Mike Coulter used the term "The Big Show" to reference the upcoming UnitedHealthcare US Open of Racquetball. That reference pushed me back a bit because Coulter had moments before spoken in great detail about what has to happen for 3 WallBall to become a reality year after year. That this event has been a reality over the past 6 years is a testimony to his belief in the value this type of event can do for the sport of racquetball. (I'm a bit familiar with the US Open and still, I had to take a pause.) Yes, it is a multi-sport event: Four formats of Handball, two formats of Paddleball and two formats of outdoor racquetball. Bringing this event all together is without a doubt a true team effort, but Mr. Coulter literally puts everything he has into this affair. (Coulter took a $30,000 personal hit the first year and worked his way through it.) But this is his vision of a "big show" and as far as I am concerned, it is a big show that is rife with missed opportunities for the sport of racquetball. In terms of scope and reach, this event in some ways, rivals the US Open, and for niche circles, exceeds it.
Janel Tisinger, Women's 3 WallBall Pro Singles and Doubles Champion
The event is streamed live on ESPN3 thanks to Dave Vincent and WPH Live (World Players of Handball.) It's a big deal for racquetball because outside of the US Open being recorded to air on the Tennis Channel, racquetball has no presence on mainstream media. I don't know what the viewing numbers actually were, but my guess is that they won't be significantly different than what racquetball can draw through the current pro tour streaming in aggregate. It is more the relationship and that ESPN can be splashed around on big banners and on linked up to social streams. It could be a doorway for 3 Wall Ball. This will be especially true if some of the work Coulter and his crew starts to bear fruit. He has been poking at bringing in some other sports like Beach Volleyball for example, while thinking through logistics. If expansions like this happen, that ESPN monicker could become more of a springboard to national coverage.
Dave Vincent of World Players of Handball and Mike Orr
In my opinion, where racquetball misses the mark here is when organizations, professional tours in particular, sit passively on the sidelines of outdoor. There is absolutely no engagement except maybe granting some small points that may be added to rankings. (Does that even happen?) Yet, the real meat could be if the tours grabbed on to the fact that their players actually see value in showing up to play. The tours have no booths set up, no place for people to look and see the tours as a value agent for these players. I can only speculate that this means the tours just don't see the value. I believe a few quick, thought out moves and some tasked return for sponsors could enable booth set ups. This could spark sentiment and buy in, as well as put racquetball in view of the action taking place. Their logos currently get lost in the sea of logos on the banners. To tell the truth, I heard the players' names often and didn't hear a tour name spoken at all in relation to what was going on at this event. Not by participants, not on the booming speakers... nothing.
View from the ESPN3/WPH Live Booth
That said, it is a uniquely engaging event with some real solid play and drama folded into that play. It's always interesting to see the competition that develops between the full on pros and the "pro" outdoor players. For sure, the professional racquetball players have proven that they indeed lead on these types of courts, something that was always debated up until just a few years ago. But make no mistake, there is just so much happening in the dozens of divisions offered at this event, and you can find interesting story lines in all of them. And I want to just thank ALL the players who, while I was there, put their all into playing gracefully. There is nothing like just hanging out, watching late night matches with players just going at it, and the rest of us totally bought in with drinks in our hands, often sitting next to well known players, cheering and collectively sighing during missed shots. Tons of fun. A must for anyone who considers traveling to play racquetball something they plan.
Paola Longoria and Michelle Key sharing a fun moment before their match.
Organizers and volunteers work tirelessly for this to happen. They are the first ones there and the last ones to leave. Working. Amazing. But this is what racquetball people do, no? And on a personal level, the best, most rewarding time I spent was getting down with the Military Racquetball Federation Wheelchair event. Being on the courts at 7:30am for 3 of the four days was well worth what I received in return. Priceless.
Outdoor Legend Robert Sostre
On the pro racquetball results topic, there are some notable accomplishments I have to quickly point towards. First, Janel Tisinger won the Women's Singles and Pro Doubles. Janel has taken outdoor racquetball very seriously and the work she puts into it really shows. Second, Paola Longoria, who did not win this time, a first for her at these types of outdoor events. But nonetheless, it is a big deal that she showed up. Thirdly, Rocky Carson took back the Pro singles crown, making it his sixth in seven tries. Lastly, I have to mention a first ever outdoor accomplishment. Outdoor legend and World Outdoor Racquetball Hall of Famer Robert Sostre, took 3 professional doubles titles in one event. Doubles is the mainstay of outdoor racquetball, and it is a testament to what he has worked for a long time. (On a personal note, knowing him for as long as I do, I got a kick walking through the Stratosphere Casino or by the courts and noticing people tap each other and point to him so often. Truly a sub-cultural, person to person thing.)
Right now, this is the biggest show in outdoor racquetball by far. It is the most important because of the intense work and vision of a few people. When I step back and look at things, I can't help but wonder and in some ways realize, how much smaller racquetball would look without this event.