Professional Racquetball; Not Even Business As Usual
In this entry, I'm picking up from where I left off before the summer break with the post, "It Really Is Hard To Be A Fan Of Professional Racquetball"
What can we look forward to this season with the pro tours? As a fan, I just don't know. The way I see it, "just" not knowing is worse than knowing that I can expect the same thing as last season. At least we know that last season was a typical run through of pro stops after the US Open, and we will know not to look for anything truly game changing in terms of development by the tours themselves. But not knowing could include things looking worse than last season and it is shaping up to be as divisive as ever.
The 2016/2017 pro racquetball season is about to hit full swing and it's been a typically normal lead in from the tours, where they are basically just pointing to upcoming tour stops. The summer seasons usually serve as off months for the pros, I get that. However, as a fan, I hoped something in the way of well structured hype would have been put out there about what to look forward to this upcoming season. Will we just see last year happen all over again? No lead-ins. No last season recaps. No fan engaging promotion of specific players or rivalries of interest put out by the tours. No "tasked" video promotional bites with players. (Yes, Paola has some video promotion going on hyping her "Paola Longoria" experience event but that is all her individual work - more on that later.) In my opinion, at this point, knowing all we know about the capabilities of media available today and the ability the tours could have by now to create value for themselves and their players, not having these types of teasers and promotions is inexcusable by those in charge of running, promoting and generating possible income for the tours and players.
What I've seen so far regarding the upcoming season:
On the professional men's side of things, The International Racquetball Tour has been almost non-existent when it comes to activity. Some posts and shares on social have trickled out. This link to the Ghost of Georgetown tour stop is pretty much all that has crossed my view regarding the upcoming season. Visiting their website will yield a few good older articles about a couple players striving on the tour and a Fran Davis piece. Their Youtube page is a black hole. (To its credit, the IRT Network allows paid members to view last season's matches and they can be downloaded for $4.99 each.)
Comparatively, the World Racquetball Tour has at least released this promotional video. Titled "We Grow Racquetball" which states their underlying mission, the video is basically cool graphics and action photos. They are also posting event dates to their upcoming stops along with cool photos.
Jake Brendenbeck on the court with IRT #1 Kane Waselenchuk
I've written and talked (podcast) about having two men's tours operating in today's thin market in depth last season. When I look at any possibility of the IRT and WRT working together, the clearest sign on that front is the International Racquetball Tour Membership Agreement. When I first wrote this entry, (What you are reading now is an amendment,) I was going on info on the player agreement available on the R2 site. I was informed the IRT holds the exclusivity to the top 8 ranked players, not the 12 that was misprinted on the agreement and it is now corrected. I still believe this is still a clear statement to players who wish to be highly ranked, by the IRT, that players are either committed to playing on their tour only or they are not. You can't play the WRT while you are seeded in the top 8 without seriously prohibitive fines. It's a stop gap limit. I understand the IRT's point of view here. But I still believe the IRT loses here because they lose the interest fans will have if the players start choosing not to play IRT events to deliberately stay out of the top 8. Think Felipe Camacho and Sebastian Franco... this ties their hands on so many levels. So, without a basic softening here, it makes events that may hold a possibility to have dual representation from both tours, (outside of the US Open,) impossible. Right now, the two tours are nowhere near being able to work together in any way.
On the women's side, besides the Paola promo, there are some rankings postings and of course, they streamed their first stop already and those matches are uploaded on their Youtube channel now, which is good. They also have a busy Facebook page that simply shares and post various items. Yet, with Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour, things seem even more troubling under the surface rolling into this season. They have a major player. A player who has generated national and international interest and has created real, tangible reach and opportunities for herself. (The tour is about to roll into her self named Grand Slam in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.) The LPRT has done absolutely nothing in the way of capitalizing on her work. No sense of direction towards possibilities for other similar players. No direct engagement with possible opportunities that could be created by the synergy Paola could represent. Instead of running towards the possible open doors, there may be sense of "we can't do that without making it all about Paola", which is not a valid concern. That type of thinking has the opposite effect. It has become all about Paola specifically because the tour hasn't manufactured any similarly tangible opportunities for their other players. Those doors have been right there, relatively low-hanging fruit. The LPRT has instead just kind of sat on their hands not knowing what to do.
What also seems troubling is that Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour has no mention of their Scholarship Program on their website. For as least the past couple of seasons, the LPRT had raised $5000 and awarded it to 5 new, young players to be used towards the costs involved with participating in tour stops. Presumably, the LPRT has dropped the program, which in effect possibly deprives a few potential new players resources to attend a few stops. I am aware that the Reaching Your Dream Foundation has provided housing resources to young LPRT players, as they do for the IRT and WRT. It seems RYDF would have been a good fiscal agent to run the scholarship through allowing the LPRT to benefit from even more housing provided by the foundation, resulting in bigger diverse draws. That is assuming the LPRT would actively work to raise the money themselves with previous and possible new donors to the program. But as far as I know, the LPRT simply dropped the program. Unless the LPRT has come up with an alternative to actively enable new players to find funding to show up, they are taking the view that having new players isn't a priority for them. Doing nothing is effectively taking a step backwards, neglecting a very basic need and letting someone else worry about it.
Where the tours are concerned, their main business model should be aggressively creating opportunities for themselves and more importantly, their players. But it really does seem that the tours see themselves as a privilege for their players (that is actually stated in the IRT player agreement), yet, the tours haven't created a growing environment for the players to exist as professionals and worse, creating an adversarial environment when players are deciding on available opportunities to play as professionals. The tours are still operating on the old tournament director model with possible growth strategies being completely overlooked or rationalized away. What we see now is a shrinkage here in the states rather than the growth we have hoped for and I have written about for years.
What I see as a fan, is that very little has been done to augment professional racquetball
enough to grow to a place of independent sustainability. Any new opportunities players can build a thriving foundation on are not coming from the tour. As a fan, I don't see signs of any of that... no event or season round ups. No players centric action videos or interest engagement videos. No sharable interest bombs that could entice possible new viewers. No new sponsors. It's shaping up to be another professional racquetball season of inter-tour fighting and reductions in prize pool monies. As a fan, I see a tour industry of donor handouts and "this is mine".