The Passenger Hour is more popular these days than a ticket to Tomorrowland. The companies are throwing themselves into the explosive growth of young racquet sports, and the terrain cannot be built fast enough.
It’s Thursday afternoon, in the middle of the workday, and the sky is ominously gray, but at the Badel Arenal club in Waregem I took all seven stadiums. There is loud playing, soft play, cursing and cheering, by men and women, old and young. Faded faucets flying yellow fluorescent balls over the blue artificial turf.
“Every day at 9 am it’s kind of Tomorrowland,” says former football player and club owner Tom De Suter. After that, the sites in the online system will be available within 28 days. “Peak hours are booked in five minutes, and the rest will follow shortly after.” Rain, non-Christian hours or freezing cold last month, nothing can stop the weeds.
De Suter stopped playing football eighteen months ago after his career at Anderlecht and Club Bruges, among others. Today he sets his sights on Baddel. He has three clubs (almost four), and his company Tomaspor is the second largest terrain builder in Belgium. Together with co-founder Matthias Van Holme, he has already put together 140 of them, and by summer another 100 will be added.
The hustle and bustle have one drawback: he barely finds time to play anymore. The spark came on a trip in European Spain, Mecca. After a trip to Mallorca in 2015, my childhood friend was sold. At home, de Suter and Van Holme set up their first club in Bruges, then the second in the country. There are now 123.
We receive six orders per day to build an average of six sites.
As in Waregem, it goes everywhere. Al-Baddel Stadium is a rare commodity. The pandemic provided an additional boost. In addition to insurance classics like cycling and running, it is one of the few outdoor sports that can take place.
The numbers differ on how many fields actually exist. 400, says Tennis Vlaanderen, the federation that adopted the padel game. Tennis and the padel are close to each other, and the legal dispute between the Tennis Federation and the separate Padel Flanders over who can claim the sport as a federation and the subsidies associated with it has continued for a long time. 750 at least, says Paul Hiroy of Redsport, the market leader in building a padel court.
To be sure, there is very little. More and more municipalities, tennis clubs and private investors are requesting additional stadiums to meet the demand.
More than a fad
For those who haven’t seen it up close: Padel – focus on segment two – is a racket sport that is always played with a two-on-two on a 10 x 20 meter court with a net in the middle. The site is surrounded by a glass cage that is part of the game: the ball bounces back. The paddle is made of a thick plastic type of beach plate with holes in it.
The game is very popular in Latin America, with 5,000 jobs located in Buenos Aires alone. In Europe, Spain is taking the cake, with the paddle sport being the second sport after football. Here it remained calm for a long time, until the explosion a few years ago.
At Decathlon’s sports stores, shelves with Padel items – the chain has had its own brand since 2019 – are the most profitable of all, says Catherine Whitak, HR director and fanatical padel player. As a side venture, it was allowed to participate in the first cautious marketing of the Alternative nine years ago. “Today it is a full-time job on the side.” Belgium has become a true country of rice. In December, the store in Antwerp, where two areas were placed in the parking lot, was the best-selling store worldwide.
The great thing about the sport is that everyone enjoys it from the very first stroke. Padel is sociable and accessible – both technically and in terms of materials – and yet he is competitive on all levels. Sports marketers assume 1 in 10 people can enjoy the technically more difficult game of tennis, while Padel can delight 7 out of 10.
“Young sport that is gaining ground so quickly is almost invisible,” says Pascal Delhi, Ghent University’s “The Future of Sports” chair holder who has been playing the padel every week for nearly a year. There are a lot of fitness fads, like zumba, but they don’t have a competitive element and they are mainly related to a tradition that is losing its appeal. This certainly won’t happen with Badel.
The sport is also economically attractive. Four people fit in an area of 200 square meters, in a game of tennis that is usually only two people in 612 square meters. Federic Fairhillst of the recruitment agency Smart Solutions in Roeselare saw this, too. He looked for a way to hop on the paddle wagon but couldn’t find a recreational ground, the bottleneck in the race for more terrain. He wrote to every mayor in West and East Flanders with an investment plan, but to no avail.
But recently he managed to acquire an area of 20 thousand square meters in Engelmunster, where there was previously a family park. He wants to build the “largest padel center in the Benelux”, with twenty stadiums and central stadiums with stadiums for the best matches. An investment of 5 million euros. “I think we’ll quickly get to a repetitive action.”
Pay and play
On Wednesday afternoon, the balls are also flying back and forth in a paddle cage in the industrial district of Zele near Lokeren. In front of Redsport headquarters is a demo site that has allowed an average of 10.5 hours per day for the past 30 months. Director Paul Herwege had a construction company, but he devoted himself entirely to Padel through a deal with Spanish parent company Redsport, which Adidas has since acquired. Today it is the largest land builder in our country. The employees, who have grown from 3 to 15 in a couple of years, cannot handle emails. “We receive six requests per day for an average of six sites.”
In fact, things go very fast, he says, conjuring up tables and figures. Tennis peaked at around 150,000 players at the time of Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin. Baddel potential doubled: 300,000 players. This is the same in Spain. In 2018, when Adidas entered the market, Badel in Belgium was expected to grow steadily to 5,000 fields by 2035. That saturation point would be in 2024, Hiroje estimates. As anticipation, he diversified into ball rental machines and paddles. He has also invested in his synthetic turf fibers that dissipate better water. “Better quality than it was in Spain. Here they want to pay for it.”
A fully completed court of exchange costs around € 40,000, an investment that can be paid for quickly. Most sites are hourly rented by the principle of pay-and-play with bookings through the online Playtomic platform, not through membership or subscription fees. Herwege: “If you calculate that a site will be reserved for six hours a day, at 6 euros per hour per person, it will be written off over a period of ten months.” It makes investors mouth watering. “There is regularly a professional football player here who wants to invest his money in the exchange.”
Corona boosted popularity. Many amateur athletes who had been unable to do their own things for months, turned to the paddle game to remain athletic and social. But no one in the alternative industry doubts that things will continue at the same pace after the pandemic. It is a rare attractive sport, even if the rest is allowed again. And there is still plenty of room for growth, especially among the youth. Decathlon also assumes continuous growth. “Even if demand drops, the fields are still fully occupied,” says Whitak.
Entrepreneurs like Herwege and De Sutter mainly hope to be a professional, by cultivating their own talents, big tournaments, matches on TV and a place in the Olympics. De Suter: It can’t be a purely business. You see cowboys in the market taking out for a quick buck. This is not good for sports.