Is Everyone Playing Padel Without Us?

SANTIAGO, Chile — There are only a handful of places to play pickleball here in Chile’s capital. Next month, there will be one fewer.

In its place, a padel court will rise.

“There’s just not enough people for it to be a profitable business right now,” said Nicolas Flores, 34, a founder of the Chile Padel Academy, said. “It was a no-brainer.”

The two sports took off during the pandemic as people turned to socially distanced activities. They’re on parallel tracks. Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, while padel (pronounced PAH-del) is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.

The schism is yet another example of American sports exceptionalism. If pickleball is Fahrenheit, padel is Celsius. It’s the centimeters to our inches, the football to our “football.”

“The U.S. is very particular,” said Lisandro Borges, the chief executive of the World Padel Tour in Latin America. He pointed to the Super Bowl, to basketball, to baseball. “It’s like another planet.”

There are marked similarities between pickleball and padel. Both are known as doubles games, though both can be played one-on-one. Both are easy to learn.

But while pickleball looks a lot like tennis, padel, like squash, has walls. Good players can turn to slam the ball off the back wall or scoop it over the net. They dance across the tight court, teasing each other with shots close to the wall. It’s volley as flirtation, a tarantella.

Both are easier than tennis, but padel is the faster and more physically demanding of the two. There’s a lot more running, and the ball moves faster. It’s not a retirement-community sport, no matter the level of skill.

“Padel is legit,” said Caitlin Thompson, publisher and co-founder of the tennis magazine Racquet. “Pickleball gets all the hype, but actually, padel is what to watch.”

The sport, which started in Mexico in 1969, has been played for decades in Spain and Argentina.

During the pandemic, interest in padel boomed in countries across Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. According to Matchi, a platform that people use to reserve time on courts for racket sports, there were an estimated 25 million regular players worldwide last year.

Matchi estimates that about six million regular players are in Spain, the most established market in Europe. In France, padel has been one of the fastest-growing sports since 2020. During the pandemic, it grew so fast in Sweden that the building of courts soon outstripped demand.

Padel requires a special court with walls, so, unlike pickleball, it can’t just be played on a tennis court.Credit…via Chile Padel Academy
Padel and pickleball are both more about strategy and technique than speed or strength, which means they are fun to play, even with a mixed-ability group.Credit…Nicolas Maeterlinck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Chile, padel is becoming a national obsession. There are about 600 clubs across the country, and new ones are emerging, Mr. Borges said. In March, he oversaw Chile’s first international tournament, part of the World Padel Tour.

“Postpandemic,” Mr. Borges said, “it was like an explosion in Chile.”

In Santiago, many sports stores in the Costanera Center, a major mall, display padel equipment in their front windows. The city’s existing courts are often fully booked after work hours. More are being built, as interest in the sport continues to grow.

On a recent evening, a padel club here was full, as friends played under floodlights.

One devotee, Patricio Guzman, started during the pandemic. Mr. Guzman, 38, never played tennis, but now plays padel four times a week — sometimes five, if he competes in a tournament.

“I’m addicted to it,” he said.

Several players had never heard of pickleball. Three brothers in their 50s, who gathered to try padel together for the first time, toweled off after a match. “It’s like tennis?” Jorge-Andrés Quevedo asked.

A day later, at the Chile Padel Academy across town, Tomás Bachmann, the head of Pickleball Chile, sipped a sports drink after winning a match. Mr. Bachmann, 34, discovered pickleball from his brother, who used to live in North Carolina. He decided to try to bring the sport to Chile about two years ago.

But so far, he has sold only about 30 nets and 80 paddles. A group chat for enthusiasts in Santiago, a city of almost seven million people, has about 85 members.

“I don’t see a boom with pickleball here,” said Sebastián Varela, a Chilean journalist and founder of Clay, an international tennis magazine. “Why would we need this pickleball thing if we are having so much fun with padel?”

Last year, about nine million Americans played pickleball, said Stu Upson, the chief executive of USA Pickleball. That’s almost double the players of the year before. A spokeswoman for USA Pickleball said the organization counted over 45,000 courts in the country, which does not include the driveways or the taped-over tennis and basketball courts, where the game flourishes.

But today there are only about 240 padel courts nationwide, according to the United States Padel Association, the country’s governing body for the sport.

Geography is a major factor, as is word of mouth. Padel was popular in Spanish-speaking countries long before the pandemic. (It made its way to Sweden only because so many Swedes vacation in Spain, or so the theory goes.)

Pickleball, by contrast, is American, born and raised. And many Americans like things that are “Made in the U.S.A.”

Mr. Upson estimates that more than 95 percent of the world’s players are in the United States and Canada. As for padel, he said, “It’s on our radar, but we don’t see it as a threat.”

In the United States, despite the country-club myth, there’s a strong history of public tennis. Free or discounted courts bloomed nationwide throughout the 20th century, and Americans typically expect racket sports to be free and accessible.

“We don’t join basketball clubs, do we?” said Joel Drucker, a tennis historian and writer for “We don’t join Frisbee clubs. We don’t join jogging clubs. We go to some park or some rec center, and we explore.”

When it comes to padel, the sport is growing in the United States, even if it is still mostly at private clubs. The number of courts in the country is expected to double to 500 from 240 in the next 12 months, said Marcos del Pilar, the president of the United States Padel Association. Dozens more courts are planned in California, North Carolina and Florida, where regular players say it’s already hard to book court time. And in Texas, the sport is gaining popularity.

There are also professional tours, which are planting their respective flags. (Pickleball already has professional tournaments, although it is trying to convince people to watch them.) This weekend in Florida, the Pro Padel League will start its inaugural season in the Tampa area.

Mr. del Pilar, who is also the commissioner of the Pro Padel League, rejected the idea that padel was on the horizon. “Saying that it’s ‘coming’ is talking about three or four years ahead,” he said. “It’s already here.”

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