2015 will be a year that is all about how younger professional players shape racquetball. If this is true, it could have a profound effect on current racquetball trends domestically and internationally. Perceptions on professional tours will be heavily reliant on what those players who are hitting their stride or poised to claim their spots among the games elite competitors.
Domestically, racquetball numbers are in decline. This fact is contradicted by some, but manufacturing numbers are pretty clearly indicating this. Over all participation numbers are down or at most, level. Internationally, we are paying increased attention to what racquetball looks like in Mexico and Central/South America, with it's surge in the sport's noteriety. This mainly due to Paola Longoria's Mexican culture take over and the residual interests that will begin trending towards looking at successful young players on the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour. (We'll be take a looking at the ladies soon.) Interest in racquetball will either set a real opportunity for professional tours or test it's foundations. Either way, racquetball's popularity is at stake this year.
Both the International Racquetball Tour and the World Racquetball Tour start their years up 3 week's into the new year. The IRT hit's one of it's most important stops in NYC. At the same time, the WRT hit's Sonora, Mexico. For a quick address on the different tours, the IRT boasts the world's best racquetball players and the WRT boast a more accessible draw. This means a couple of things in practicality. Young professionals looking to face the best players on the planet, have to work through qualifying (ordinarilly), in order to get test themselves on the IRT. With the WRT, a young pro may face the tour's #1 ranked player right at the get. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, though the WRT may make accessing "in the money rounds" easier. And at this level, it's all about money. Not just winning it, but having enough to make a living doing the pro racquetball thing. That both tours will be playing on the same weekend, it may be worth looking at what's in play for key young players.
I'll start with the WRT because it is a bit more cut and dry. Since it's being held in Mexico, we know access is easier for Mexican based players. Of the Americans that will be in attendance, the 3 listed in the draw, Anthony Herrera, David Horn and Jake Brendenbeck, Brendenbeck has made an effort to play IRT events outside of the US Open. The biggest contributing factor to their participation on WRT (and this Mexico event,) is the support these three are tied into through the tour and it's strategic sponsor Gearbox Racquetball. This support is worth noting because it goes beyond just ensuring travel, lodging and entry fees. It's a support that integrates participation throughout the event. These players are involved with a comprehensive array of logisitcs involved with setting up and breaking down an event. It's a hands on experience, literally. Their experiences, though similar because they are actually playing competitive professional racquetball, is in many ways different in feel for these guys, as professionals. Also note that the WRT is still in build up mode, and their gaining traction in a market that will be increasingly hungry for the sport because of the increasing interest the region is experiencing. So, what could this mean for American players? It almost fully depends on what they choose to take advantage of. If they are just along for the ride, well it will be just that, and only that. How will they individually capitalize on who is seeing them play, depends on what opportunities they take ownership of. So, it remains to be seen.
In many ways, looking at the IRT is like comparing apples and oranges. (I'm not addressing the topic of whether these tours foster market division or not. At least not right now. I'm focusing on young players and what they will be responsible for this year.) There is currently an interesting dynamic happening within the top 10 ranked players. Jansen Allen and Tony Carson are now at the fringes. Jose Rojas is out of the top 4 for the first time in 3 or so years. Daniel De Larosa is now at #4 and Markie Rojas is solidly in at #8. The 209 guy's biggest hardship to breaking past Quarters will continue to be Ben Croft, who himself has to find a consistent way past the top 4 players soon if he's hoping for a spot in the top 3. There are a number of more dynamics that can be pointed out among these guys. But with the top 3 guys edging towards the cliff of their careers, this year is important for the above mentioned players. The interest in the IRT will become increasingly reliant on these players and what they represent. With some of these players, I have some serious questions regarding their complacency, on and off court entitlement and how they market themselves. Because if they are thinking "building and creating" and focusing their cache in that way, that would bode well for the IRT, who seems to have a "hands off" policy in regards to it's players. The younger players will also have to start thinking creatively about their individual reach beyond just posting on social. Looking towards what they can do individually. The IRT is reliant on the player's individual sponsors to get players to events and the tour's involvement doesn't seem to go beyond requiring players to partake in pro-ams. That is still very important on a local sponsor level, but isn't, in itself, providing something new that these young guys can build on. Right now, the IRT's future is almost wholly dependent on this handful of guys. Individually, I don't see anything new coming from them.
I'm not down on the IRT at all. This event will see more Canadian players traveling to compete in the draw, as well as a couple of players with solid WRT ties. That will be interesting to watch. But it's a swing event that can foster a lot of traction and will point to the rest of the year. From this view, and seeing what things look like, especially with some of the young players mentioned, it's a critical time for momentum. Guys like Croft and Rocky and Kane and Alvaro will have people looking to them to do what they do, while continuing their success in the status quo. For the rest it's maybe a bit more of a look. Not just how they play at this event, but how they "look" at this event. Will it say anything new about racquetball? And will people actually get excited about the crop of players that will owning the top 10 in 5 years.
For racquetball to gain back momentum here in the States, there will have to be a drastic way in how it "looks". How accessible and quick the messaging and images can be and "who" is being seen. Any effort outside of that will remain stuck in an old model. And that model's days are numbered.
Right now, there is no certain growth that can provide opportunity for an extended professional career playing racquetball.