2020 Niche Sport Recovery; What Is Pro Racquetball Waiting For?
5 Time Former World Racquetball Champion Sudsy Monchik
No doubt, I have written a ton about racquetball marketing before I was personally involved with a pro tour. As I find myself writing this, it's literally 2020 vision for me.
Before Facebook opened access to anyone with a general email account, there was Meet and Play. It operated much like Reddit does now, only it was a forum that was created to facilitate actual meet ups to participate in sports and hobbies. I remember participating in the space around the time of the first Beach Bash in 2004. That's when I first started realizing racquetball was a sport that could not get out of the way of its own nostalgia. For someone like me who didn't play indoor racquetball, I began noticing that almost all of the conversations at the time regarding traditional racquetball were about the past.
If you go to Facebook Pages like Keep Racquetball Great, a huge percentage of the posts are about player nostalgia, that is old legends, photos of old rackets and magazine articles, and "remember when" type talk. The engagement with older players continues here as concretely as always. I'd say, even more so now with the restrictions on the ability to actually play racquetball during 2020. Racquetball enthusiasts continue to wait for courts to open back up and continue to talk with each other about the sport with enthusiasm.
Looking at the professional side of the sport, to me, the tours seem to be in the same position as fans now - in wait mode. With that, you see the substance of their business plans completely reliant on tournament directors and local sponsors, which I will qualify as people willing to drop a significant amount of cash to have pros show up in their club to play and mingle with locals. But now, most potential TD's are still dealing with Covid restrictions, as are the few tournament sponsors that are still involved with the sport.
For perspective, I'll share some current marketing trends that I stumbled upon. One article I read begins with, "73% of marketers have allocated more resources to influencer marketing this year...". This statistic instantly tells me there is opportunity. Then I quickly think, "not for the tours", which to me, in effect, means not for most of the players on tour. In my opinion, only a few personalities in our group could capitalize on opportunities in this space effectively.
(I'll add a quick mention that USA Racquetball, supported by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee is, in all reality, in dire straits as sports clubs with racquetball courts close or repurpose the spaces to increase revenue. Developing or sustaining programming that can keep the sport going in the States, in a way that keeps them relevant to the USOPC, has narrowed to the very few hotspots for the sport, as well as in sentiment with enthusiasts. Theirs is a play quite different than the tours.)
The tours this year faced the same realities most sports faced during this pandemic, in which we are still very much engulfed in. So, any return to normalcy is far removed despite the two or three scheduled pro events in the next 2-3 months. They have had time to come up with ways to try and use Zoom type programs and have been quite limited in repurposing content, which has consisted of mostly some posts featuring old matches or replays and feel insignificant in grabbing attention... at least mine. My guess is this is a "we have to do something" play with no thought of alternative growth, even remotely laced into the efforts. This may sound harsh but this is reality in my opinion and I'll own it as I line up my next statement.
Sudsy Monchik is a bigger personality in racquetball than Kane Waselenchuk. I know this statement may jolt some racquetball people. (Anyone outside the sport reading this will just see names for the most part.) Sudsy is a five-time World Champion who's last world title was in 2001. Kane has owned the World Championship title 14 out of the last 17 years. Yet, if a big brand were to real-world look at the two, Sudsy would crush Kane in what little return on investment can be apportioned from their overall influencer ad spend.
17 time (and current) World Racquetball Champion Kane Waselenchuk
A quote from that same article, "This comes as brands begin to work with influencers across more mainstream channels, such as OOH (83.3%), print (80%), and TV and radio (81.3%), as they become more confident in their ability to deliver ROI, ..." OOH is the marketing term for "Out Of Home", which for obvious reasons grew in 2020. And that's how Sudsy operates for the most part now, keeping busy with videos, promoting his app, his Zoom type talk stuff where he pulls in key personalities in the sport and his activity on social. (Interestingly enough, Sudsy currently lives in Ecuador.) He has been significantly more active with this type of content than any of the tours and organizations. (I'll leave players like Paola Longoria and Jessica Parrilla out of this because they are already significantly benefitting in the "influencer" space for some time now. So, that would be apples and oranges in regards to this thought.)
Without events, the tours have very little to lean on to facilitate for players, especially since so little thought has been focused on player-driven content. There is simply nothing to use. So, for players like Kane, they are left to fend for themselves. Most are already significantly behind in this marketing game in one way or another, and almost all of them don't have nearly the same cache of possible engagement as Waselenchuk.
Back to the thought of my first paragraph, Sudsy is a product of the old school nostalgia. I'll point to the significant amount of "I remember when" type talk that peppers every episode of "Sudsy & Elli Show" he co-hosts with John Ellis, who is another former top player from Sudsy's racquetball generation. They're successfully engaging the diehard racquetball enthusiasts with current racquetball world topics, all the while flavoring it with nostalgia that keeps the "very base" racquetball group engaged.
The problem I see is the engagement of younger age groups like 16-24 year olds. There is nothing returnable for marketers being offered for this racquetball group here in the US. Where Sudsy may be the only game in town where racquetball is concerned, my guess is his sport-aggregative slant does little to command a real-time-suck for this significant group.
Where Sudsy on paper may be aged out of pro competition, the lack of racquetball court access, the lack of younger players growing beyond their peer-reach and an antiquated pro tour business model, have provided him with room to grow. For Monchik, there is very little competition in this relatively small space here in the US at this time... that he is so apt at channeling his experiences to racquetball's base, may have, inadvertently, made him the only game in town.
Am I missing something? Where is the sense of urgency? Or am I waiting too?