So, This Is What An IRT-WRT Merger Looks Like
Dylan Pruitt and a few friends made their way to NYC for a weekend of authentic New York-styled One Wall Racquetball. I knew Dylan only through Facebook postings where he shared his enthusiasm for the One Wall version of the sport.That Saturday, I spent a short time playing with Dylan and against him. I found him to be respectful and genuinely interested in One Wall. So, when I saw something about him facing Troy Warigon in a very early round match at a Tier 5 IRT event, I'll admit, I was curious.
That's because I also know Troy Warigon. If you have spent any amount of time at pro stops, chances are you know Troy. And if you know him, you know the personality he carries with him always... this kid knick named me Freddy-Bonez. Why? I have no idea and yet it somehow fits. Check out the Wintergreen Final and you'll hear what I mean.
So, when I saw something online about them playing each other in an early round match-up, again I'll say it, I was curious. I've seen them both play, (albeit in different scenarios,) and know both of them, both from short encounters. More than enough info to make me go out of my way on a Friday to catch the International Racquetball Tour's live stream of a Tier 5 event. A Tier 5. Let that sit. I'll come back to it.
If you've read this blog through the past years, you know I've written a ton (and I mean a ton,) about two competing men's professional racquetball tours, when that was a thing. I'm speaking of course about the IRT and the World Racquetball Tour. To make this story short, Pablo Fajre, who was the President of the WRT is now the Director of Streaming and Satellite Events for the IRT. And again, to make this story short, Pablo had a drive to introduce new, dynamic players to the world of professional racquetball.
Pablo, along with IRT Director of Broadcasting, Dean Baer were brought in by some smart people to stream the 2021 Wintergreen Classic Pro-Am, a Tier 5 event that wasn't on the IRT's schedule, (at least on the website). I believe, it was a good call, by whomever, because there were some notable names participating in this Tier 5, that highlight where I'm going with all these thoughts.
Interestingly enough, the next day had another similarly curious match up. I noticed Joe Kelley was playing Lalo Portillo, a notable young professional and the number one seed at this event. Now, my knowledge of Joe is a bit more comprehensive than either Dylan or Troy. I know Joe mostly through playing One Wall. We connected a bit more when I drove to his brother's house, deep in New Jersey. He and his twin brother Sam literally built a legit racquetball court in Sam's backyard. They were cool enough to let me give it a look. (See video below. You'll want to watch their matches too.) So, I was interested in seeing how Joe would do against the young, yet still seasoning Portillo.
(Joe and Sam Kelly Build A Racquetball Court.)
That match ran me into another match that was super interesting to me, especially when I tuned in a bit later and noticed the score. The number three seed Mario Mercado was playing Momo Zeleda, the number six seed in this draw. And I gotta admit, I had seen Momo play before, but the way he was waxing Mario, (sorry Mario,) who is a well-seasoned professional, I figured he's either that good when he gets hot or he and Mario maybe train together or play each other often. My reasoning for this is that Momo is a well-experienced journeyman. But in his case, I'd have to add, that he is a type of personality that has carried racquetball over these last ten or so years.
Let me explain a bit. I first met Mario Mercado when RYDF founder Mike Lippitt, graciously hosted me at a WRT event years back. I had already been very familiar with the WRT because I had spent a good amount of time with them at the beginning of their inception when I spent a week on the Gearbox Bus. (The trip is well documented among the very first articles on this platform.) Mario was the reigning World Under 19 champ at the time and being touted to me by Lippitt. The WRT was beginning to have their door revolve with players like Mario, who eventually found their way to the IRT. I further got to know Mario, who is a super respectful and likable young man, in various scenarios over the years on the IRT. I also had the chance to play against him at Beach Bash. So, I've watched a bit as Mario progressed as a professional.
Momo Zelada, on the other hand, is a special type of pro player. He's an archetypical, grinder-entrepreneur in racquetball. Momo, who is over 30 now, was 25 when I mentioned him in a piece where I talked about ways racquetball is being grown. (Read Growing Ways...) At the time, Momo was, as I described him, "a mini cottage industry". He was grinding on his touring bus that he was financing by hosting players, making deals with manufacturers and hawking his Formula Flow brand clothing. Today, he's at it with the bus again and this time, he's introducing a new racquet, a prototype of which he used it to spank Mario. (Sorry Mario.) And I say, why not? He wouldn't be the first player to intro their own racquet. I can't say I know Momo very well, but we always seemed to have a healthy mutual respect for one another. That for me is more than enough to warm me toward wanting to see him play Mario.
Momo lost to Sebastion Franco in his next match, though his play was not quite as tight as it was against Mario. Sebastian Franco, interestingly enough in the context I'm presenting, may have held the record for most event wins on the WRT, until maybe Alex Landa syphoned that stat off. (Research it out at ProRacquetballStats.com) Sebastian also and incidentally, took out our boy Dylan in this draw. My experience with Franco, interestingly enough to me, is nearly identical in scope, as is my experience with Mario Mercado. They have both also traversed that WRT revolving door.
Now, as I look at all the players that had me interested in watching this Tier 5 event, I noticed I had a type of close knowledge of them related to how they travel in racquetball. Also, I can see why I watched Sebastian's Final. Franco is normally a Top 10 player and Tier 1 semifinalist, but I wouldn't normally be interested in seeing him play in a Tier 5 Final. But, I did find it interesting because I did know something about Lalo Portillo. (Man, how effectively can this kid use his reach?) What I know of Portillo, comes from what I gleaned from conversations about his potential, plus I've seen a few videos of him talking up racquetball, along with some other quirky type videos of his that have crossed my view at one time or another. There it is. Close knowledge. Or at least, close enough.
The way I see it, Pablo Fajre could, on some level, be feeling pretty satisfied right now. My take is that, he practically hand picked players to tour on the WRT and many of them turned out to be every bit as good as he predicted. And, he's set up to continue in a manner not far removed from the one he set out with when WRT was conceived. That's if, his vastly different team can figure out how to be light on their feet and disciplined enough to film short videos the day before events, as they move forward.
My advice. (I offer up as though I could help myself.)... I heard during the broadcast that the IRT stream team could be accessed by tournament directors for a reasonable cost. I agree with half of that sentiment. It doesn't take much nowadays to put together video and produce it regularly. Just discipline. Imagine if the stream team could show up to Tier 5s, 4s, 3s, etc., a day before to video-shoot players. Preferably, the ones the tournament director would most likely want to feature at their event. They may be local players. But that is where the gold may be. Smaller tournaments in Mexico or anywhere within view. Make videos of local players before the event, preferably anywhere outside the club if possible, maybe some notable location in that city. Simple. Hyper-local. Shareable. (Close knowledge.) And ask yourselves, how much more traction can you offer to your sponsors on personalized videos like these? (Yo, Favio.) Do this enough times and securing sponsors in Mexico or wherever for these videos, makes almost too much sense. Offer up sponsorship opportunity by making any event open to one-time sponsors who want to support the "stream team" for any particular event in your portfolio. You can also package them in various ways. Build on the fact, that your current crop of top-level professionals players are coming from Mexico and South America.
If the IRT, with Pablo firmly entrenched on the team, can frequently travel to lower tiered events on a sponsor's dime, it could open the door for more opportunities for players, especially if the IRT is creating short videos that the players can themselves share. (That's a space your sponsors are currently not accessing.) Chase events. Just be there. Tell me about the players the organizers are really going through all the trouble to promote. As I remember things, offering up professional opportunity for promising young players was the drive behind the WRT in the first place. But only now, there is access to Kane and Rocky, as well as a slew of highly-developed former WRT players.
So, This Is What Outdoor Racquetball Looks Like.
It seems Outdoor Racquetball is booming and it's being led in good part by women who are passionate for what outdoor events present in the way of bringing competitors and friends together. Outdoor Racquetball as a sport is incredibly lucky to have people like Amie Lebrun Brewer and Carrie Hoft, as well as, the many people who are connected with their outdoor events. Amie and Carrie, along with Maddie Melendez (I see you,) Mike Spiro and a crew of friends, hosted The Capital WOR Championships, at Stratton Woods Park in the DC-Virginia area. This has been their 6th year putting on this event. It's become very popular with outdoor players all along the East Coast. It's great to see people like this working so hard on these events. It makes me bullish on Outdoor Racquetball.
Next stop for me: