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  • Freddy Ramirez

Growing Ways To Grow Racquetball

You can now donate money to towards the idea of building up professional racquetball. Though the first question you would ask is, "why would you donate towards a professional sport?" Would you donate to a foundation that supports Nascar drivers that don't have the resources to get their cars to races? I realize that seems like a random question. Yet, by now, you are probably trying to draw similarities in your mind between Nascar and professional racquetball. Another more specific question could be: would you donate to a foundation that provides funding to professional drivers for hotel rooms at Nascar races? Then you would have to ask, what about their cars or what about all the rest of the things related to the Nascar circuit?

Rocky Carson, the International Racquetball Tour's #2 player, is now working with the Reaching Your Dream Foundation, along with a blessing from the International Racquetball Tour. The Reaching your dream foundation or RYDF for short is a 501C nonprofit foundation that provides assistance for aspiring professional racquetball players. For those who follow pro racquetball, the Reaching Your Dream Foundation has to date, been mostly affiliated with the World Racquetball Tour. In fact, the origin of RYDF came about as an attempt to figure out a way to help fund the WRT as a way to grow professional racquetball through the WRT.

Initially, because of the WRT's straight draw and focus on giving younger players a professional platform, the feeling was that the WRT could provide a better chance for young aspiring professionals to actually learn how to work their way through draws. Players would have a better chance to finish in the money... a better chance to earn money to play more professional racquetball. It was an endeavor to solve the initial player support problem inherent in running a professional tour through facilitating donations from people who believed in the importance of professional racquetball. Wait. Say this aloud. "Donations for professional racquetball." I'll get back to that. The WRT operates kind of like the Dew Tour does for skateboarding. They have one major sponsor who hand picks players to travel from stop to stop, occasionally mixing it up with other players, providing them with the "experience" of traveling on a tour. Player involvement is all inclusive as they are expected to help out with everything, from loading equipment, to cleaning up after themselves on a bus, etc. The thinking or the development piece for the nonprofit's involvement was that the WRT provides a "life" experience. This was part of the critical thinking behind trying to find funding in the way of donations.

So, You Want To Be A Non Profit?

What newly established organizations will learn quickly is that it's hard to get people to just give you money. There has to be a return for the payout, just like when you purchase something. Only with giving, the return is the knowing your money is making a difference in something lasting. Most nonprofits start with an established program that makes it easy to see outcomes, e.g., kids from low-income areas attend an afterschool program that tries to get them into colleges that normally don't get kids from those areas. Success of the program can be gauged by how many of the kids in the program get into those colleges... etc. People feel good about those very specific outcomes. They give money and feel like they've supported something good. And if it continues to work, they keep supporting when they can.

Back to Rocky Carson. With the #2 player on the International Racquetball Tour becoming actively involved with the RYDF, the foundation has effectively begun supporting the International Racquetball Tour in the same way it supported the World Racquetball Tour. What is the difference? Professional racquetball is professional racquetball right? But what happened to the feeling that the open draw was a fairer way to provide opportunities for aspiring professional racquetball players? The difference is that now Carson will effectively be a mentor to RYDF players in theory. Does that sound like a better way for your donations to be invested in? Even with the protected draw?

Let's take a look at Reaching Your Dream Foundation's mission statement.

"RYDF is a non-profit organization that provides funding and programming for racquetball and other sports around the world. Our programs include health and fitness engagement, professional playing opportunities, skills training, conditioning, health, nutrition, and career development. We focus primarily on assisting economically challenged, young players and their communities. We provide mentoring from professional players who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and discipline in building successful careers in sports and life."

It's a really, really broad reaching statement. What this effectively says is that your money will work on all of the buzzwords contained in the comprehensive statement. My question is this; will Rocky be working on all of those things with players? Did they work on this stuff with the WRT? I understand the statement was developed with the end game in mind, which is building a foundation that grows into these things to be able to attract big foundation-to-foundation money. But are they doing that now? What are they good at and is it sustainable? Remember, they are asking people to "give" money when giving is at a premium with charitable causes. And what about other racquetball foundations like the USAR and the MRF? Where would you toss your money? Well, it depends on what you want most to affect in racquetball.

Why they should scrap that big mission statement... and concentrate on one thing.

What RYDF is positioned to do is very, very specific. While all those components wrapped up in their mission statement are inherently attractive and in many ways, vaguely applicable, the foundation initially began with one objective. That was to find a way to grow professional racquetball by asking for donated money to get players without significant sponsor support, to pro stops. Because the model that the pro tours have built has been unable to sustain enough public interest to keep manufacturers excited enough to increase full funding for more players in exchange for visibility. As things stand though, racquet manufacturers already saturate what can be seen on the tours. It's the size and scope of the tours that is limited and manufacturers can already get this visibility fully supporting only a very few number of players and by way of limited sponsorships of others. It's the tour's responsibility to grow their own models enough to warrant a healthy flow of young players with financial backing by sponsors to their stops. That is a defining indicator of growth for a professional tour. RYDF, again, specifically addresses younger, promising players getting to tour stops.

When RYDF was formed, it was this specific lack that was being addressed. All the other beneficial things where hoped to be rolled into this as they were giving money to players who didn't have money to fund travel expenses on tour. This is a very specific thing and the hoped for stuff, well... how do you quantify that enough to get people to believe you were doing a worthwhile thing? Do you add the word disadvantaged? Come on, these players, (most) are hardly deep with disadvantage as compared with other nonprofit causes. Helping disadvantaged players make their way on relatively small professional tours isn't a means to success in life, because just making a living as a professional racquetball player is a rarity today. That is not a sustainable mission. Now if you look at it the other way around, that RYDF is helping the tours, then there may be some light there. It is almost like, if the foundation can inject the tours with a specific type of player that helps the tours grow, they may be able to get substantial donations. But what type of player could that be?

Right now, RYDF only expects its players to be active on social media and be stand up in presentation and graciousness. All admirable traits, but that alone doesn't present a sustainable model for a nonprofit that asks for donations to send players to professional racquetball tour stops. Are they actually changing their lives and not just providing them with an extended "summer camp experience"? And what about changing the current environments on the tours themselves? They should be working towards impressing upon the players that they are just as much responsible for raising money as the tours are. But how do you teach that, when you effectively haven't raised significant money as an organization? Where is your money for programming? What is your programming?

The Reaching Your Dream Foundation to date has been almost solely funded by its founder Mike Lippit. In the year and a half RYDF has been in existence, he's managed to build a board and recruit help to drive RYDF into a foundation that could actually raise money. Getting the word out is important, but not as important as honing and developing a program that can specifically recruit, teach and graduate players into the type of professionals that can effectively change the face of what the tours look like today. The professional tours have always understood that it is up to the players to build up their own careers. But the tours are responsible for building their own models into growing and economically viable entities that create more opportunities for players. They have expected the players to do the same thing for themselves, which is building their careers into economically viable professional entities. But anyone intimately involved with the sport of racquetball knows it is rife with a sense of entitlement. That has led to players expecting things to be handed to them because they reach a certain level of play. If the Reaching Your Dream Foundation can find a way to develop a program that systematically finds players that truly need assistance, turn these players into a new type of self-sufficient professional that no longer requires their assistance, then RYDF can find it's way to fundraising sustainability. Because, believe it or not, there would be donors very interested in knowing their money would be making a significant and lasting difference in the sport. Anything outside of that just won't be sustainable.

Learning from ambition that creates change...

While having Rocky Carson as a spokesman and mentor is great to raise awareness about what RYDF does, the foundation still needs to find a way to doing something well enough to make a difference on the professional racquetball environment. It begins with identifying potential, supporting that potential into growth and success, then being able to do that all over again and again with different players. These players, having gone through the growth and understanding of what being an independently viable professional actually means, then offer the tours something they lack, players that build on their ability to attract growth.

With the foundation's move to help players outside of the WRT (or more accurately put, non-specific of the WRT,) the group is free to send players to any tour that individual player wants to concentrate his efforts towards. If players are ambitious to play in the IRT, they can now facilitate that. But what does it mean to be ambitious? That is a relative term. But for the purposes of RYDF, that ambition has to be uniquely identifiable. Gratitude and amicability aside, as well as just making it up the chart. What traits should the foundation hone in on? For RYDF to be distinctly viable both for players and to facilitate growth for professional racquetball, it has to identify a specific kind of entrepreneurial drive. Tap into how that works. Then enable players with the tools to chase opportunity. Begin to effectively plant players on the tours and that will change the sport because growth will come with the ability for a return on investment for sponsorship money. This is a drastic oversimplification, but if they can program something like this and actually make it work, RYDF could then more convincingly attract big corporate benefactors or just rich individuals that will know and be convinced that this is a viable way to push professional racquetball into a possible stage of new growth.

Case study... What RYDF should be focusing on.

Mauricio Zeleda is now connected with RYDF. He is a player who at 25, has been a type of journeyman player, scrapping any way he can to make it to IRT pro stops over the past few years. Recently, "Momo" has managed to drive his way into being a mini cottage industry. Though he may by no means yet be truly sustainable, he has been able to convince a manufacturer to buy into the idea of him driving a tour bus to pro stops. He also has been selling sport specific clothing that helps him to work in a sport that he loves. Momo, effectively, now supports players who, by now, should have been already healthy with support. His endeavor is effectively creating opportunities for other players to make it to pro tour stops by bringing them onboard his new bus and splitting costs. What are the traits this 25 year old from Bolivia posses? Identify that. Learn from that. Learn how to identify players with that. Program that. Then get players to think "innovation". Again, I'm over simplifying things, but if you want to inject pro racquetball with game changing players, it has to be in that vain.

I would be remiss if I didn't touch base on what the World Racquetball Tour is doing. Having one major sponsor, the WRT has been able to plant a fresh excitement about racquetball in places that haven't had that. It's paying off for Gearbox, its major sponsor, with its uniquely different model of busing players to places that have been isolated from professional racquetball. The media coming out of the WRT in the form of player videos, free streaming and recorded matches directly ties into spikes in racquet sales in some cases. The tour's model is based on giving younger players with potential the opportunity to access success at racquetball events. Or at the very least, be a part of the excitement. But growth for the tour is still dependent on how they can build on people wanting to watch and follow what is going on. For the sponsor, right now, it's great and filled with promise. It has provided insight on a fresh and youthful perspective. For the tour itself, the jury is still out on whether they can break out with undeniable traction or explosive growth.

The Reaching Your Dream Foundation has facilitated the WRT model to date. But they haven't been able to nail down their own model of programming that warrants donor engagement to the point of sustainability. Now they are effectively facilitating in the same way for the IRT. But what they have learned is that they can't expect the return to come from a tour. And it won't come from just having a spokesman and some cool social media stuff. They have to create their own return. And that return is building professional racquetball into a new way of operating by changing how professional racquetball players see and build on their own environments.

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