Typically at this time of the year, I'm thinking about the Top 10 List for the previous year. Last year, I took it a step further and posted Decade In Perspective which began with this statement: "As we are almost through the first month of a new decade, I'm struck by my wonder of the next 10 years of racquetball, particularly, the feeling I have that things will not, at all, look like they do now." At the time, I attempted to cover all things racquetball during the 2010's, from my perspective anyway. (It was my longest post ever.) With Covid happening, I'm thinking that may not be as productive. It was a year of severe, forced change and almost a total shutdown of the sport of racquetball. So in lieu of listing 10 significant things that happened, we'll just keep on with forward based observations on what things look like right now and some possibilities based on how things swung in 2020.
Ok. What I see... Paola Longoria is hawking cars, private jets and Idaho potatoes while not missing a beat with racquetball. She's up for a vote for the World Games Greatest Athlete of All Time. That makes me think in terms of "degrees" on the how racquetball players are fairing with now racquetball. She is thriving. But she is not the norm and definitely the ceiling on the degree graph.
Paola also has a "Master Class" available to buy into. A few years before anyone might think she would come out with something like that. A bit "premature" I can't help but think. Yet, if you think about it, that is her adjustment more so than say, her just being full with advertising opportunities because of who she was before the pandemic. The times have forced players to scramble in alternatives to stay fresh, busy and relevant in racquetball or just wait like everyone else. Some of that thinking crept in as I was watching Kane Waselenchuk commentate for the first time this month. He was giving his thoughts on Rocky Carson and Adam Manilla during their Round of 16s meet up. Just looking at and hearing these three players and I'm pushed further down that degree chart of the Covid effect to professional racquetball players. Rocky has found himself with way more time for his family real estate ventures, as he tries to remain active with Outdoor racquetball and such. He's tail ending his career and on the road to a fade out more than just retirement. Because honestly, he doesn't have a schedule to look at to reliably say, "that one", if he decides it is time, though he's a machine and will most likely just wait like everyone else. Adam by contrast is very fresh into his career as a touring pro and has a training App that he's been working hard on (with his sister). Super premature if you think about it in timelines and that it is a space normally occupied by legends aging out or well-established coaches. But that focus was enhanced dramatically with the circumstances. Hearing Kane critique both players put that into perspective, because he himself has decided on an adjustment of what is best with his time when it comes to International Racquetball Tour events. Some aspects have been on full stop, ironically ushering some things to the front of thinking for players.
Case in point Sudsy Monchik. I got a text from him that read simply, "Just warming up." He may have meant that as a literal warm up session on a court or it could have been metaphorically. But it's clear he's in it "as a player". But he's no ordinary player. He's a five-time world champion and 46 years old. The hype for Doubles play may give him the professional action on court, but he's been way more busy with the professional action of a social influencer. A niche one that is intent on saving his niche. We know he is influencing the diehard fans with sentiment but that is far different than say, activating them for an advertiser. He's lined up many avenues to pursue racquetball-wise that, in a manner of speaking, is at the core of the hot topic in racquetball... what organizations should be doing. That he is maybe the most prominent racquetball player on the radar speaks very loudly to all the other touring racquetball players that consider themselves professional athletes and are just waiting around.
I'll simply say, this year, players and personalities will need to comprehensively take things to the next level to stand out. Otherwise, you'll just be a player that shows up when they show up. And unless you're Kane, they can take you or leave you.
The International Racquetball Tour and
Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour should talk-talk merger.
There. I said it. And I'm choosing here to speak as someone who has significant experience in this space and someone who was dead set against it in 2017. (Way different management situation then.) But let me back-pedal a bit. I said "talk-talk", which is my way of saying they should put both structures on the table during this season of delay and look deeply at the benefits to players and use that to transition the women over into the IRT. Now before anyone shifts in their seats, I'd want to recognize that the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour, like the IRT, has gone through changes in structure. Right now, that structure is put together in order to allow comprehensive involvement of the players in management. The problem with that, ultimately, is that the process of decision is continually peppered with friction. Having a separate tour keeps the historical line of legendary players, who are mostly American I might add, with at least somewhere to look, even though the name of their organizations during their run were different. Remove that, and you have a women's tour that for all intent and purposes is providing the exact, same, experience that the IRT provides for the men.
There is nothing to profit share for the players other than a tour bank account and some legal paperwork, to provide a mutually beneficial transition. (I may be simplifying it some or might have the lingo jacked but you know the gist.) Items like player involvement on the board, recognizing players historically by gender and all manner of inclusion can be hashed out on paper. Event logistics is where the most immediate gain can be made. With two sets of administrators for set-up and video production, more attention could be conceivably be focused on producing very much needed growth-content during events.
It's not a far-fetched idea, especially considering there is no contention between managements... in fact, the relationship looks very ripe for something like this. The players, demographically speaking on both sides, make it an easy environment right away. Since any merger will instantly raise the value of the IRT, the keys are delivering some solid guarantee to the LPRT players and leadership regarding board representation and assurances that they keep-to-use what they bring and that there will be a separate but equal vibe throughout. In that mix, you can bring in guys like Todd Boss to help with historical perspective and reworking any legacy projects like the LPRT Hall of Fame in South Carolina. (A rework could easily be done considering many of the players weren't playing during this version of a women's tour. Also, it could be seen as a good faith project by the IRT to kick in for costs like the graphics changes on the LPRT HOF in SC.... sort of like a "Women's Racquetball Hall of Fame curated by IRT.".. or anything that sounds good to the collective.)
Competitively speaking, Tournament Director connections are pretty much not on a need to know basis, because face it, racquetball is a bit incestuous financially. Maybe transitioning some potential stops into limited draw events with top players or dual events or just one gender events can be pursued jointly. Think about it. It would instantly offer Tournament Directors a one stop shop of deeper choice of combination offerings, e.g., Men's or Women's or both, Doubles for one or both, Mixed events only, etc.
The dialogue could begin with something as small as an exploration letter (merge request) from the IRT to the LPRT board, who in theory would be required to present it to the players. This line of thinking also plays well with the need to consolidate locations because face it, the clubs are falling like flies. Think win win because things are thin thin.
AH... USA RACQUETBALL
USA Racquetball without a doubt was the hardest hit because we are factoring in the clubs that are closed and have closed permanently. It's their mandate to liaison with clubs. Ok, I can talk about what they are sending out in terms of event plans and I can talk about what they could be doing with their membership regarding outdoor or outdoor legacies, and I can talk about how they are continuing something that is not in their DNA to do, facilitate a racquetball show through a Zoom type stream. I believe I can talk legitimately and credibly about those things. BUT. And I feel this strong in my bones. They need to switch focus. If they don't, they will remain marginalized. Even when things get better, because they are setting up to continue business as usual when all things are said and done or dealt with regarding Covid. Dear USA, There is no where for you to look for growth outside of deliberately making racquetball a visible, generationally viable and tangible thing. Unless of course, you're content with "business as usual for us."
My friends over at SquashMad just dropped a read that looks at "How Our New Lifestyles Can Help Squash Grow". I share a quote from it:
"The changing demands on a club
1: As players, our time will become more flexible, providing clubs with an opportunity to fill
non-prime-time slots more easily.
2: Demand for variety will increase, making multi-purpose courts a desirable addition, including movable walls for multi-purpose spaces.
3: AR / VR gaming environments will become a critical attraction for bringing in new and younger players. Multi-Ball and Interactive Squash is just one example. More will be coming.
4: Many clubs will outgrow their current facilities and will need to assess how to grow effectively without looking ad-hoc.
5: Clubs that utilise technology, to maximise their revenue and minimise their operational costs, will be the big winners.
6: Clubs that embrace social networks will be better adept at creating a stronger sense of community. They will also bridge the gap better, bringing online social to in-person social, while more intuitively understanding their clients’ needs.
7: Sharing is about to overtake search (Zuckerberg’s Law), and as a result, communication through social networking will enhance a club’s ability to market itself to the surrounding community."
Interesting stuff, right? So, USA Racquetball, I have but one question. How are you going to communicate these ideas to club owners about the future without knowing what these new changes will look and feel like?