Racquetball In 2021 And New Thinking
I'm through being directed by pre-2020 hopes and ambitions for racquetball. I say this because racquetball's (and everything else's) pre-pandemic definitions for success now feel like a con game. I'm done being conned by those definitions of success, that in all honesty have been pushed on us by comparisons and the success of other niche sports. The play for me moving forward, is to work to be comfortable, as I want the best for all things racquetball across the board and then I'm planning on loving on my racquetball people as often and as well as I can. End of story for all things post 2020.
If you're a die-hard racquetball fan, you know the hopes, ambitions and desires I'm talking about. You know, those stereotypical ideas that have gotten thrown around in online posts for a decade, that usually end up casting a negative view on those who are facilitating the organized parts in various ways. Thoughts like, Why racquetball should be on ESPN and isn't. Or racquetball is dying as a sport. I know based on my over ten years of continuous work and the recent conversations I've had with facilitators and those involved with marketing and retail, that people will continue to buy racquetball racquets regularly. As with anything else marketable, you have highs and lows. Racquetball will never be what we were conned into thinking it could be for us. And I'm ok with that. But I know racquetball will always be something that brings people together. It's all in the how and why that we can all move forward with great enthusiasm.
Here we are nearly 6 months into 2021 and I'm seeing that there are some things that aren't going well at all for racquetball. Sports in general pushed hard into 2021 as pandemic recovery has leagues and sporting event directors getting creative about continuing on with competitions. Things seemed to be getting better for most sports. Going into 2020 however, racquetball in general was already feeling the heavy hand of inoperability that has faced club owners with racquetball courts. Covid effectively crippled racquetball events as they have existed. Yet, fingers-crossed hope has allowed organizations to push on with scheduling across networks of possible locations, that for all intent and purposes, will never again be capable of hosting these types of events. And looking at 2021 moving forward, "Would even want to if they could?" seems like a valid question.
Can I see the glass please?
To date, both the International Racquetball Tour and the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour both have had one event each. Looking at the rest of 2021, the IRT has six event scheduled and the LPRT has three lined up on their calendar.
I'll note that both tours share two Grand Slams that are independent events. So, I see the true number of events for the rest of this year for the IRT and LPRT as four and one respectively, when I look at it in terms of internal-tour-event-development. Fair I believe, if we are talking business models.
USA Racquetball National Events:
The USA Racquetball re-worked National Championship (all-in-one) "Festival" sifted into cancellation and all "real" hopes are now on the US Open, for any hope of national participation this year. They have however, conceived a work around for putting together the US National Team together. A necessity in action, even if it is a forced accommodation on any American player that has hopes of serious international competition. Also, I want to note that Erik Garcia graduated this year. I think it's pretty significant in retrospect.
This is what I know about what's going on with the International Racquetball Federation... Nada, as far as info regarding tentatively scheduled events, that aren't being promoted in my view. In all honesty, I'm really not looking at this with interest yet.
The Kane And Sudsy Experience:
I'll add The Kane And Sudsy Experience here, which is facilitated by racquetball's GOAT Kane Waselenchuk and socially-dynamic, 5-time World Champion Sudsy Monchik. I include this under Professional Tours because my personal experience with The Experience tells me that these two professional players, are providing specialized tour event experiences to die-hard racquetball enthusiasts, in a super-charged way and their events last 3 days as well. It was at this event that I saw hyper-specific engagement, as it relates to being face to face, elbow to elbow in the club with the best players in the world. This is the exact thing that drive benefactors. They have another one coming up in July and are tentatively planning another before the end of the year from what I gather.
Still trending up due to circumstances with clubs and to some great work by people promoting the game in various ways. Randy Root comes in again to prop up racquetball in an official capacity... the Team Root Outdoor Nationals Championships at Marina Park in Huntington Beach everyone. Interesting for sure, considering his crazy generous lean toward the LPRT and his substantial assistance to USA Racquetball last year. I'll note, World Outdoor Racquetball is still sort of viewed through a haze for me. But I see Todd Boss working the landings online and old reliable Bill George (love you bro) aggregating info. Add to that some growing grass-roots energy that I'm actually feeling, as I see similar energy that WOR experienced in the early days.
I want to note something of significance, and I may be the only one who cares, but there has been absolutely no action by USA Racquetball to continue the WOR HOF. I understand the issue with the Elkins family with all heart, yet it's going on the second year that the considerations have not been addressed by the WOR committee. USA has had no issue continuing the Hall of Fame. This should be no different if they believe what they say. I think it may be time to address this situation.
We Are Not The Only Ones Working On Specific Problems, We Know This
Post pandemic rebuilding is happening. It's no secret I look to Squash often. I do this because as a professional sport, none is closer to traditional racquetball and yet, fluid enough to see comparable opportunity and direction that haven't manifested in sports like four wall handball. The squash set galvanized through 2020 going into 2021 in terms of addressing the resulting shutdowns and bringing people around the globe together to address these on shared on the ground issues. This international effort to revive their game touches on many topics comprehensively, including related items like moving forward financially with club owners around the world.
If you have interest in these specific issues, like I do, please take the time to view this episode of Under The Tin, with guest Zena Woolridge, President of the World Squash Federation. I'm noting some of these issues specifically and addressing some of them, relative to where I see racquetball below. It's still very important to understand the environment comprehensively, for those charge with facilitating racquetball at its highest levels. But remember what I started with... we have an opportunity to define success for ourselves.
Under The Tin - Episode 6 - Zena Wooldridge - President of the World Squash Federation
Notable moments I see here:
9 MINUTES IN:
What are we doing particularly well?
• Compliments PSA for keeping the investments they have made, i.e., presentation, OTT platform, etc. (In a sense, John Scott was right after all.)
• Parity with men and women after merger.
• How they were able to continue events safely, creatively, new relationship with Infront. This is all high profile stuff but they had to work through fundamental issues.
I hear Woolridge talk strategy on the professional side here and how it provides clear direction in the community. If it doesn't feel like the whole or most of the group is heading towards a strategy, you don't have one. Nothing puts that in better context than a thriving professional tour. Talk to Doug Ganim, who will be running his final US Open for USA Racquetball this October. Ganim will be the first to say, it's all about the pros for popular growth.
Above video: Match play from the UnitedHealthcare US Open of Racquetball
Here is where I have to look back on my feelings about the pro tours. The organizations are behaving exactly the same manner in their efforts to produce events and showcase their efforts. Competitive event building involves professional participants contributing monetarily to the pot. Both tours are operating with benefactors that allow them to continue operations for each event and of course, the nicety of live-streaming.
A merger or a comprehensive joint venture of some sort still rings low hanging fruit here for me when it comes to finding new energy to produce events. (They have to ask themselves, what are the efforts being put forward to find money to internally produce events? Because if you identify a possible club that has overcome Covid restrictions, you can access them with your own money.) A new ground work of energy could move people into new roles and creative ways to produce presentations and this is key - with what you have. I believe TJ Baumbaugh would be an excellent First Woman to ever Commish professional men with her understanding of the court politics, when it comes to ranked access to prime courts and rules governance. I say, there is an opportunity to structure event offerings that maybe pair down professional draws in favor of having both men and women as event-type options. Logistical costs can be managed well if your first thought is to consider producing new ground work in presentation. One group streams. One group produces content.
New groundwork in presentation is disciplined content production, plain and simple. That is probably the number one way, after hosting quality events, to support your professional players with their professional careers.
I sometimes reach out to Pro Racquetball Stats guru Todd Boss every now and then when I need very customized stats or inside info on anything pro racquetball. My inquiries mostly manifest in the random email, that historically turn into a detailed conversations over a number of days. It was no different this past month when I reached out to Todd. I wanted to know the percentage of international players making up the pro tour events over the years, which take place mostly here in the US. (I find it interesting that he is somehow always one step ahead of my thinking, because he was literally working on the data to make it accessible on ProRacquetballStats.com when I sent the email.) I was interested to see these numbers because aside from the Tournament Directors and/or sponsor with the right amount of prize money, plus the little on top for travel for tour staff, someone has to pay entry fees, travel and expenses for traveling players.
With the precarious nature of the international racquetball competitions, who knows what will happen to some of the funding for these players, because a few lucky ones receive government funding to travel to the US for professional events. And think of the players who have to fund themselves, they are tour investors when you think about it, along with any player who pays entry fees into a pro draw. What are the tours doing to invest back aside from live streaming main court matches and sharing social tweets. Quality tournaments are important for an aspiring professional's success. Too few of them leaves a tour with very little they can do to support their prime reason for being.This another of the many reasons I believe merger talk works now. Think about it, if a traveling player spends their own money to get to your event, and they don't make the main court, the only proof they have of their hard work is on an R2 page. Again... Direct a new ground work of energy to showcase them as a part of the combined-pro tour's major priorities. Also, change the season to a calendar year. (Just spit-balling with this last sentence now.)
Back to the above video.
30 MINUTES IN:
WSF President Woolridge mentions various business models between the UK and USA and mentions philanthropy. Let's quickly look at some things here first. Both squash and racquetball have relied heavily on philanthropy here in the states. I often equate philanthropy with legacy, in that true philanthropy is meant to build ideas and structures into ideas and structures that can eventually stand alone or operate sustainably.
Culturally, racquetball became huge for clubs in the 70's and 80's as fitness was becoming more culturally incorporated into peoples lives. Racquetball had gained numbers as this aggregated people in these spaces that became more generally populated, bringing kids. So, racquetball had about two solid generations of kids I would qualify as "legacy" players, as parents who played together started bringing their kids to the club. Legacy is quite a different thing for squash, with its ties to Ivy League and elite colleges. Programs like Street Squash around the country, that are tied into the Squash Education Alliance, have over the past two decades produced a deep well of motivated legacy players, so, for me Philanthropy here is almost apples and oranges. Philanthropy in racquetball is mostly money for events generally. And this is where I believe USA Racquetball seriously needs to rethink.
34 MINUTES IN:
• "Who's role is it to be helping the clubs figure out the business model?
Well. This is where I think USA Racquetball should adjust their mandate a bit. I'll acknowledge that their whole model is based on event participation, that drives membership. USA Racquetball has acknowledged the need to address the fading club environment nationally with The Future of Racquetball committee. Note this example.
I quote, "Wanda and Brian agree that having someone (ideally an employee who is accountable for results) dedicated to managing court utilization, aka programming, is essential. To leave this to chance means a missed opportunity to use your courts and facility to create a third place* culture at your club, i.e., a place beyond home and work that feels like Cheers (where everybody knows your name). That’s a future article..." <sigh>. Future articles are all you got on this.
While working together with handball and writing articles for industry magazines can be somewhat helpful, I see this type of stuff more symbolic than productive. Club owners have an incredible amount of choices when it comes to filling and monetizing their spaces. This is how USA needs to raise money to better operate in next generation environments. Virtual training and gamification will be how many club owners will monetize space. This is something racquetball is well and I mean "well" behind.
Look at what happened this year with USA Racquetball. They did the best they could with countless man-hours trying to find suitable venues and planning when they thought they might have caught a break with the National Festival idea. But things went the way they went and there was still a dire need to figure something out for US Team qualifying for international play. I know I've said this before, but build. It may be time to temporarily shed programing down to only looking to international qualifying events as necessity and build some courts. Tech them out and show potential club owners the value these build outs can generate. Take that beautiful US Open show court and plant it in a building, with room for some traditional court build outs, maybe using just glass in a huge open area.
• The idea here is, you'll always have a place for qualifiers that is progressively thought out enough to allow for camera access to creatively showcase the sport in all its athletic glory.
• The idea here is, you can demonstrate the flexibilities these technologies offer in terms of multi-use spaces that draw people in ways that are engaging enough to produce real revenue.
• The idea here is, that if club owners see the value of being able to transform a true racquetball court into a soccer practice room for kids that has them kicking or hitting balls to trash aliens and at the swipe of a phone app can turn that space into a virtual training session linked up to USA Racquetball national courts for clinics or virtual competitions.
• The idea here is, with this tech, the cost saving alone versus ideally hiring an employee who is accountable for results dedicated to managing court utilization, aka programming would be a huge incentive to club owners.
• The idea here is, get with the guys who are experts at this already, I'm positive they will work with you.
I'll leave my thoughts here for now and point to the love.
I do feel a ton of optimism when I see certain things happening and the energy some people are bringing. I'm glad to see such focus on outdoor racquetball events being shared by racquetballers online. People doing outdoor and holding on dearly for traditional racquetball. The people. I occasionally point to people I see, that inspire me in some way or another... (just check out my vids to know what I mean.) I'm gonna offer up two now.
When Sudsy Monchik abdicated his voluntary role as USA ambassador a communication void was left. Real Racquetball was started with Sudsy facilitating in mind, and has become standard operating procedure, along with all things Zoom-post lockdown. My first thought was Mike Wedel though likable, was gonna have a hard time generating energy. I don't know how they got Maurice, whether he offered himself up or someone said "Hey..." but USA is lucky to get this dude. From what I can tell, Maurice Miller is a sweet-heart of a guy who is intensely competitive. Always smiling and just cool. He's a top Open player, that represents in large-part who USA should be targeting now.
Erica has been promoting the shyte out of outdoor racquetball in Northern California. She brings the energy and growing numbers over there prove it. She reminds me of to so-many individuals I've grown to admire all these years with WOR. She was the first new spark outdoors months back as far as I can tell. Kuddos to her, because yes, she has inspired many others to get involved building events outdoors this season and her energy is helping to grow the established ones even now. Kuddos to Erica.
There are a few more people out there that I am following and I'm hoping to get together with you guys sometime down the road. I appreciate you.
I'm hoping this is taken the right way. Like I said in the beginning, my play is to not fall for how success has been defined for racquetball by anything pre-2020. I'm also gonna try and stay in a place where I'm comfortable saying what I say, doing what I do and making a point to find people who are on the same page.