Padel and pickleball are two sports I did not think I would write about this year. Ample ignorance was responsible. I had never heard of the pair and I probably wasn’t alone.
If you are none the wiser, padel in its simplest form is a fusion of tennis and squash that started in Mexico in 1969. Pickleball, meanwhile, is another tennis-like game that also took shape in the same decade.
This was all news to me ten months ago, as was the realisation that they are two of the world’s fastest-growing sports. Qatar might currently be hosting soccer’s Fifa World Cup, but it was coincidently the Gulf state that helped address my lack of knowledge at the beginning of 2022.
February saw Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) plough money into the International Padel Federation (FIP), leading to the creation of the Premier Padel tour. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, QSI’s president, is a fan of the sport.
This did not sit well with the pre-existing Damm-owned World Padel Tour (WPT), a separate entity from the FIP. To keep it brief, the FIP and padel’s Professional Players Association (PPA) accused the WPT of breaking European Union (EU) competition law. The WPT, however, believes its new rival has encouraged players to breach contract so they can switch to Premier Padel.
A thin olive branch appeared to be extended last month when the WPT unveiled a new business model that would allow its players to compete in Premier Padel. Lawsuits against them would also be dropped, provided players signed up to the deal. That last demand, however, only fueled further animosity, with a Premier Padel source telling me that it was akin to “legal blackmail”.
It doesn’t end there. Last week, it was reported that the FIP had filed a case against the International Tennis Federation (ITF) alleging an attempt at a hostile takeover of the sport. Tennis’ global governing body, supposedly unaware of the legal action, has denied the allegations, though it does want to help create a global governance framework for padel.
The FIP is having none of it, asserting that the ITF was seeking to unilaterally assume control. The plans, however you want to dress them up, fell short at the ITF’s recent annual general meeting (AGM). FIP president Luigi Carraro hailed the latest twist as “a victory for the independence and integrity of sport”.
It says a lot about padel’s burgeoning popularity that so many people want in. As well as QSI, athletes including Andy Murray and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have invested in the game in some shape or form. But the sport’s apparent penchant for self-sabotage off the court is in stark contrast to the ongoing consolidation in pickleball.
Yet a conflict felt inevitable upon the inception of Major League Pickleball (MLP), whose teams are owned by the likes of LeBron James, Tom Brady and Anheuser-Busch InBev. The Professional Pickleball Association (PPA), bought by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, had no desire to let its players compete in MLP. That organisation recently formed the Vibe Pickleball League, which secured Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as its first headline investor.
Ultimately, battlelines were not drawn. MLP and Vibe instead shook hands on a strategic merger to unify the sport. The combined competition will live under the MLP brand name and format.
‘Coming together as one team league allows us to build much bigger events, offer more prize money, enhance player development, pursue larger media and sponsorship deals and, most importantly, grow the game we all love,’ said a joint statement from Dundon and MLP founder Steve Kuhn.
There’s a lesson in there for someone. Padel and pickleball have plenty in common. Aside from their tennis links, they boast billionaire backers, high-profile athlete investors and mushrooming popularity. The similarities, though, end there. While pickleball’s union is based on the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats, padel’s competing sides are intent on launching broadsides against each other.
It remains difficult to pick a winner in the battle for control of padel. But, if things continue as they are, everyone could end up losing. It is worth noting that even fans of more established sports will only tolerate so much infighting. The padel brand is not yet watertight or ubiquitous enough with the casuals to atone for its splintered state.
Indeed, pickleball is on an expanding list of emerging sports ready to scoop up fans looking for something different. Establishing a united front seems a far more viable way to ensure long-term growth.
Padel has made great strides. The FIP reckons the sport has more than 25 million players, a number that has doubled in the past five years. Participation is said to be equally split between men and women, attracting those of all ages and backgrounds. There is also a push to get it in the 2028 Olympics.
As if to round out the first year of padel’s presence in my life, the new flatmate has now informed me there is a court a mile down the road. Regardless of whether we do have a go, I eagerly await padel’s next chapter.
I just hope it doesn’t end up being a textbook example for a new sport in how not to operate.
Ed Dixon covers the international sports business for SportsPro and is a contributor to the SportsPro Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.