An hour of padel is more popular these days than a ticket for Tomorrowland. Companies are throwing themselves into the explosive growth of the young racket sport, and terrains cannot be constructed quickly enough.
It is Thursday afternoon, in the middle of a working day, and the sky is ominously gray, but at the padel club Arenal in Waregem all seven grounds are occupied. There is loud playing, soft playing, cursing and cheering, by men and women and the elderly and young. The fluorescent yellow balls fly with dull taps over the blue artificial grass.
‘Every day at 9 o’clock is a bit of Tomorrowland,’ says Tom De Sutter, ex-top football player and owner of the club. Then the sites in the online system will be available in 28 days. ‘The peak hours are reserved within five minutes, the rest will follow shortly after.’ Rain, unchristian hours or the freezing cold of last month, nothing can stop padellers.
De Sutter stopped playing football eighteen months ago after a career at Anderlecht and Club Brugge, among others. Today he sets his sights on padel. He has three clubs (almost four), and his company Tomaspor is the second largest terrain builder in Belgium. Together with co-founder Mattias Van Holm, he has already installed 140, and by the summer 100 will be added.
The hustle and bustle has one disadvantage: he hardly finds time to play anymore. The spark came on a journey in Spain, the European padel mecca. After a trip to Mallorca in 2015, the two childhood friends were sold. At home, De Sutter and Van Holm founded their first club in Bruges, then the second in the country. There are now 123.
We receive six requests per day for the construction of an average of six sites.
As it goes in Waregem, it goes everywhere. A free padel court is a scarce commodity. The pandemic provided an extra boost. In addition to lockdown classics such as cycling and running, it is one of the few sports that could take place outdoors.
The counts differ about how many fields there are already. 400, says Tennis Vlaanderen, the federation that has embraced padel. Tennis and padel are close to each other, and a legal dispute between the tennis association and the separate Padel Flanders about who can claim the sport as a federation and the associated subsidies, dragged on for a long time. At least 750, says Paul Herwege of Redsport, market leader in padel court construction.
It is certain that there are too few. More and more municipalities, tennis clubs and private investors are ordering extra pitches to meet the demand.
More than a fad
For those who have not yet seen it up close: padel – the emphasis is on the second syllable – is a racket sport that is almost always played with two against two on a field of 10 by 20 meters with a net in the middle. The site is surrounded by a glass cage that is part of the game: the ball bounces back. A racket consists of a kind of thick plastic version of a beach pallet with holes in it.
The game is very popular in Latin America, with 5,000 jobs in Buenos Aires alone. In Europe, Spain takes the cake, where padel would be the second sport, after football. Here it remained silent for a long time, until the explosion a few years ago.
In the sports shops of Decathlon, the racks with padel items – the chain has had its own brand since 2019 – are the most profitable of all, says Katrien Wuytack, HR manager and fanatic padel player. As a side project, she was allowed to engage in the first cautious commercialization of padel nine years ago. ‘Today it is a full-time job on the side.’ Belgium has become a true paddy country. In December, the shop in Antwerp, where two areas have also been placed in the car park, was the best-selling padel internationally.
The great thing about the sport is that everyone enjoys it from the first stroke. Padel is social, accessible – both technically and in terms of material – and yet competitive at all levels. Sports marketers assume that 1 in 10 people can enjoy the technically much more difficult tennis, while padel can delight 7 in 10 people.
‘A young sport that is gaining ground so quickly is almost unseen,’ says Pascal Delheye, holder of the chair ‘The Future of Sport’ at Ghent University, and has been playing padel every week for about a year. ‘There are a lot of fitness fads, such as zumba, but they don’t have a competitive element and are mainly about imitation, which loses appeal. That will certainly not happen with padel. ‘
The sport is also economically attractive. Four people fit in an area of 200 square meters, in tennis that is usually only two in 612 square meters. Federick Verhelst of the employment agency Smart Solutions in Roeselare also saw this. He looked for a way to jump on the padel cart but found no recreational ground, the bottleneck in the race for more terrains. He wrote to every mayor in West and East Flanders with an investment plan, without success.
But recently he was able to get hold of a 20,000 square meter site in Ingelmunster, where a family park used to be. He wants to build ‘the largest padel center in the Benelux’, with twenty pitches and a center court with stands for top matches. An investment of 5 million euros. ‘I think we will quickly get to a recurring business.’
Pay and play
On a Wednesday afternoon, the balls also fly back and forth in the padel cage at the industrial estate in Zele near Lokeren. In front of Redsport’s headquarters, there is a demo site that has been let for an average of 10.5 hours per day for the past thirty months. Manager Paul Herwege had a construction company, but devoted himself entirely to padel through a deal with the Spanish parent company of Redsport, which has since been taken over by Adidas. Today he is the largest builder of land in our country. The staff, which has grown from 3 to 15 people in two years, cannot handle the emails. ‘We receive six requests per day for an average of six sites.’
Actually it goes too fast, he says, conjuring with tables and figures. Tennis peaked at about 150,000 players at the time of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. The potential of padel is twice as great: 300,000 players. In Spain that is also the ratio. ‘ In 2018, when Adidas entered the market, the projection was that padel in Belgium would grow steadily to 5,000 fields by 2035. That saturation point will already be in 2024, Herwege estimates. To anticipate, he diversified into machines for the rental of balls and rackets. He also invested in his own synthetic turf fiber that dissipates water better. ‘Better quality than in Spain, here they want to pay for it.’
A fully finished padel court costs around 40,000 euros, an investment that can quickly pay for itself. Most sites are rented by the hour through a pay-and-play principle with bookings through the online platform Playtomic, and not through membership fees or subscriptions. Herwege: ‘If you calculate that a site will be reserved for six hours a day, for 6 euros per hour per person, then it will be written off over ten months.’ It makes investors mouth water. ‘There is regularly a professional football player here who wants to put his money into padel.’
Corona boosted popularity. Many amateur athletes who haven’t been able to do their own thing for months, switched to padel to stay sporty and social. But no one in the padel industry doubts that things will continue as fast after the pandemic. ‘It is a rare attractive sport, even if the rest is allowed again. And there is still a lot of room for growth, especially among the youth, ‘says Delheye. Decathlon also assumes permanent growth. “Even if demand decreases a bit, the fields remain fully occupied,” says Wuytack.
Entrepreneurs like Herwege and De Sutter mainly hope for a professionalization, with the cultivation of their own talent, major tournaments, matches on television and a place at the Olympic Games. De Sutter: ‘It cannot be purely business. You see cowboys on the market who are out to make a quick buck. That is not good for the sport. ‘