Pro comps: 2023 a pivotal year

by Minter Dial, senior advisor to Padel 1969

It’s reported that there are now more than four million loyal online viewers who tune in to watch pro padel tournaments. For example, the World Padel Tour (WPT) Cordoba 2021 event notched up a total of 5.5 million views on its YouTube channel. Going forward there seem to be two major questions about the professional sport.

First, we see that Spain and Argentina have dominance over both the women’s and men’s tours. When will other countries rise to the top? Second, we have three competing tours (the WPT, Premier Padel and APT) that are helping to spread the game outside its traditional countries and pro padel tournaments are now taking place on five continents around the world.

Money & media

At the 2022 Padel World Championships in Dubai, for the first time in its history, they had a prize pool of €500,000 that was equally disbursed between men and women. As a frame of reference, the very top players in the male and female tours earned annually around $150,000 each in terms of prize money, excluding sponsorships. Another promising development has been growing media and television coverage.

Recently, in the UK, we’ve seen articles in the Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, VOGUE and the Daily Mail. And in terms of live coverage on television, broadcast deals have been signed deals by Premier Padel with Canal+ (France), SuperSport (Africa), and beIN Sports across Europe. WPT has sold its rights around the world as well. If padel is growing leaps and bounds, however, there is very much the sticky matter of the competing pro tours.

Competing professional circuits

While padel has aspirations of becoming an Olympic sport, the competitive landscape is far from clear. There are currently three competing professional circuits: the World Padel Tour, Premier Padel and the American Padel Tour (now A1 Padel). The latter, A1 Padel, was initially aimed to exploit the Americas but now also operates in Europe with a model that works for lower-tier players. The fiercest battle, however, has been between the two more prominent tours: WPT and Premier Padel.

The WPT, which had made the pro players sign a five-year contract of exclusivity through 2023, saw a rival tour, Premier Padel, launch in 2022 under the aegis of the International Padel Federation (FIP) and with widespread players’ support – albeit there was no agreement for Premier Padel tournaments for the women. The cast of characters in this polemic involves several official bodies who are essentially jockeying for pole position: the privately owned Estrella Damm World Padel Tour (WPT), FIP (which oversees all the national padel federations), the Premier Padel tour that is governed by FIP and backed by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), and the Professional Players Association (PPA). 

The WPT approach

The WPT, which is headquartered in Spain and presided over by the former pro tennis player Alex Corretja, began in 2013 and supplanted the existing Padel Pro Tour which was founded in 2005. The WPT has four levels of tournaments, ranging from the lower-tier Challenger up to the Master Final. It initially established an exclusivity for the top 20 players, along with low-ball prize money. Its contract stipulated: “Players may play any tournament in compliance with the WPT rules except for circuits that could be direct competition, and may not participate in tournaments outside the competition the days before and after a WPT competition.”

The WPT contract also mandated that the professionals play in all its major tournaments, excepting a force majeure, and even imposed black-out dates designed to impede any other tour from surfacing. While such exclusivity may have been necessary at the start to ensure its critical mass and financial success, it felt somewhat abusive to many of the players. With only a few exceptions, the male players decided en masse to play in the Premier Padel tour. At this point, the WPT sued the players for breach of contract. So far, the courts have ruled against WPT. At least for 2023, we’ll likely have two rival tours, two different rankings, and very different locations.

How to grow padel globally?

The WPT’s Spanish slant and ownership initially made sense given padel’s deep popularity in Spain. When the WPT chose international venues it only selected locations where padel had already become popular to guarantee an audience. Back in 2016, 14 of the 17 WPT major tournaments were held in Spain. By the year-end of 2022, there will have been only seven WPT ‘Open’ tournaments in Spain to 10 elsewhere. For the more select Masters (top 8 pairs), four of the five tournaments, including the Grand Finale, are in Spain.

Importantly, all the Challenger tournaments, which allow for up-and-coming players to get points and gain access to the Open tournaments, are set in Spain. While there are pre-qualifying and qualifying rounds ahead of the majors, few lower-ranking players can afford so much travel. From a media standpoint, meanwhile, WPT sold its broadcast rights globally in 2022, but only for its central court matches, so you can’t see all of the matches up until the semi-finals on TV unless you visit WPT’s own site.

Premier Padel’s approach

Premier Padel’s approach is more international. It’s also more generous in terms of prize money, both of which hold appeal for the players and the sport as a whole. Initially the WPT offered 17,000€ for the winner of the Master Final; Premier Padel came in with 47,000€ for winning any major. WPT has since levelled up.

Premier Padel has six levels of pro tournaments (not including the veterans), the vast majority of which are held in countries across the world ranging from Egypt in Africa, all over Europe and North, Central, and South America. See the Premier Padel 2022 calendar here. These different level tournaments can give greater opportunities for foreign players to develop and gain points toward the higher-grade tournaments. Controversially, Premier Padel has not, up until now, organised a women’s tour (the deal offered to the women was far less than for the men). Purportedly, that is to change in 2023. But, while there was some speculation of the women possibly choosing to join the APT tour, the most likely outcome is that the women stick with the WPT while the men play Premier Padel. This would be akin to the ATP and WTA tours in lawn tennis.

2023 – a pivotal year?

The 2023 schedules have yet to be completely published but we do know that for the beginning of the year the WPT has set out a more international agenda, including a season-opening tour of South America (Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay), Belgium, Denmark, and Finland. Abu Dhabi will host the first Masters, having had the 2022 fixture postponed.

While the WPT has changed its contract conditions to be more generous in 2023, the last year of its ‘exclusivity’, the Premier Padel tour will work to consolidate its place as a strong alternative. Funded by Qatar, whose pockets are clearly deep, the Premier Padel tour has, by various reports from players, become well appreciated. We’ll have to see how (or if) the Qatari-backed Premier Padel will manage to onboard the women.

For the moment, the battle rages on, though, so it’s still too early to know how the situation will play out. The legal actions and competing pro circuits reflect the teething pains of the sport. It’s a little similar to the tussle being played out in the far more mature sport of professional golf between the PGA Tour and the upstart league, LIV Golf. Hopefully, we’ll see a resolution that will allow padel to win!

Changes for the future

As a spectator there’s little difference between the WPT and Premier Padel in the nature of the matches as the players and the courts are all essentially the same. One difference is the scoring. Premier Padel and the FIP World Championships use a standard deuce versus golden points for WPT. For the players, anecdotally, it seems the golden point rule, on the negative side, heightens the stress but on the positive side it shortens the length of the games.

From a viewer standpoint (if you can’t find the sport on TV), I’d recommend using the WPT app where it shows the live stream and records all the games. FIP uses Youtube. In either case the live commentary is generally better en español.