Thriving in an economic crisis - the story of Padel in Argentina
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
As is the case for many of my fellow Swedes, it wasn’t long after I first became aware of padel’s existence that it had become a weekly routine of mine. It is rare for a phenomenon to penetrate an entire society and at such a pace gain attention to the extent that padel has managed in Sweden and many other European countries. Sure, a FIFA World Cup or mainstream television show can captivate millions of people for a short period of time, but to sustain the attention of everyone – from young kids to seniors – is nothing short of extraordinary. Having a Mexican father, Mexico being where padel was founded, and a Swedish mother, Sweden being the place where padel is growing at arguably the fastest rate in the world, it was a topic I felt I had to cover sooner rather than later.
But this short piece will not focus on Mexico nor Sweden. Instead it will focus on Latin America’s best padel country quality-wise, Argentina. A few years ago Argentinian padel was heading in the same direction as the country’s economy, right down the drain. But, while the country is still struggling economically, as it has for decades, padel has once again risen in popularity in Argentina. Today, the padel industry employees directly or indirectly millions of people everyday, while the rest of the country is going through a recession. To explain how the padel industry reversed its downward spiral, in contrast to the majority of the other industries in Argentina, I will provide a short background on how padel found its way to Argentina, and three of the main reasons why it gained newfound popularity.
Let’s start from the beginning. Padel was founded in Acapulco, Mexico, in the 1960’s. Back then Acapulco was the hotspot for Hollywood stars, songs were named after the fashionable city and movies were filmed in this tropical paradise. The most famous movie set in Acapulco starred the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley.
Fun in Acapulco - Elvis Presley
It is said that Enrique Concuera should be credited as the founder of “Padel Concuera” or, as we know it today, just padel. However, it was not until the sport was introduced in Spain that it started to take off. The Spanish Prince, Alfonso de Hohenlohe, built the first padel court on European soil in Marbella, Spain, in 1968, after he spent multiple summers in Acapulco at Concuera’s place. Marbella being, and still remaining, a well renowned global vacation spot, word of the addictive racket sport quickly spread among rich businessmen. Members of the Argentinian social elite were the first to take interest in the new sport.
For the first ten years, padel was only known by people going on vacations to Acapulco , Marbella and “Club Tortuga”, where Argentina’s first padel court was built by a small number of businessmen. In the beginning of 1982 there were only a total of twelve padel courts in Argentina, but this was the year that padel started to become the social phenomenon that it is in Argentina today and the amount of court thus multiplied quickly.
The impressive increase in players could be explained by pointing to the impact and investments of important businessmen who saw its potential, athletes who started to promote the sport and coverage in national media. But perhaps the most important reason is that padel managed to include women to the extent that no other sport previously had. It created a “family atmosphere” and encouraged people of all ages to indulge in a healthy lifestyle.
Today, approximately two million Argentinians play padel, making up a fourth of the eight million players globally, and there are now more than 3000 clubs and around 5000 courts in the country. Not surprisingly then, is the fact that according to the “Men’s World Padel Tour Ranking” 18 out of the top 50 players represent Argentina.
Yet, that amount of padel players has not always been linear, in the late 80's and early 90's Argentina had approximately three million padel players but in less than 15 years that number decreased to less than a million. The padel industry clearly managed to get back on its feet and today padel directly or indirectly employs millions of people every day. This came as a surprise to me especially given the economic struggles that Argentina has been dealing with for the last 20 years. So what is happening with Argentina's economy and how bad is it really?
My favorite Argentinian padel player – Sanyo Gutierrez
The economic crisis and the resurrection of padel in Argentina
Argentina has been struggling economically for decades affecting unemployment rate and foreign investment. Like all Latin American economies, Argentina has been hit hard by COVID-19. One third of the working force is unemployed and the inflation rate has risen to almost 40% during the pandemic. Argentina’s economy, however, has struggled since long before the pandemic. In fact, Argentina received a loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a total of $57.1 billion dollars in 2018 to overcome its economic crisis, which is the biggest loan ever granted by the IMF. Lending money from the IMF is something Argentina has done before though, this being the 22nd time it’s happened since 1958.
Increased interest rates, inflation and unemployment rates are all factors contributing to the economic instability of the country. Because of the bad track record, Argentina is finding it hard to find private investors willing to invest in the country. What is interesting is that almost 90% of padel sport is sponsored by the private sector. Making padel very susceptible to the COVID-19 regulations that were implemented in 2020, resulting in a clear decrease in revenue and many clubs have had to shut down, leaving thousands of people unemployed.
Apart from the few months when the country shut down completely, padel has grown at an impressive rate. The return of padel in Argentina after the restrictions allowed padel clubs to open again and had retailers experience a boom in revenue thanks to increased sales of rackets , shoes and accessories. As a direct consequence, factories began producing more goods, local brands gained their share of the profit coming in and sponsors were incentivized to return to the sport. The sales have multiplied by ten the last few months, says a local store owner.
There are several reasons why padel has gained newfound popularity in the last ten years, but I have listed three main reasons why I believe that padel managed to rise in popularity while the rest of the country struggled with the economic crisis.
Padel went from a hobby to a proper “sport”
The difference between Spain and the rest of the world is that padel in Spain is considered a sport rather than a “hobby”, an approach Argentina now has adapted as well. Argentinians started seeing padel in a different light, with perhaps the most evident example being that all courts now built in Argentina are required to comply with the exact measures used on courts on the World Padel Tour. Courts are no longer built with concrete, which was fatal for both ankles and knees, but instead they are made with artificial grass, just like for the courts where professional padel is being played. This allows players to spend more time on the field and ensure that they are better prepared when they play international tournaments. The sport itself has gone through a professionalization, if you will.
Growth of the World Padel Tour
The World Padel Tour was created in the 90’s but was fairly insignificant until 2015, and Spain has played a major role in that change. Argentina is no longer the top ranked padel nation in the world, that title being currently bestowed upon Spain. In the last 15 years Argentina has lost a lot of ground to Spain in terms of number of players, revenue and rankings. But the padel interest in Spain is not only negative for Argentina. The growth of padel in Spain has led to a padel renaissance in Argentina, because kids these days have realized that they can make a living out of playing professional padel. The World Padel Tour, also known as the Spanish Padel Tour because twelve out of the 16 tournaments are played in Spain, have attracted the best players from all around the world and millions of people gather in front of their screen to watch the big matches. Before the World Padel Tour, many tournaments depended on sponsors for single tournaments, but with the World Padel Tour players can rely on a constant revenue source and the possibility to receive solid prize money.
Unification - The ability to deal with COVID-19 and other challenges as a unit
As mentioned, the restrictions implemented to contain the spreading of COVID-19 has been devastating for padel but it could have been much worse if it was not for the entity that took a leading role in uniting the padel community, the Argentinian Union of Padel Workers and Clubs (UATCP). This union is made up of different people from the industry – players, club owners, businessmen and representatives of the Argentinian Padel Federation. Together they developed a set of routines and guidelines, allowing padel courts all over Argentina to open up faster and safer. This is a great example of how padel today is much better organized in Argentina than it was a few decades ago. Today, both the Argentinian Padel Association (APA) and Argentinian Padel Federation (FAP) are doing an excellent job in creating a nationwide padel culture and strategy that allows the padel industry to grow and develop as a sport. This is something that even Spain could learn from.
It is clear that even though the economy in Argentina has been struggling for decades, padel has managed to rise in popularity and once again become a sport that creates a revenue source for millions of people and contribute to a healthier lifestyle in Argentina. It is amazing how padel, like many other sports have shown previously around the world, can survive the toughest of challenges and provide the country with a well needed sense of pride and joy.
David - Feb 2021