Before we get started, we admit that this list is reflective of the sport from our perspective. Racquetball offers a broad experience for people that spend any amount of time playing or looking at our sport. We tried to do what we always attempt to do, which is point to what we see as notable and relevant to the overall culture and reach of our sport. That said, here is our 2016 Top Ten list:
10. The Quiet Death Of Ektelon
This may actually a story as big as anything on this list but it stretched out over the past 3 to 4 years, unraveling more like a long fade out than like a bomb drop. It makes the list at number ten mainly due to the continuous yet fading questions that were asked and could be heard throughout 2016 regarding Ektelon's status, fittingly putting the story in the last spot, yet, nonetheless important. The non-status of Ektelon is more about the culture and state of the sport and an important matter this year in our opinion.
A brief early history of Ektelon according to Wikipedia:
"Ektelon was founded by Franklin W. "Bud" Held in 1964 as the first company to manufacture racquetball racquets and stringing machines, not long after the development of the sport of racquetball by Joe Sobek. Working from Held’s garage in San Diego, California, the company initially set out to build aluminum tennis racquets and a racquet stringing machine. With the development of metal tennis racquets, the old techniques of stringing wooden racquets no longer worked, and Held saw the need for a new machine. Held is credited for one of the first patented designs for a racquet stringing machine. He named the company Ektelon based on a combination of two Greek words: "ektein", meaning to stretch out, and "telon", representing the concept of perfection. In 1970, Ektelon produced the first experimental racquetball racquet for Bud Muehleisen (my WOR-HOF classmate!...shameless plug), a top racquetball player and early legend of the sport. The company moved into a larger facility in San Diego to begin manufacturing racquetball racquets on a larger scale. Over the years, Ektelon has introduced a number of new racquetball technologies, including the first racquetball racquet made of high-strength aluminum (1971), the first hand-laid composite racquet (1978), the first oversized aluminum racquets (1984), and continues to develop new technologies in racquet design such as the elimination of string holes (O3). In 1988, Prince Sports purchased Ektelon."
Since 1988, the story of Ektelon has been tied into the story of Prince after the acquisition. Prince ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2012 after being passed around a few times through acquisition between various investment groups through the 2000's. Prince was owned through most of the 1990's by Benetton Group. (Yes, the clothing company, which also owned various sports market companies which they acquired at the height of their respective markets. Benetton turning out to be too big of a company for smaller niche brands, resulting in a company that ultimately killed brands.) In 2012, Authentic Brands Group, (who still touts the rights to Ektelon) invested in Prince, acquiring its debt supposedly to acquire all the equity, then filed for bankruptcy. After gaining the protection, Authentic Brands was able to reorganize and separated Ektelon from Prince. They licensed the rights to Active Brands, (along with Viking Brand, a platform tennis brand Prince acquired in 2008.) Earlier this year, Authentic Brands pulled the Ektelon license rights from Active Brands. Rumor had it that the name was yanked because of missed royalty payments. Authentic Brands then opened things up for the brand to somehow go straight to retailers, again, rumor, and has since just let the name remain inactive.
How this all worked out in our racquetball world is why Ektelon makes this list. For years, it cultivated one of the largest sponsor/rep teams and shared responsibility for facilitating a culture of brand representation that thrived in the 80's and 90's, but what today seems old. A leading brand of the early years of our sport was left sputtering, dropping good people and players along the way and providing other manufacturers the opportunity to rework their budgets so they can pick at the bones. Additionally, Ektelon was also the initial driving sponsor behind World Outdoor Racquetball. WOR and those left behind by the brand have had most of 2016 to adjust to racquetball life without Ektelon.
The name Ektelon is still alive on a list of holdings somewhere, as well as what seems like a good amount of the leftover stock of racquets and shoes that can be found on an online vendor. Yet, in our view of the sport, there is nothing but a void filled with a still operational website and complete silence. It is clear that the past few years have not been kind to Ektelon. This year, it was a definitive casualty of how the sport is shifting in its interest.
Before moving on to number nine, we thought we present this video for those who would like to gain some historical perspective on the history of racquetball culture from inception to the development of how professional tours operate today. The way we live and share our lives is in many ways so drastically different. Yet, even though this video is over 24 years old, for the game of racquetball, there has been relatively little difference in the way the game is played. Considering that the game of racquetball will turn 50 in 2017, we think some of you will appreciate this video. (Kuddos to the IRF Youtube page for the upload.) It may also provide some relevancy for some with our top ten choices. Note: It's pretty long and will take some time to view at your leisure.
Video: "1992 - 25 Years of Racquetball - Marty Hogan, Lynn Adams, Mike Yellen and more..."
9. IRT vs WRT: Thriving or Surviving?
The International Racquetball Tour and World Racquetball Tour operating in the small men's professional racquetball market and competing for the attention of tournament directors was number three on last year's list. This year it comes in at number nine mainly because of what hasn't happened. No tour has folded. Both tours are still scraping together events. 2016 saw the two tours basically operate as if each other didn't exist (except with words) which is kind of the point with competing entities. Ultimately for business endeavors, it is about marketshare and the ability to survive market conditions in order to survive.
In professional racquetball, how does "thriving" get defined? In our opinion, there is thriving in a financial sense. When the ability to survive becomes easier for a growing number of people, that could be pointed to as a sign of a thriving environment. There is also thriving engagement with fans. More fans and more significant reach mean more sponsors for both the tour and the players.
For the pro tours, 2017 may end up being defined by whether the professional environment is thriving and the engagement created by these events means financial freedom for players. The tours will either provide tournament directors and connected businesses meaningful return or they will just sputter along. For the players, they will be able to engage casual fans to make the most of their opportunity with social media or they won't and have to keep scraping resources together to make it to tournaments.
Fans defining the level of play between the two tours and talking about it is fan participation. Tours talking about the level of play and little else outside of showing up to organize their players in brackets is status quo. We thought that maybe 2016 would have seen some sort of either unification or one of the tours breaking down leading to change. The problem with status quo mentalities is they often lead to widespread discontent. This is the question for 2016: Exactly who was contented with the way things played out? Will 2017 see some significant change?
8. Jason Thoerner Named To Lead USA Racquetball
Steve Czarnecki had been re-chosen to continue on as Executive Director in 2016 by the USA Racquetball Board of Directors after a search to fill the role Czarnecki had quietly held since 2013. During the summer, Czarnecki announced he would be leaving for another position and would stay on through the 23rd of September. Jason Thoerner, who had been serving on the USA board in several capacities and was currently the President of the Board, was chosen by the board to fill the role after ensuring a smooth transition during Czarnecki's departure.
The announcement conceded, "a move from board president to executive director could be deemed non-traditional". Typically, non-profit organizations conduct outside searches for these top directional positions. They require comprehensive experience both with management and most importantly, fundraising. Any progressive growth strategies should be introduced or facilitated from this position. Thoerner's experience is extensive within the culture of USA Racquetball, though, from the outside, is comparatively limited for these types of appointments for these positions. Our conversations with Thoerner convinces us that he understands the concept for the need for progressive thinking and operating outside of the box. Whether he can push his relationships within the organization away from the traditional status quo, or that he would want to, remains to be seen. Right now, we feel optimistic about his appointment.
Markie and Jose Rojas
7. Rojas Brothers Win UnitedHealthcare US Open Championship
This year, Jose and Markie Rojas won the big title. They managed to beat 2 time champs Kane Waselenchuk and Ben Croft in a semifinal and then meet and beat Daniel De La Rosa and Edison Martinez in the final.
From junior championships to having a solid presence in the International Racquetball Tour rankings, these two brothers from Stockton, California (The 209) have been on the radar individually their whole lives. This was about as personally meaningful as things could get for brothers with strong familial and local support, and who have devoted their lives to racquetball. So, for them, it may have been about the winning moment in the semis and then finishing strong in the finals. It may be enough to just say, it was their moment this year.
Women's Champion Janel Tsinger (right) and Rhonda Radsich during their semifinal match.
6. 3 WallBall
3 WallBall held its big event for the 7th consecutive year in 2016. For those unfamiliar with the event, 3 WallBall is held in Las Vegas, Nevada, where 15 courts are put together in the parking lot of the Stratosphere hotel at the end of the strip. It hosts handball, paddleball and racquetball in multiple pro divisions. It is no small endeavor. Outside of the UnitedHealthcare US Open, this is the biggest event in terms of attracting players in the U.S. The event leans heavily on handball, launching streamed matches on ESPN 3. The event provides a great opportunity for the best players in our game to not only play on the unique set up of courts, but also in front of an audience that traditionally wouldn't have the opportunity to see them play and gain casual fans. This event contributes a unique flavor to the culture of racquetball.
On the performance side of things, we'll mention two notable accomplishments in no order of importance. First, Rocky Carson took back the championship. He now owns six out of the seven 3 WallBall Men's Pro Singles titles. Secondly, Robert Sostre, 2014 World Outdoor Racquetball Hall of Fame inductee took 3 Pro Doubles titles at 3WB this year, with 3 different partners.
"Video interview: 2016 World Championships - Interview with India's Alok Mehta"
5. International Racquetball Federation Streaming Video
On the International Racquetball Federation's website, they list 100 racquetball federations with which they have connection. Of these federations, 37 are in countries that have formal Olympic participation. If the IRF is truly attempting to position racquetball as a possible Olympic sport, then their true focus is on growing formal participation throughout the world.
This past year, the IRF committed to comprehensive live streaming of their events. They connected with Sportonline.tv run by Pablo Fajre who is the president of the World Racquetball Tour. The connection with Fajre's ability to help them set up a quality stream team along with a growing formal relationship with the WRT shows promise for both organizations (something we've written about before). Reflective in their relationship is the substance testing that was being conducted on the WRT's last event in 2016.
For the IRF however, the key to their success in the streaming strategy won't be in sponsorship dollars but in individual growth of representative organizations within the IRF. What a focused video strategy can do is create engagement with participants and their families, as well as anyone familiar with their individual organizations . The more that happens, the more the individual organizations have something tangible to experience, reflective of the programing their governments are sponsoring, ensuring comprehensive participation. This inspires other budding organizations to connect and participate in IRF sponsored events.
These videos won't necessarily produce traction with sponsor dollars, though there is a possibility for supplemental resources if they keep pounding on their aggregate views. The amount of videos they streamed or just uploaded on Youtube is impressive. (You can find older videos from the 80's and 90's that are quite entertaining and informative.) With real focus, they will, however, create the possible traction individual participating organizations need to convince their sponsoring countries that there is true value in participating with racquetball internationally through the IRF.
4. Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour
The women of professional racquetball had an interesting 2016 to say the least. In early September, right after a Grand Slam tiered event in Mexico, their Deputy Commissioner Andy Kulback abruptly dropped the tour by highly charged email. The communication was reportedly connected with the dissatisfaction of the amount of work the commissioner felt was left solely to him. Whether that was indeed the case, the email left the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour basically with no further assistance by way of support and communication from the DC. With a Tier 1 scheduled in South Carolina the very next weekend, President of the Board T.J. Baumbaugh was left to facilitate, scrambling to pull together the necessary information that was operating outside of her responsibilities.
Andy Kulback had been slid in to lead a newly rebranding LPRT in 2011. There had been a power grab facilitated by discontent with the top leadership of the tour, which at the time was running as the Women's Professional Racquetball Organization. The WPRO was itself a rebranding in 2005. The players had corporately taken over control and ownership from the USRA after the women's professional racquetball circuit had transitioned through a few different acronyms and management structures since the 1970's.
The LPRT being abruptly dropped by their top management officer may have initially caused the tour some distress, but, it is our opinion that this may have been a good thing for the women's side of pro racquetball. The upside potential of a marketable pro tour may be more promising for the women, simply because of the traction afforded them by the attention their number one player draws. The top women are also significantly more engaged with social media than their male counterparts in racquetball. They also have some notable volatility within the top 10 rankings. There could also be room to build some drama into the story, especially with some promising young American players eager to jump into the scene. Our friends at The Racquetball Blog pointed out that out of 32 spots in the semifinals, so far, in this 2016-2017 season, only 2 spots were filled by American women and one of those due to a DNF. Despite all this, operationally, there just hasn't been the sponsor interest the women could have grabbed over the past few seasons. The time for upgraded planning and a pivot to action that can build value into the model is definitely more now than later. We see that "Dear John letter" as an open door.
Getting into our top three spots of 2017, we recognize that they are all individual players that are engrained into the culture of our sport. At the end of the day, it is the play of racquetball that keeps us engaged. These three names are passed around frequently with such regularity, it almost happens subconsciously during conversations. All three of these players have a reach of influence in the way today's racquetball is defined. To us as fans, it ultimately comes down to the players - who they are and what they do. They do racquetball so well, these three only need one name to be recognized for who they are.
Rocky Carson has been the #2 ranked player on the International Racquetball Tour for what seems like forever. A big reason why Carson's accomplishments have been under appreciated is because of the unprecedented dominance of the current #1 player. But make no mistake, Rocky Carson will be a Hall of Fame inductee for reasons that are distinguishable only to him. In 2016, Rocky won his 5th IRF World Championship. He also continues on as WOR's Men's Pro Singles champion, as well as winning back his 3 Wall Ball title. The guy just keeps quietly winning and building on a ridiculous career.
Kane Waselechuk just continues his complete domination. We can literally almost write the same thing we did last year and just add numbers to each stat.
- 12th US Open Championship in 2016.
- Continuing to run basically untouched by the rest of the field.
- 102 International Racquetball Tour titles so far.
- Most likely to gain his 8th consecutive year end World #1 rank, his 12th overall.
- G.O A.T.
Paola. Our number one story of 2016 is again Paola Longoria. Just like with our number two, we could probably just cut and paste what we wrote last year and that could be enough. She is still bigger than the tour she plays on. The biggest stops on the LPRT schedule outside of the UnitedHealthcare US Open are named after her. We could probably go on and on about all the accolades she receives in Mexico throughout the year. From getting symbolic awards from Mexico's Secretary of Defense, continually making annual list of influentials in Mexican media, to her being an example of how athletes can tap into their personal social media to access casual fans for sponsors.
Of the players on this list and indeed in the whole of racquetball, she is on another level when it comes to engagement. Aside from being able to tap into the power of her influence with an understanding of what that brings to her personally. She's smart, well spoken, continues to work very hard at creating opportunity and importantly, looks like she is having fun with all of it. Paola, more than any other player, is having a residual influence on the opportunities available for the players around her when it comes to casual fan engagement. Indeed, there are other players on the LPRT who understand more than most professional players the power of continually reflecting their lives and passions on social media. For the individual athlete, the casual fan can represent financial independence, at least during their careers as professional racquetball players. Paola emanates this independence in real-time.
Oh, and in 2016, Paola won the UnitedHealthcare US Open for the 7th time, continued to rack up an incredible amount of tour wins and went the year undefeated.
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