APRIL 25, 2023
Is racquetball dying? For people who are immersed in the sport, the question stirs feelings quickly. This question and the condemnations of those who have been charged with leadership during this time, come to life then die, repeatedly in the ether of regular conversation within the sport. In a new TV series, Lucky Hank, shortly after the main character rants about being stuck in the center of mediocrity, he plays racquetball with his buddy at the small college where he teaches. The scene woefully ends with the two sitting against the glass, the scene is brilliantly set to communicate a stagnant atmosphere; the decor reflects not having been retouched since the 80s or even the 70s. It is a comparative and fair view, in my opinion, of how the game is viewed by the populous, here in the US. Events are still happening in the small clubs that are still left sprinkled throughout the US. So, to say, racquetball is dying, is simply not the truth. The game will continue to be played and isn't going anywhere, despite having faded out of cultural relevance during the last two and a half decades. Racquetball, invented in America, has a "where the game is played" problem.
Existing racquetball courts have been externally under assault by people seeking court conversions in the name of profit or fiscal survival. This is not a new problem, but one that has been chipping away at the sport for a long time. To date, those charged with sustaining the sport's presence in the US have been completely baffled by this for the last 10-15 years. As much as I try to understand the USA Racquetball mandate in this space, I arguably propose that providing "experience" trumps all foundational processes needed to recognize and act on the underlying social realities, and it is reflected in the nonprofit's performance these past years.
Consider what went on with USA Racquetball last Fall. If you followed along, you'll see the truth in my statement. The drive for "experience" was so universally bought into, that conflict of interest swirled unobserved as events were being organized. The true conflict here is the sacrificing of long-term, fiscal, and cultural responsibility. The latter you can just call short-sightedness or conveniently vague. But the form in which they've created events has left the organization with no real plan on where to play these events. There were NEVER resources on the table, so to speak, to address this problem of location, which, operationally, wasn't ever a real problem if you could just find the right spot for this year's event. So, there was no problem to address in committee, if an actual plan was not in the orders.
NO bashing USA Racquetball here, contrary to what you may be believing from my words. The organization is in the unique position of operational self-discovery and can radically rethink its approach to what representing racquetball in the United States actually could be. Racquetball in its initial iterations didn't have cause to worry about the where-to-play problem. It was incepted in a space that already existed. The question was who will play at that time. Pushing the experience was easy when the game was popularized along with the growing number of well-populated health and racquet clubs. The sport was set in a social scene and has been ever since. Events run fundamentally unchanged. What was there to change if there is a particular comfort in keeping it unchanged? People don't change when they are too comfortable. And mistakes happen. Sometimes you have to break before you can change. If you've personally spent your meaningful time giving to racquetball, you've made mistakes. We ALL have.
In the name of time management and because this is more of a long conversation of sorts, here are my most basic points of observation up front.
Collectively, over the past 10+ years, experience funding on the professional level has produced significant growth and commercial benefits for international players with favorable demographics at home, making it very attractive to travel to the US for this sport.
US Population numbers HERE are important. Racquetball has a who-will-play problem. Declining numbers mean less cultural integration. This should go hand in hand with addressing court closures and the need for a strategic plan to build a centralized home for US Racquetball with a concrete plan for monetization and cultural re-integration.
Experience Funding. I think those charged with raising money for USA Racquetball should recognize it and mitigate it drastically. (Something already begun out of the recent necessity.) Let me try to clarify what it is a bit. Racquetball is a sport played in a health and fitness venue or a racquet club of some sort. USA Racquetball's main mission since its inception is to create racquetball events for its members. No? Yes? Another main mission is to ensure there is a US team to represent internationally, yes? There is always a plan to coordinate national events. There is always a plan to get the US Team to whatever country is hosting an international event. You can read about their experiences at the latter in detail.
Now think about the Reaching Your Dream Foundation (RYDF). (I'm talking fundraised dollars separately for a moment.) This was money raised to cover travel expenses for the players. Just "get them to the event" funding. Intending to spark all types of engagement that can boost racquetball participation. This is not new at all. A key turning point historically came with the World Racquetball Tour and the introduction of RYDF. Raise money for hotel rooms. The growth benefits for the players and the sport will sort and calculate themselves. Eventually, impartiality spread the RYDF's nonprofit concept to the International Racquetball Tour and Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour. All of a sudden, pro tours were subsidized by donated money. This plan of action, though unsustainable, helped entrench racquetball success stories in countries whose demographics proved ready to embrace racquetball courts filled with young, athletes dreaming of rising in the ranks of a tour played in America.
Experience Funding is donated money allocated to pay any expenses for event participants. That's as simplistic as I can make it. It's vastly different than say, endorsement or sponsorship money. Though the words donation and sponsorship, have been at times interchanged to present as growth, sponsorship money should be considered as commerce here. Like a company backing a player to boost their own sales. I should mention, that of course I'm aware of Team Dovetail. From what I can put together from their marketing, they fund the personal experiences of a team of players with the goal of sparking, engagement, growth, participation, and all the buzzwords by having players interact with the community in some way. Measuring the success of these programs beyond expressions of gratitude and goodwill is hard to do. Aside from the personal performances of the players being supported, where are the numbers exactly?
Why a hardcore push for a Building Fund is a good idea.
because there is enough swirling engagement within our community to effectively communicate, making a drive for long-term investment a viable endeavor.
During the recent USA Racquetball open board meeting, Mike Grisz, the current Executive Director expressed enthusiasm when talking about his experience at High School Nationals held this year in Oregon. His emotion was encouraging. But if you glean the numbers of the event, you'll see the cracks in the cultural reach of racquetball. Of the 231 participants, almost all were from either Missouri or Oregon, with just under a dozen coming from either Illinois, California, Texas, or Iowa. My guess is that California and Texas should be way better represented and WHERE was Florida? I believe this shows the lack of resourcing direction in this space.
Note: There were around 23 people in attendance for the OPEN call... left me wondering where all thr people with concerns about USA Racquetball?
Recently, I was invited by the new Director of Growth at the Squash Education Alliance (SEA) to share my impressions of one of their events, held at the US Squash Center on the campus of Drexel University.
Read about it here: Sustaining Squash Eden. SEA is an organization of educational squash programs that operate throughout the US, with some international affiliations. Their "Team Nationals" which basically had individual programs send their best 5 players per division had a whopping 450 participants. I'll note here that US Squash High School Nationals had 187 Varsity Teams and 1,600 players. These numbers would have been considered unheard of here in the US just a decade ago. It's a strong example of growth through social investment. I noted that of the 20 SEA member programs, 9 of them have their own buildings, while 6 of them currently have projects breaking ground. SEA as well is moving to a bigger office and constructing its own building. How are they raising money? Where are the individual millionaires in this scenario? I've been looking across to squash to talk about racquetball for over ten years. It's a very smart play in the social investment space.
Where to start?
Start with an area that can be loosely considered a "Hotbed" city for racquetball, which hasn't had a significant drop in population. Think regionally. It can't just be a marketing play. It has to begin with comprehensive location surveys accounting for demography and logistics. Along with a plan to build courts. This is important because of the programming freedom inherent in ownership.
If we are talking USA Racquetball, which I am, then begin with a building fund plan that instantly centralizes and monetizes all major USA Racquetball Events and operations, with a local operating plan to operate as a racquetball and sports/training proprietorship... maybe consider afterschool or daycare for the very young even. Survey to design or retrofit a building to house racquetball events, training, etc., with meeting spaces and a pro shop. If you find a space with appropriate attached outdoor space, you could build outdoor courts and centralize and monetize those who travel for WOR. Indoor One Wall courts are another way. Just think of the goodwill you can garner by sending staff to a local high school handball court. This leads me to the need for focused social investment outreach and development...
AND think of the wonderful pool of people within the sport we have to choose from for staffing and consulting... The Ellis Family, Jody Nance, Tim Baghurst, so many others... how many racquetball families and touring pros with college degrees are looking for racquetball subsistence?
There is a need for focused social investment outreach and development. This is my main point. You want to effect young people in their middle school and high school years. Pull them in as much as possible by offering local schools opportunities to promote scholastic wellness by incorporating the benefits of organized racquetball. Design programming around any possible opportunities that can be individually identified. You'll naturally have programming that offers walk-in opportunities or that solicits local patronage. Communication and investment in the educational and local community spaces among this age group, will affect their sentiments as they head toward college. Colleges will notice successful and potentially promising students locally. The more prospective students just list "racquetball", or better yet, a racquetball program that facilitated learning and growth as an extracurricular, USA Racquetball will be fulfilling its mission in some sense.
Why do something like this? One reason would be the current makeup of USA Racquetball board. You'll need cooperation from the pro tours and they are well-represented in this group. But the main reason would be because a solid plan that make the words "INVESTMENT" and "Donation" good words and way more palatable a thing to find backing for, especially with those who have believed in racquetball. Benefactors deserve a say in all aspects of the planning, their names on the courts or the building itself representing their lasting commitments to the sport of racquetball. Asking for donations for events or prize money, or to enhance experience sucks. But centralizing an investment fund, that accrues interest as it grows could prove attractive... a gift anyone who's donated personal money or their business liquidity to support racquetball can truly be satisfied offering up. The "lasting" effects will be measurable. USE R2's new Aging Report, announced on the board call, to solicit a bit more cash upon rejoining if you can galvanize the troops. One solid seed could make it rain.
Would this NOT be a good argument to bring to USAOC? Having a handle on what is culturally taking place in your sport, and building a program for a real depth of plan… espousing, and expanding all the value drivers.
(I wouldn’t be shocked if Grisz chuckles at my ignorance here.)
A real center for racquetball in the US will strengthen everything everywhere else through the sport. Centralize. Make it a destination site. Build out connected courts, with training tech and the ability to stream lessons. Show club owners what racquetball courts could be and what you can actually do to monetize them.
I believe continuing along without fundamentally acting like a true non-profit, where you have to show tangible success in your mission to continue on, is unsustainable. Raising money is directly connected with the sentiment behind the belief in your mission. And seriously, how many wealthy individuals are left to drop the cash for tournaments? And how long will they want to?
But, colleges. Why? College racquetball is not a thing you think "scholarship" for. Unless you're a pro player under the perfect circumstances, somehow tied in with the Jim Hiser set. BUT I'll need to say it again. Focus on colleges. Just because. Think of programs that incorporate racquetball, scholastic studies, and personal growth. Focus on augmenting college prep and success. If successful, maybe add post-college acceptance programming and services. So they can come back and share their experiences with the next group. Just send racquetball players out into the region.
Colleges in general within the US will be competing more to find quality students. If they're finding the great students they want, who show success through their involvement with racquetball, keeping or building racquetball courts in college athletic centers becomes a discussion at the Admissions discussion table. You're just building out quality racquetball players who will be actively looking for colleges. If colleges are discussing "racquetball" at the admissions table, it doesn't matter where the students come from, USA Racquetball's mission will be succeeding. They don't actually have to play racquetball at the college, but you'll have sent out groups who believe in the benefits of the racquetball that are ready to advocate.
At the end of the Lucky Hank scene I mentioned at the start of this piece, Hank ponders on, "I think I'm feeling regret. All these years I haven't fully appreciated all that I didn't have."