The business of padel | FT Scoreboard
Padel has emerged from the pandemic as one of the world's fastest growing sports. The FT speaks to investors, players and coaches, to see why money is pouring into the upstart racket sport
Produced by Petros Gioumpasis and Josh Noble. Filmed by James Sandy. Edited by Richard Topping. Graphics by Angelina Birkett
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It may not look like much, but this is ground zero for one of the world's fastest-growing sports.
Here on the outskirts of east London, a Swedish entrepreneur is building the city's biggest centre for the hottest new thing in recreational sport, padel.
So this is going to be the centre court, and then we'll have another five courts all the way down to the main entrance over there. We started looking for opportunities back in 2019. And then after Covid we got our first club up, which is Bristol. The Rocket Padel Bristol is the largest padel club in the country, holding 14 courts. It's a very, very nice club.
So we opened up that club. And now we're focusing a little bit more on London. So now we're trying to surround London. It's usually one of the bottlenecks in scaling padel is to get clubs and premises like this. But once you have the proper clubs up, the landowners will find us rather than us finding them and trying to convince them to change the use.
I think if you open up in a very well-populated area where there's lots of experience from padel and a strong demand already, you could be breaking profits earlier, whereas when you start in new cities, that when we open up in Bristol, for example, people didn't really understand or know about padel. So it took a couple of extra months to get them coming, and trying it out, and coming back. Usually, you should be able to be in the money from an operational perspective within three to six months.
Padel was invented in the 1960s by a Mexican businessman who didn't have enough space to build a tennis court at his house in Acapulco. Instead, he designed a smaller enclosed court, which gave rise to a new pursuit, mixing elements of tennis and squash. Padel went on to become a huge hit in Spain, Argentina, and a handful of other places around the world. Typically played in doubles, padel has been gaining popularity for being sociable, but easy to pick up.
It uses tennis scoring but has a glass wall for returning shots, as in squash. Now, investors are looking for the next big opportunity, with the UK, the US, France, and Germany in focus. Globally, the game is estimated to be worth around 2 billion euros a year. But it's forecast to treble in size over the next three years.
Padel is an interesting sport right now. I think it is growing quite quickly. The pace of change in terms of padel and the business model of padel is changing quite quickly. Obviously, you have Covid as an inflexion point, where people were working from home, and wanted to socialise, have fun, compete a little bit. So that's where a sport like padel can come into play quite easily.
I think we're at an early stage when it comes to the growth of padel in the UK, the US, some of these emerging markets. I think you're starting to see this post-Covid boom of wanting to socialise, wanting to exercise in a way that isn't necessarily just going to the gym anymore.
One of the big challenges for padel advocates is spreading the word about a sport many have never heard of. But Sandy and Tom Farquharson saw the potential early on, and set up The Paddle School, an online video platform to teach people how to play and how to improve their game.
Understanding the back glass and getting yourself in a good position to hit is one of the more difficult areas of padel. Just a normal flat ball.
So padel is a mixture of tennis and squash. It's similar scoring to tennis. But they use different racquets and lower-pressured balls.
So the racquet is smaller. It's often described as a beach bat. And therefore, your contact is a lot closer to your hand. Also, the court is a lot shorter than a tennis court, for example. And the more you play, the more you realise that it's quite a different sport from tennis and squash. It kind of sits on its own.
Well, the great thing about padel is that the serve is technically easier than tennis. So to start with padel it's an underarm serve. You play the ball cross court. And that is how simple it is to start the point in padel
And having taught lots and lots of adult tennis players and adult padel players, it's amazing that in padel, you can literally start the first day and play some points. Whereas in tennis, you would need lessons in order to be able to serve. So initially, I started the video content online really to help my own group of students. I was in Dubai, I had a small group of students, and they were asking me the same questions over and over again. And there was no content in English. In this video today, we're going to talk about how to return the ball that comes off that side glass with slice.
Tip number three is recognise your opponent's serving technique.
I was really trying to help my students play the game. But I was starting to see through the analytics that a lot of the Nordic countries and Sweden were really taking it up and watching a lot of those videos. And initially, it was teaching technique, and the rules, and the basics. But as the channel improved and grew, there were more and more questions, and therefore, more and more titles and topics for me to select really.
It's not just recreational padel that is gaining attention. Investors have been putting money into professional tours, leagues, and cup competitions, including the likes of Qatar Sports Investment, owner of French football club Paris Saint Germain, Daily Mail publisher DMG Ventures, and the parent company of the New York Yankees baseball team. Big names from the world of sport are also throwing their weight behind padel.
So when you think about institutional investment that is looking for those returns on a sport like padel, returns on their investment, this is a high-growth opportunity for them. But there's also the other aspect of it of individuals that play tennis potentially, or other celebrities, athletes, that just want to be involved in a growing game that are looking at padel as another growth opportunity for them, for their brand, and also to inspire the next generation.
In London's Canary Wharf, a major international finance centre, a project backed by Spotify co-founder Martin Lorentzon is hoping to tap into growing demand to play padel among white-collar workers.
So we're actually standing on top of 15 metres of scaffold. The place we're on was supposed to become a skyscraper. But in a post-pandemic world where there's not as much as a need of offices, we had the opportunity to reuse the land to build a padel club.
Me I'm originally from Sweden. I grew up there. And I discovered the game four or five years ago. I played it and... during one of my trips back to... back home. And I really fell in love with the game. But then I had tried to play the game, continued picking it up here in London. But there were very few courts. And booking them was close to impossible. So that's where the idea came to mind of maybe I should get involved in this business.
The reaction since we launched has been really, really good. I was expecting us to get busy, but maybe not this quickly onwards. Our prime times after 4pm is pretty much booked out every single day. Our weekends are pretty much booked out as well. But the mornings and afternoons requires a bit more of a community to fill those hours. But the uptake has been amazing.
So I think it's one of our responsibilities as a club in the location where we are to educate people about padel. The UK is still a very early emerging market in padel. And a lot of people don't know what it is. They've never played it. So what we do is we do a run of lots of introduction to padel sessions where people can come and try it out for one session and learn the basic rules, and then from there be ready to play a game. Soon, we will also be running junior academies to even get the kids involved and build a bit of a grassroots sport.
Investors looking to ride the padel wave face a number of challenges. Space is hard to come by. Planning restrictions can be tough to navigate. And the pool of existing players in new markets like the US and the UK is still relatively small. But with the number of courts globally expected to almost double by the end of 2026, many more people should soon get the chance to pick up a bat and try their hand at one of the world's fastest-growing sports.