- Freddy Ramirez
Both Tours With One Click; Merging IRT/LPRT Efforts
Paola Longoria and Kane Waselenchuk
Five years ago this month I posted "What Would An IRT / LPRT Merger Look Like?". The post led off with this statement, "A more significant question could be, would it ever be possible in racquetball as things are? The post was predicated on what was going on in Squash at that time. In keeping with the thread from my last post, I'm looking to compare things a bit further. At the time, the Professional Squash Association and the Women's Squash Association had agreed on consolidating the men and women under one unified governing body for the first time in the sport's history. This was quoted on the US Squash website, “Both parties felt that a merger would provide a more unified base from which to grow the sport of squash across the globe and to proactively increase the levels of equality and opportunity for both genders at the elite level...". I remember the PSA was just starting to see real growth in their streaming and the sport was also pushing hard for the Olympics. I also remember the general feeling I had about racquetball after talking to some people, that there may have been just too much of a "who knows best" line of thought in this matter. Both tours were operating a bit differently at the time than they are now, though the basic operating business models haven't changed. Add to that my recent experience spending time with the LPRT and I'm poked into re-thinking this question.
When I first look for similarities between Squash and racquetball, I immediately start to think of the success squash has seen since then and try to process their playbook. (I'll quickly note here I feel the updated IRT website feels a bit format-influenced by the PSA site.) The PSA indeed is operating under somewhat different circumstances, a different underlying niche base and a coherency in their long term planning that racquetball just hasn't been able to achieve yet. Looking over to racquetball, I know the IRT has found itself purchased by a collective of racquetball enthusiasts and has set to methodically build out of a hard position business-wise. Also, the several programing improvements put into the live-streaming is noticeable but it still is basically the same straight forward formula as it has been over the past years. For squash, the underlying story has been the ability of their chairman of the board, Ziad Al-Turk to impart a vision patterned after what Bernie Ecclestone is to Formula One, now the second most successful sport on the planet. (My short, very broad take on it is having a vision and controlling ever aspect of it, small and large.) Under Al-Turk, the PSA has seen an increase in huge events in the Middle East which has also been influenced by the large number of quality players emanating from the region, specifically Egypt. Al-Turk was hands-on with everything and worked on improvements across the board with a focus on generating more prize money and real, financial opportunity for players. Undoubtably, some deep pockets were/are involved, but in squash, money attracts money, as the legacy of the sport here in the States can attest. For racquetball, the IRT's investors have similarly jumped in, yet, I see apples and oranges on that front. So, what is possible in their approach?
I see two things here as I type, the parallel business models of the IRT and LPRT and the corresponding relationship to the sport's international federations/organizations. I'll start with the latter. For squash, the PSA currently has a good working relationship with the World Squash Federation. That wasn't always the case, especially a few years ago when the extensive effort in the sport to present for the Olympics geared up. Territorial resentment inhibited the PSA from contributing more. But as the PSA has seen significant credibility in product presentation and increases in prize money and big events, there seems to now be unity in the sport. Even some big WSF events are broadcasted via the PSA's SquashTV. (Squash itself had an issue with an upstart tour back then trying to edge in on the game, but much like racquetball, that sort of just righted itself with a fade out.) I feel it is important to point this out in relation to racquetball for a few reasons. One is the recent agreement the IRT has with the International Racquetball Federation to allow the IRT stream access to the Olympic channel. This is something I feel is good but only in the very short term. I'll get to why a bit further on. (Nothing to do with the Olympic. Traditional inclusion is out for racquetball, way too many boxes left unchecked for that.) Secondly, Paola Longoria was selected to carry the torch at the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. This is nothing but nothing but good for racquetball (toned in my New York-Donnie Brasco voice), but I'm thinking of how long can that story last when she's introduced and racquetball is mentioned. Where will the follow-up be and what is the front the sport will have at that moment? How much friction will there be for acquisition of notable casual interest in racquetball? Or will it be a Paola the raquetbolista-influencer from Mexico story? That is very possible. Or, could it be a LPRT tour story? Or, could be an IRF story? (Because a ton of her notoriety racquetball-wise comes from her results internationally.) I ask because the question will be, how easy will it be for someone with a passing interest in racquetball to get a broad, engaging view of the sport of racquetball after taking note of Longoria at the ceremonies? Will they quickly see the storylines, and "cool" athletes that exist and get a feel quickly? Where is the hook? All this to say, having an integrated relationship with the IRF would be a good thing because of the increasing talent originating from countries in which the IRF has already established connections. Yet, as I see it, it is not wholly necessary. Because what you need first is growth that plainly signals success first.
Presentation and the ability of the tours to sell it is almost as important as reach, especially now with the growing engagement the sport is recognizing in Mexico and South America. What I'm leaning towards here is the focus of the storylines on the tour that could be of huge interest to a potential growing market in Mexico and South America for racquetball. A united IRT and LPRT could more readily offer one stop shopping for events and more importantly, licensing out the stream to sports broadcasters via "OTT". (Over The Top - bypassing cable tv with internet streaming.) This is why I'd feel hesitant in signing a long-term streaming agreement with the IRF. Exclusivity can be sold, and an agreement like this prohibitively complicates things. Having some sort of tour unity in these markets is what may be important. As an example, last season's American Iris Grand Slam in Bolivia was initially discussed as a LPRT event but the desire for the men's side made it almost a contingency that both the men and women play. It made sense especially in retrospect, because of the size of the event and the "now" fact of having the winner on the men's side was Conrado Moscoso, a Bolivian. Would all this necessarily mean combining the two tours? Granted, it would be easier to market but I would say no.
Bolivian player Conrado Moscoso
Another thing that makes me think of consolidating, even in part, is the appealing synergy the PSA has built with accessible content on Youtube. Squash TV continues to have a subscription model, yet has continued to remain easily accessible. They feed 11 sportscasting partnerships with one platform while streaming to their subscribers. They also stream to Facebook with regional access when it is covered by a partner, typically the event sponsors would be my guess. A well thought out production value is what they offer, focusing on continually spotlighting aspects of the game that work to promote the sport on a number of levels. For instance, they sometimes have heart rate monitors on players for comparison, pointing out fitness levels and the effect it has on matches. Regularly created content focused on the players and the comprehensive event recaps by rounds - "Round Ups", and the quick turn around in which they do it make it all very appealing. Short of watching full matches, you still feel like you've seen and felt the events. That in turn helps to make organizing fantastic events, in fantastic locations considerably more palatable to those willing to drop big money on an event. If the tours where rolled together on Youtube, there may be more opportunity for monetization with just the streams. So, the thought could be offer multiple options to comprehensively target.
I'll mention here that Doug Ganim, the chief Mofo of the UnitedHealthcare US Open stated on a recent broadcast that the sport needs to be dropped in big locations, fairs, X Games types of affairs, glass court, music, big, accessible crowds, etc... to make it "cool". And that right there, should be the goal of the tours as I believe them to be running now. And more so, Mexico and South America is where there is a window for return on investment for marketers now. Of course, this is all opinion and you know, everyone has one. Mine is driven by a "work with what you got" type feeling as I look at professional racquetball as a whole over there. I'm also thinking the question... what would prevent, say, the RKT (a couple of guys throwing events and keeping rankings in Mexico from what I can tell,) from finding money and dropping a huge event without the IRT or LPRT? Will the tours forbid players to participate in a marquee event offering fame and big money in their home country? Another question is how can the tours solidify their prestige with fans? In lieu of being able to consistently create cool video content that can increase attention span in these countries (as well as increase engagement on social and numbers on Youtube, because that could be an expensive and drawn out undertaking to do it right, I believe a consolidated stream product or offering with the specific goal of grounding the tours in these markets is worth looking at and talking about. Think Kane's dominance and the time left for that. Add to that young national players trying to have a big moment in their home countries... that kind of thing. Think, Paola can draw attention on her own. I don't have to say how the athletes on the LPRT fair with attention either. The story-lines are rich with both tours. There could be strength in market with consolidation. Because both tours have strengths. The men are the best in the world. The women are too. Right now, any OTT group that would be interested to add racquetball as an offering, has to double-deal or choose one over the other. Same goes with potential tournament directors anywhere, but it's a cheaper buy to the upside for OTT broadcasters and relatively cheap for the tours. If we are talking booming growth that can be facilitated, consolidating some product offerings could go a long way into opening the doors for the tours to do more to get to the big "Doug Ganim described" events level. As I think of it, there are other reasons also why this makes sense. Managing data is one thing, an example being a consolidated audience for more potential programmatic ad buys for potential ad revenue on Youtube. Though it makes more sense consolidating with a focus on big event building right now. I'm sure they are working on producing more events, but the sport should shoot big now.
Again. No. I don't now think the IRT and LPRT can or should merge now.
But since I've thrown the word out, I'll ask, What would an IRT - LPRT merger look like now? From an oversight body view, both tours have adjusted the format to the now sport standard of best of 3 games and the rules are all the same, maybe one or two small differences in some matters. The PSA has both a Men's and Women's President, so keeping things separate rulings-wise is easy. The IRT currently has no player representation on their board from what I can see. The LPRT has an operating board with two player reps. The IRT is run by investors while the LPRT is player owned, technically. That presents a problem unless the IRT can just somehow be given the governing extension of the players by LPRT board vote. (Hell would have to freeze over are my thoughts on that one.) But that would just give away the asset. Figuring out value, distribute to players? Consolidate and restructure the boards? Unlike the IRT, LPRT Board members aren't investors and are term limited. A few years ago, there was a lot of merger talk on Facebook about this and it wasn't at all friendly. That sparked the board rebuild on the LPRT. Today, it may be a bit different because last I remember, there was plenty of goodwill to go around. Though when push comes to shove, investors typically want investment returned and that could be problematic on a consolidated board. Lot's of these questions. I really am in waters I know very little about when it comes to structuring like this. I had a recent conversation where this topic somehow came up and this was said, "...(it) maybe practical but a bunch of powerful, successful, strong-willed guys would crush the life out of the LPRT." It left me feeling some of the old sentiments that still run through the sport when it comes to gender. Equal-prize money should be a set-goal in any sport and crafting a middle ground that is based on event streaming accessibility and a unified front could work towards that goal, just as it could spark something tangible from the possible growth racquetball can realize with the rise of all these dynamic young players coming up.
I see an open market South of the Border for racquetball. Figure out a standard streaming practice and unified event package both tours can offer up and operate behind. Work with what you have. And pitch the s*** out of it. Fast.