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Industrial Policy

Padel problem: The next sport dispute about to land in Brussels’ lap

Qatar wants to shake up the world of padel like it’s done with football and other sports — but its plan needs the European Commission onside.

The deep-pocketed Gulf state is eyeing padel, a fast-growing hybrid of squash and tennis, as the latest addition to its sports portfolio amid a worldwide boom for the racquet sport. After hosting the World Padel Championships last November, Qatar is now looking to set up a new professional circuit for padel through funding from its Qatar Sports Investments (QSI).

There’s just one problem: Spanish beer company Estrella-Damm currently has the world’s top padel players locked into contracts with its World Padel Tour (WPT), a corporate-sponsored circuit that takes place outside the umbrella of the sport’s governing body, the International Padel Federation (FIP).

Now, with the Qatari investment imminent, the best padel players are looking to Brussels to help them escape from their existing Estrella-Damm contracts, which they claim are illegal under EU competition rules as applied to sports organizations. The contracts forbid top players from taking part in any non-WPT competitions — including tournaments sanctioned by the official governing body and even the Olympics, should padel be granted inclusion for the Los Angeles 2028 Games.

The FIP and elite players are now preparing to submit a complaint about the exclusive contracts to the European Commission on competition grounds, according to a senior executive with direct knowledge of the matter. The FIP has also accused the World Padel Tour of playing events not in accordance with its technical and disciplinary rules.

The new Qatari-backed circuit, which would increase prize money tenfold and create more high-profile tournaments, would be run under the auspices of the international federation, in line with the governance structure of other major sports. On the new tour, players would also sit on governance committees, and have voting and decision-making powers, the executive said.

The Qatari investment in professional padel is being pushed by QSI Chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi, who is also president of French football giant Paris Saint-Germain, which the investment fund transformed from a lackluster Ligue 1 club into a multibillion-euro behemoth.

Padel players can see the potential. The Qatari move into padel would “revolutionize” the sport, Alejandro Galán, the world’s top male padel player, wrote last week. Padel is expanding rapidly at the amateur level, and is being championed by numerous sports celebrities. The FIP estimates that 25 million people play padel around the world, a number that has doubled in the last five years.

An agreement between QSI, the FIP and players to launch the new tour is “very close” to being signed, the executive said.

But Estrella-Damm and the World Padel Tour aren’t going down without a fight. 

In response to the players’ attempt to exit their contracts with the WPT circuit, the tour threatened contracted players with legal action and punitive fines of up to €500,000 in a letter last week. That’s about 10 times what top padel players can hope to make in a year from tournaments.

Estrella-Damm, the World Padel Tour and their legal representatives did not respond to requests for comment. Qatar Sports Investments and the International Padel Federation also did not respond to requests for comment.

Qatar’s major moves into sport have included golf, tennis, Formula One and hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will start in November. Human-rights activists have accused the Gulf nation of “sportswashing.”

While EU competition regulators have shown reluctance to act on complaints in the sports world, the Commission in 2017 ordered ice skating’s governing body to scrap “disproportionately punitive” sanctions for athletes who participate in events the federation has not authorized.

This article is part of POLITICO’s new coverage of Competition and Industrial Policy. This coverage includes the must read Fair Play newsletter every weekday morning. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.

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