Swedish roll-out in China of the popular sport ‘padel’

The sport padel is still quite new in Asia, but it has taken Sweden by storm – and more new markets in Europe are jumping onboard. In China this is however now changing fast – to a large extent thanks to some Swedes and a Swedish start-up. Johan Hansson, with Padelx in China and World Wide Padel in the rest of the world, is spearheading the strong expansion there for this sport.

Padel (which originates from Mexico) is a racket sport typically played in doubles on an enclosed court. Scoring is the same as normal tennis, and the balls used are similar. The main difference is that the court has walls.

“Padel has all the potential to grow big in China,” the Swede tells ScandAsia, indicating that it could attract hundreds of millions of users (if reaching the level of the other most popular sports in the country).

And where is it already very big? “The sport has grown extremely large in Spain and in Argentine. Padel is easily the largest sport in both these countries, aside football. Spain has over 20 000 courts today, based on a population of 50 million people. And the sport is still growing in Spain, so there’s an incredible development for padel!”

And how did this all start? Johan Hansson and his company has paved the wave for a padel boom in Sweden, selling 700 courts in 2021 alone.

“It’s hysteria! We have never seen another sport grow as fast as this one is doing,” is the way Johan describes it. “We started selling the first high quality courts in 2018 – the highest available on the market today. Three years later we have a turnover of 125 million kronor. I don’t think we have ever had a company with such growth rate starting from zero! It has been a crazy journey and now we’re establishing the next step in Europe, where England is happening fast, and then with Denmark and Germany as targets. And those countries together are ten times larger than Sweden. And they do play racket sports there, so we’re not seeing an end to this. Also the Baltics will come along, etc. We are only in the beginning of the padel era; take for instance Italy, that today has 5000 courts, where there are plans for another 20 000 in the next five years. So there’s room for all providers!”

Among about a dozen suppliers in Sweden only 2-3 of those are larger – including World Wide Padel.

“I was very early in on this and started the Uppsala padel camp nearly eight years ago – which turned into a success quite fast. Therefore I felt quite quickly that we had found a sport that would break through all over the world, and it was just a matter of where it wasn’t yet established. And Europe is growing by itself now. We sold 400 courts last year and expect to sell 1000 in the rest of Europe during 2022.”

In Europe they only have a few courts that they operate, mainly being providers of padel courts with after sales services.

Unique for China, their business setup is however to sell, install and also run the courts through Padelx.

“I made a lot of market studies in Asia and in particular China, where there was nothing at all. So then and there I decided to launch padel in Asia. And for China I understood quite early that it would not be enough with just me going there personally. I needed a brand with me from Sweden. Then I brought JO Wallner [Swedish ping pong player well-known in China] into this as a minority co-owner.”

Johan explains that for the first five years there it has been a lot about politics; to build up the organisation, opening doors, acquiring permits. “It’s very different to conduct business in China compared to Sweden. So only a year ago things really got going and today we have over 50 courts, and have opened the very first indoor centre. We’re aiming at opening another 50 centres over the next three-year period all over China. And what we’ve also have done there – apart from establishing the sport – is to set up a booking platform for players, and that could also be used for other sports such as tennis, badminton etc. over time. So we are very strong in the China market when it comes to padel,” says the Swede and does not hesitate to state their domination on this market: “We ARE padel in China, and have set the standard on another level.”

The Chinese market is known for its tradition of being copycats. On this note Johan agrees but adds: “China has become much better concerning this aspect. There is still this notion about China but those manufacturers we look at collaborating with in China are just as good if not even better than other manufactures in Europe; modernised etc. Also there you get what you pay for.”

“You can get anyone to copy a padel court but you need to have content in terms of soft content, education etc., which you cannot just buy. And we are extremely strong on that side. Also, we believe in high quality from the beginning and that is what we will deliver,” he adds.

The Swedish company mainly works with an Italian manufacturer that uses high quality steel, glass and artificial grass. “But it’s an art to make the right material choices in order to achieve the optimal stability. There are providers selling courts at a lower price but you get what you pay for and within a few years one might get large problems. So it’s better to invest in quality for the long term.”

The next step in their business in the Far East – and where they can see enormous potential – is to collaborate with property owners.

“Courts are often built in communities in China, and padel should enter into some alternative places. But before proceeding with that we wanted to establish the sport so that there were courts to go and test play at. It’s a difficult market in the sense that it takes time to establish something new and make them understand that it’s something that has hype in Europe. But we’ve reached that stage now. And we can see that the sport will move indoors there over time as well.”

The plan is also to bring in investment capital for the continued expansion in China. “Today the company is self-financed but we are at a crossroads now, where we can keep on growing organically, but where we should allow investors. And many investors have approached us, having seen what we have accomplished. As for Europe we will grow organically.”

Given the closure of China since the arrival of Covid-19 one can also not help but wonder how it has been to conduct business there as a foreigners. In this particular case it has however not been an obstacle, other than that it has been impossible to enter the country during a long period.

“What’s good is that last time I left China was just prior to Covid. But as we have the organisation, the funding, and a competent Managing Director in place, this has benefitted us a bit. We got a few years where we could practically expand alone on the market. And I’ve been able to focus on expanding in other markets like the Middle East.”

Elsewhere in Asia, some Swedes in Phuket have also established padel there and Johan informs that he has helped them as advisor in the establishment. “We are looking at a potential deeper connection with them,” says Johan.

“We believe in Thailand, where we think expatriates will be the majority of players, given its strong international tourism. And we can now see Singapore starting up as market too.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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