The Talk Down And Shiny Objects: Why USA Racquetball NEEDS To Hear This
I have to start with this.
If you have ever been in any conversation about the growth of racquetball or the growth of squash, YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS PODCAST. If you're a coach or a player trying to make a living in racquetball, you need to hear this.
USA Racquetball needs to hear this. The planning of their events have been utterly languishing and the backlash by influencers, members and Facebook groups has been palpable. There is screaming for the organization to find a new approach. So, I felt it super-necessary to include them in the title. Maybe it's click-bait. But everyone who spends a significant amount of energy in this space needs to hear this podcast. Like...yesterday.
Eduardo Alvarez, a commercial club owner and consultant based in Toronto, has articulated the problems that have led to club court closures and severely threaten both sports. This is the best layout for the need for a sense of desperation and finding a new approach to growth that I have heard to date.
He mentions SquashMad's Alan Thatcher early in the podcast. He became fast friends when Alan reached out to him and states Alan keeps him plugged into the squash scene. You can find Eduardo's article in SquashMad here. I can relate to his feeling about Alan. I've been communicating with him myself for well over ten years. I consider Alan a valuable contact and we have often emailed about cross-promoting racquetball and squash in various ways, like, maybe getting Rocky Carson or Paola Longoria across the pond to participate in a Squash 57 event or using that game to cross-promote here in NYC and the States. We've traded content for his popular SquashMad site... things like that. More recently we communicated regarding Outdoor Squash at the TrueSquash facility in Maspeth, Queens, here in NYC. (My recent piece, Steeling Squash To Play Outdoor) Alan is tireless with reaching out and building up relationships outside his sport. That, as well as his work with World Squash Day is, to me, very encouraging. (In a time I find very little to be encouraged about.) It's this type of energy and open dialogue that needs to be fostered through the racket sports that require health clubs and private clubs to exist.
In no way, do I feel I can fully sum up what Alvarez said. I wouldn't want to. His approach is from a club/business owner's perspective. But I do want to direct your attention to a few key issues that reflect the positions I've harped on for some time now, as I note some subtle differences between racquetball and squash.
Pickleball (and Padel) Having The Right Formulas For Growth With Ease of Access, Moderate Exercise and Wider Social Inclusion
The diehard racquetball set knows exactly what is going on with pickleball these days. They know how easy and entry-friendly it is. The growth is ridiculous. I would venture to say, without actual numbers in hand, that most diehard racquetball players have tried the game. I see they're playing regularly in groups, events, etc. This is majorly important because racquetball in the US, for the most part, is a sport that relied on parents passing down or exposing the sport to their children. When I hear Alvarez compare today's pickleball to racquetball in the 1980's, it makes me think there may be no way back for racquetball as a popular leisure activity. I mean, people will play now and tomorrow, but no one is going to go out of their way to find racquetball, because it will be all about pickleball.
What's Being Sold: Technical Training, Talent Pathways and Tournaments. Most People Don't Want That.
Eduardo Alvarez talks about the elitism inherent in all the messaging coming out of social media in squash. It's the same in racquetball.The regurgitating of social content about players, pro tours and training is being repetitively hammered in the social feeds of all the organizations. (I'll admit, I've been guilty of this type of thinking.) My blog is littered with build up of players, tours, etc. But I'm a fan mostly. And when I look back, over my shoulder, I don't see fans, I only see the same people I always do.) Alvarez goes on to talk about how having a successful event only facilitates the idea that things are getting better. Racquetball players know what he's talking about instantly. They show up at a big event and there is a ton going on with the "feel goods" but at the end of the day, nothing is different for the club owners. And the idea that people will just play because it's great for fitness is not a fruitful sell here.
Confusing Professional Elite Growth With Viral Growth
At one point later in the podcast, the conversation turns to the success Egyptians are enjoying at the top of the Professional Squash Association. I wrote about the similarities in racquetball with Mexico and South America professional players and their success.
•Squash Article Take: Mexican Racquetball Exceptionalism Is Not So Mysterious He expounds on what that actually means as far as participation in Egypt. I can ask in comparison the question... Is anyone looking at these participation numbers relative to the success of these players in their relative countries?
He further notes a comparison look at college squash here in the US. He looks at the population in relation to how many college Squash players there are here. He notes roughly the US population of 320 million to the roughly 2000 college players throughout the country. Because I view squash as an access point to elite schools for kids in poor neighborhoods, I see the educational squash programs facilitating in this space as a positive for growth. Add to that the legacy and money inherent with these schools, and the successful training endeavors available for wealthy kids, their place in this culture, though not huge in numbers, is sure to remain consistent. Sadly, there is nothing like this for racquetball. The homogeneousness of this group is totally covered up by the success Mexican and South American players are having on the pro tours and the social media feeds reflecting that.
Stakeholders Versus Doing It Yourself
What does the club business need to survive? This is the gist of Eduardo Alvarez's message.
He implores the community to learn about the back end of the commercial club business in order to build viable, stand alone facilities that can cater to the casual interest. We're not bringing anything new to the table. The coaching models do little in the way of profit for most clubs, as Alvarez illustrates. He mentions his search of commercial clubs with courts in the US and highlights LifeTime Fitness as a big player in this space, noting that if you exclude them, there aren't many affordable alternatives. So, as an example, the relationship with LifeTime has to be nurtured. They could, conceivably, in one board meeting decide they won't include courts in any new builds or even decide to convert the ones they have for other activities. My thoughts are that he is on point here and that some truly creative thinking needs to go into the relationships and opportunities currently available with locations like LifeTime.
My Recent Miss At Targeting LifeTime At The US Open Of Racquetball
In early June of 2021, I was on a Zoom call with a three team members from Interactive Squash / MultiBall, a tech startup that has already laid significant inroads with squash training. (I've mentioned these guys in numerous blog posts in the past few years.) The head guy had reached out to me with an interest to discuss racquetball in the United States. I had informed him that I had already been in Zoom communication with two members of his team. I had already been exploring alternative ways to incorporate their technology in a store-front set up.
(My thinking with the store-fronts, being from NYC, was to create a space that would be convertible enough to take advantage of their fun, multi-game/fitness and training platform as to foster continuous monetization with fun and recreation built alongside tennis and racket training in the right neighborhoods. In that, I could include introductory classes where kids could play ten minutes sets hitting balls with various rackets and paddles each time. That would open the door to pointing towards local pathways for the education and participation in particular sports, based on their interest and aptitude.)
During the initial Zoom call, the idea of having a presence at the US Open of Racquetball in October of 2021 became palatable. The event takes place at the Target Center in Minneapolis, home of the Timberwolves and Lynx professional basketball teams. More to this overall point, the event takes place in the large LifeTime Fitness center at the location. That location is a premiere site for LifeTime, if not the company's flagship. The initial idea was that we try and convert one of their permanent, single glass courts with an Interactive Racquetball set up, opposite the main show court. This could have allowed for both an exciting addition to the event as well as a showcase to LifeTime for a potential buy-in.
The next step was that they would try their contacts at LifeTime to facilitate the idea and I would reach out to Doug Ganim, who had built and run the huge event for 25 years. This was to be his last event and he would hand it off to USA Racquetball, settling his retirement from the endeavor. I know the event very well. I also know Doug to be sort of a pragmatist and knew that if I could step in and ensure the project not present itself as a burden to his production, that it would be a win win all around. Doug was gracious and saw the value add of possibility. Some weeks went by with no communication from the Interactive Squash team. They weren't able to connect with Lifetime and the time that could have been spent converting a court had passed. We re-established the group with Doug on the Zoom call. The next logical play was to drop a Multiball Wall inside the player village and Doug was all in. Again, Doug saw the value for the event and opened the door, as long as there was no significant work load added to him and his team.
In my conversations with Doug, I could see he totally understood the opportunity for the Interactive guys. He had spent years building a relationship with the LifeTime and their management. I'll note here that his event is definitely noticed internally at LifeTime Fitness. We were instantly on the same page with programing and logistics, and he was willing to not even mention a sponsor fee for the Interactive guys, something that is worth upwards of 20 to 30 thousand dollars.
The deal fell through. The Interactive guys were knee deep in their financing for their new home Lymb.io systems. Add to that all the great traction they have been laying out in Europe, there seemed to be no money for my expenses for the duration of the production at the US Open. It just wasn't a priority at that time. (One would think, all the work we put in... and it was LifeTime. Sigh.)
In retrospect, I feel they also missed an opportunity to harness some of the young minds working their racquetball hustle. I'm a big believer that players need to rethink how they involve themselves in creating opportunity beyond just being active on social media. I mentioned a group of young, inventive pro ballers in my last post. Do It Yourself Racquetball - These hungry professionals have again taken matters into their own hands and produced a unique event that facilitates audience participation and commerce to influence the outcome of matches, taking a page from the gamer set. I know the Interactive guys have pushed the gamer think hard on the Squash set and everyone else who will listen, in the name of fitness. I can only imagine the upside if there is some sort of play with this kind of energy, into this space with technology and the value-add it could bring to club owners and the casual set.
Build It Now, Because There Is Very Little Left
Last year, I wrote an article imploring USA Racquetball to consider rethinking their non-profit mission and look to build a facility. Twice.
Listening to The In Squash Podcast makes me want to say, pepper the thought "Think like a club owner" on every move. Racquetball would be more user-friendly with the casual-fun set, simply because of the bouncier ball and incorporating available technology to facilitate casual participation would be easier. There are of number a plays here and I'm thinking as I write this... USA Racquetball even has "Fun" and "Fitness" on their logo.
I do know that there needs to be a sense of desperation now. Alvarez describes a state of distraction by those who run and are involved in the sport. I'll take that one step further and say the people who have invested their time and energy in running the sport, seem to be the people least likely to do anything other than run things the way they have always run them, with no progressive thought. It may be some sort of subconscious (or conscious) defense of the position and notoriety they enjoy... shiny objects not withstanding.
Tournaments aren't the answer. Look at the sign-up numbers. Look at the all the event cancellations. I see no onboarding programs to find new players. On the personal side, more and more of my friends are not participating in outdoor tournaments, where I spend my recreational time. It has me feeling the group at USA Racquetball just refuses to substantially move on anything that isn't their way of doing things.
Take early 2020 for example. When it was all about Covid shutdowns, their community was self-engaging in talk about playing outdoors racquetball. World Outdoor Racquetball, who was acquired by USAR for what had been a couple of years already, had already done amazing work to aggregate players and communities across the US. Yet, USAR sat back and just waited, when they could have been mobilizing and fostering their constituents and flooding public courts or to take a term from Alvarez, "organic venues". When the world was looking for outdoor activities USAR wasn't thinking about the potential of putting players on those courts and maybe sparking the kids in the park, or the passerby. They just waited. I stated it was business as usual back in October of 2020. The Year Outdoor Racquetball Was And WOR Wasn't When they realized they weren't able to have any events materialized, then the co-oped 3Wall Ball as a convenience or a let's do this for now measure. But in no way were they diving all in. Sure they had some promotion of it, but again, when there was absolutely nothing else to do. I believe I can say this confidently. Just look at their last Real Racquetball show, where they had to announce that National Doubles, set in February, had to be cancelled. The whole show was a woe to us about Covid shutdowns, yet not a mention of Beach Bash, an event taking place in March. The event was taken over this year by Mike Coulter who built up 3Wall ball and to date, had more entries than their National Doubles event had. No talk about it. No, you can go out and do this. Only the let us know if you can find us a facility thing. Am I wrong thinking this? (I'll note, the WOR portion of the website is STILL under construction.) In light of all this, my having to pay a USAR membership fee to participate in an outdoor tournament makes me want to rethink my participation all together.
The USA Racquetball mission statement reads, "We provide opportunities for members and enthusiasts to actively participate in the sport, through sanctioning of events, administration of programs, and development of competitive teams." It is now even more obvious that the organization is no longer able to provide these basic opportunities in a meaningful manner because of lack of available facilities. I personally feel they are leaning too heavily on Connor Shane, Director of National events, one of the three employees, to do all the heavy lifting of making something happen in the form of a National event. For all intent and purposes, these attempts have turned into vanity projects, to take a term from Alvarez. There is absolutely nothing new being engaged. The USAR constituency knows this all too well and are saying it even more loudly now. Screaming it even.
Maybe I'm talking apples and oranges here with racquetball and squash. They may both be niches that will continue to have set groups relative to other forms of athletic and fitness activities and cultures. In that, I can't speak for squash other than I see real avenues for kids to build their lives around. But racquetball, as a culture, is shrinking fast.
Just as a personal aside...
(This will seem more in context if you've heard the In Squash Podcast linked above.)
I will put "community think" in perspective a bit. I had suggested to my wife to try pickleball this past summer. She went and found a group here in Brooklyn and played religiously for a few months, where I played a handful of times with her. Since then, we haven't been able to go and play. Literally, as I was writing this, we received a package in the mail. A card with an inspiring note, "we missed you on the court" and "can't wait to see you back on the courts", along with a box of chocolate covered strawberries. This... only a few months in. Community. They see us. They care about new people showing up.
To take a line from Alvarez... It could be a sign of a sport in decline when only the people who have invested time and energy into the sport are left. He says the squash set isn't desperate enough. That's an understatement when you look at racquetball. If there was ever a time to be desperate, it was yesterday.