2021: What Is A Tour?
Halfway through March of 2021 and we can see where things are headed. The question: Is there a possibility the sport of racquetball has enough fresh thinking, where it counts to actually step back, make an objective assessment at their efforts and put any conflicted personal views, interests aside or long held positions into "must review" mode?
Ok. This. Kane Waselenchuk and Sudsy Monchik raising well over 20k for an idea. In two days. If you think this is no small thing, step back and think again. You have the current World Champion and a former 5 time world champion (and current champion of the sport, so to speak,) getting together, critically thinking about how racquetball enthusiasts spend their time at both clinics and pro stops, beyond what others have done before and coming up with something that fuses the aspects of engagement together. They are calling it "an experience" and it's fresh.
Isn't that what a tour, technically is? A person or group of people, touring locations in search of, or to provide, an experience. The pro tours show up to a location and provide racquetball enthusiasts (or fans... I don't much like the term in this context- for this point that is, I like "participants") with the experience of seeing the highest level racquetball possible. In person. You can add to that all the things being shoulder close to these players provide and all those intangible aspects of why touring is still a thing in racquetball. Because quite frankly, without that last little bit right there, pro racquetball would be extinct. No exaggeration needed here. I recently spoke with Doug Ganim, who built up the Us Open from scratch and he has a ton of feelings about this. He absolutely loves it. He likened the experience to someone at the plate against Dwight Gooden, who is about to throw you a blazing fast ball. (If you're not a professional baseball player... imagine how that would feel like, the balls wizzing by you.) He likens Lebron putting real defense on you, Michael Jackson letting you sit in on a recording session, all comparable analogies. He also went on to refer to these two guys as lions who are going to try and zip you to an 11 - donut. (Then talk to you about it.) All to say, what I got out of my short convo with Ganim is this... it's the entertainment factor of experiencing the top-level of levels that is happening here. The event is about boosting the level of experience. Imagine hanging out with Federer and Nadal in this way. He calls it entertainment.
It's a formula. And the talk the last two weeks between Kane and Sudsy and others is developing that formula in a way that can be facilitated by two players. Effectively, cutting out the tours all together. Ironically, in a way, this was born out of their experience commentating together at an International Racquetball Tour pro stop recently. Now mind you, this will not cut out competition on a certain level, however those situations will continue to be critically prohibited the rest of 2021, and quite possibly forever, if the intent is to continue on with the status quo of tour operation.
I started on the topic early this year with the 2020 Perspective: Moving Forward post. When I was on Sudsy & Elli w/Scotty Mac, I talked about my thoughts in depth about the operating models of the tours (49:00 minutes in...below). I can also say I've heard different voices on the subject and their views both directly and indirectly online. So, I know this hits a cord on some levels. But the sport seriously needs to start playing more cords and put together a new playlist, because 2021 looks weak, all things considered. I base this statement on looking objectively at all racket sports and what they are working on together as groups.
With Sudsy and Kane changing the game available to them, they have effectively become an instant competitor to the tours. (Back to 3, RIP WRT.) Now, don't get me wrong, technically it may seem like apples and oranges very close up, but not when you look at money, because there is so little of it for tour stops, except for maybe one or two locations where they are flush because of altruistic individuals. Look. Suds and Kane raised over 20k in two days. I initially said they could raise more. (Lucky first group.)
So. Now we are back to three groups looking to raise money for professional events. I won't even mention USA racquetball, because they have enough problems cramming their year-long programming into one event, with mixed reactions still swirling because of the logistical stuff. The truth may be that the Kane-Sudsy Experience has already, probably, re-allocated some money that might have been spent on that event... at the very least, made some people seriously consider it as an alternative. (That may very-well be the case for the next "Experience Event.") All this because they re-thought clinic and tour experiences.
Again. The tours should get together and talk about merging.
I'm going to quickly state some things that, in and of themselves I can discuss at length very easily. When I first started thinking tour merger, it was a direct result of 2020 and the sporting world being thrown upside down with road blocks. While the idea of women's equality is probably the most important aspect that could be brought up regarding this idea, I can simply point to something very interesting. I wrote an article recently, A Quick Close look. I'll assume you took a quick glance and say, Nicol was the number one player at the time the two squash tours merged. She stopped touring full time a number of years ago, but still won this contest. I'm convinced the growth of the tour and the sport's growth in response to the tour's growth, during this time had a lot to do with this. (Yea, that's a mouthful.) This is just incidental though. There's more to this thought.
When the two squash tours merged, all the points that can be brought up about equal prize money and court allotments during pro stops where hashed, discussed and balanced. (Note: Women in squash are earning more money than they were before the merger. You might say that comes with growth... yea, it does. But the tour grew because of the women in some respects. I can think back to my time escorting the Middlebury College Squash team to Nationals one year at UPenn. I remember the Middlebury women's squad was going as a varsity team and the men's team was officially a club team. Thank you Title 9. A situation where lifting up the women, provided the men with a real opportunity. And that's what I'm talking about. Giving the players more opportunity, however it may work.
I will say, I started on this idea of the tour merging organically, thinking through the situation Covid has put us in. (I was dead set against at before 2020.) But it's natural process of thought in response to a time. I looked into what tennis was doing about a week ago, after reading the LPRT's Commissioner statement. Turns out, Roger Federer made a statement that turned the whole of tennis looking at this merger stuff. He was later joined by Rafa Nadal in the merger talk. As has a host of top women's tennis players. Billie Jean King has stated that the WTA has always been the Plan B towards equality, along with a host of other ownership related misses on the part of the women. Google will be my friend here with this. AND, there is talk of looking at the Professional Squash Tour for how to do it right. Crazy. Read here, along with the video I lifted this image from. But it's the sign of the times.
The Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour came into existence after Gigi Rock, former head honcho, was left behind. She created some waves with overt talk of money equality at an outdoor event and found herself pushed out later on the next season or maybe she just left on her own... I honestly don't know. Since then the LPRT has had opportunity to work on prize money equality. If the LPRT is more than just the players, then unless they have an active plan for those players beyond waiting for money to be found for pro stops, with a plan to create opportunity, then it's all moot anyway. It really isn't more than just taking the temperature of the players, sitting down at a table and having leadership ensure equitability during these talks. You already have people on the ground at events that can discern what is best for the crowd and the players with scheduling. Marketing? Well, you can continue to share each others content or reposting of what players are posting, because both don't have much more than that and acknowledging birthdays. Heck, you'll have double the opportunity for content making to build up a tour by entertaining fans... and two teams to break into tasking, which would be basically streaming and on the ground engagement video. As far as the entities that work behind the scenes, at the end of the day, if they are not seeing this as something they should at least talk about, then there may be more to motive or non-pro-player (the product) incentive. Or lack of. Especially if they don't have some sort of for-real, game-changing planning going on.
What are we doing for entertainment in racquetball? Here, entertainment is growth, not the other way around. Because promoting racquetball professionally, is not something a pro tour can hang their money hats on. Or can they? All I know, is that I'll be present at a tour stop in April watching two of arguably the best ever racquetball players run a tour. In Florida.