,” he said, “but it’s crucial for us to make sure the Aces are represented in the crowd to cheer our team on.”
Kleiman said that he often follows passion and instinct in life. The founders and executives at MLP were able to match his enthusiasm for the sport. To grow and build the Aces brand in New York City, he said, was too good to be true. He’s excited by the start the team has had on and off the court, but it’s now time for the Aces to level up in the Premier Division, where Aces fans will now get to cheer on some of the best pickleball players in the world.
These players, Odhwani said, have to be ones who want to be called upon during each game’s biggest moments, whether that’s the first or last draft pick. To win in MLP without one of the top couple of players, he said, you need players who will outperform their draft position.
For the Premier Division draft, that may require taking someone in the third or fourth round who has potential and can grow into a top-tier player over the course of the season, something Odhwani said the Brooklyn Aces didn’t execute well in the Challenger Division draft.
Aside from drafting the right players, Odhwani said the biggest key to earning a spot in Premier moving forward is instilling a belief in the team that they have the talent and ability to win.
“The Aces need to have a championship mentality,” Odhwani said, “and it’s on all of the staff and owners to make sure that gets across to our team.”
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