Padel aiming for global boom, but power struggle lurks

LONDON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - With surging participation levels, celebrity endorsements and ambitions to become an Olympic event, these would appear to be heady days for padel, but a power struggle for control of the racket sport is clouding the horizon.

Invented by Mexican businessman Enrique Corcuera in 1969, padel is a hybrid of tennis and squash and is firmly established in Spain and Argentina with millions of players.

Now its popularity has spread to such an extent that former world number one tennis player Andy Murray has invested in a company aiming to build 500 padel courts across Britain, Liverpool soccer manager Juergen Klopp has installed padel courts at the club's training ground and soccer greats Zinedine Zidane and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both converts.

Earlier this month the International Padel Federation (FIP) announced that it was launching a new tour it says will finally banish the sport's niche existence and grow its global profile.

World number one Alejandro Galan, who is also president of the Professional Players Association (PPA), said it would be "transformational" for the sport while FIP president Luigi Carraro said it would help achieve his ambition of having padel at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

With financial backing from Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), the tour would grow to offer the world's top players 25 events by 2024, include four category one events likened to tennis's majors, an FIP ranking system and prizemoney increases.

The first category one event will be held in Doha starting on March 28 with prize money totalling 525,000 euros ($596,505).

"The world has only seen the tip of the iceberg of what the sport of padel can achieve on the global stage," Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, said.

The sticking point, however, is that the privately-owned World Padel Tour already exists, operated by Setpoint Event and sponsored by Spanish beer company Estrella Damm.

World Padel Tour is popular with fans and broke attendance records in 2021 and as part of its globalisation strategy, it recently announced that Spanish media agency Mediapro had bought the international broadcasting rights.

This season's WPT begins in Miami this month and will include 24 events, including in Mexico and the Middle East.

Many of the world's top players are tied in until 2023 and, according to the PPA, have been threatened with large fines by the WPT if they opt to play in rival tournaments.

In a letter from the PPA to the World Padel Tour, seen by Reuters, the PPA accuses WPT of undermining the "professionalization" and "integrity" of the sport by handing out wildcards to non professionals and disallowing ranking points from non WPT events, making it hard for lower-ranked players to continue.

"In short, your model represents more of an amateur and commercial circus -- fully consolidated by your latest actions -- than a professional circuit driven by leading players and regulated by the corresponding Federative body," the letter signed by the PPA Board of Directors said.

While the FIP tour has been warmly welcomed by the players, it has left them in an awkward position and a source close to the situation said legal action is being considered by the players and the Federation against WPT contracts they claim are against EU competition rules.

The World Padel Tour is yet to respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Spaniard Paquito Navarro, who is third on the WPT rankings, says the announcement by the FIP of a new tour is "a big step forward" in making the sport more global.

But he also acknowledges the role World Padel Tour has played in his 10 years as a professional.

"My intention is to play both tours because we want to respect the contract with World Padel Tour, but we also want to be free to earn a little more money.

"I respect the World Padel Tour contact but I also think the QSI (backed) tour is the best way to go. We want to be autonomous and play in all the tournaments that we want."

Whether he gets his wish could be decided not on the padel courts but in the law courts unless a compromise is reached.

($1 = 0.8801 euros)

Reporting by Martyn Herman Editing by Toby Davis

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