- Freddy Ramirez
What A Season A Difference Makes
Halfway through this past 2017-18 season I wrote, "With time, all things change and it's clear where the change is coming from." Looking back at the season as a whole, I believe the statement was both right and wrong at the same time. In context, I was pointing to the "Futures Division", which the new ownership of the International Racquetball Tour had begun to incorporate into its events. It seemed to be an active response to the World Racquetball Tour's opportunity for young talented players slant. I now believe that it wasn't so much the "Futures Division" as much as it was the question of where do these young players really want to play. I do think the idea of the Futures Division is a great way to turbo-incorporate a player who has a ton of potential with reward money that makes it easier to attend IRT events, if they're that good. I posted expanded thoughts on that last September.
The swing here is that the IRT didn't have any events the second half of the season that offered the Futures Division, yet, there was no shortage of these types of players making their way into IRT draws. Going into this thought leads me to take into account three things that shook the professional men's climate the second half of the season and is shaping my thinking. I've written a ton on the two-tour climate on the men's side. Having two tours never seemed like a fully sustainable pro environment and one way or another, attrition would work to settle things. We may be seeing the beginnings of just that.
The first thing would be the lack of WRT events. I put this first because it's what is left as the strongest impression. In reality, they had three events since the turn of the year with one of those being a "Challenge Cup" that may not be traditionally rank-able. I believe their season runs for a calendar year, not played between two. Technically, their season is still in mid-season and they may have a good number of events yet to happen this year. But it felt to me like they had "zero" happening while the IRT was rolling through six events during the second half of the season. Again, that's what it felt like. The WRT had a huge draw in January at the Longhorn Open. The Longhorn is the biggest annual event in Texas. So, with maxed out entries and proximity to Mexico, the big draw is not surprising. Then, nothing. I'm aware the WRT's resources are rolled into streaming IRF events but I'm pretty much only engaged with pro touring. And the WRT's relationship with the IRF hasn't seemed to secure pro events for the WRT. The Challenge Cup seemed like an attempt to keep up engagement for those who follow the WRT. But honestly, unless you're really interested in watching those particular players, or a fan at the host club, that event either seemed desperate to create something or some people really want to see those players and are willing to pay for that.
Now, before I get hated on or called out for hating, I need to clarify somewhat. I'm free thinking here (and spitballing,) without the benefit of knowing anything about the logistics, sponsors and local set-up. A Challenge Cup thing could work if there is enough demand to see specific players. Think Dew Tour. If they are "in-demand" then something like this could be quite lucrative for a tour. That is the big ask I have here. Will this be "in-demand"? With 4 players, (in this past case two from the US and two from Mexico,) the cost to secure players is obviously easier. If this cup thing is indeed the thinking, how will they sustain it with an IRT tour that has been packing so much punch with talented players "actively" seeking to play IRT events. So, my gut is asking if this event was thrown onto the schedule with spin to stay busy? Or could the WRT end up transitioning to this format to curb, what looks like from the outside, weaker pro draws? Their last event in Atlanta, while having some key players, didn't draw me in at all after witnessing the second half of the IRT season filled with drama. (Not all "on court" results I'll add.) And still, another thought of the IRT and the WRT working together to build Challenger Cups... nah... let's not get into crazy fantasy-land Freddy.
My second thing is the five different stop champions in the second half of the season for the IRT (with six for the season.) Right off the bat... Kane missed quite a few events. Having said that, I'll note, The #1 year ending points winner, Rocky, played and didn't win one. De La Rosa played and won one. Alvaro played and didn't win. Alex Landa won two in the second half. Add Sebastian Franco and Andre Parrilla both winning their first IRT Tier 1s and you have a seriously interesting win list for the second half. Take a look at these draws and you'll find some loaded big time talent. It seems these young players want to play where Kane reigns and the big names live. No doubt that the Reaching Your Dream Foundation helped to make traveling to these IRT stops attainable for most of these types of players. (And it could also be that they didn't have a choice with no WRT events during this time.) This season was a huge deal for a "new" ownership of a tour that sorely needed new life in the professional tour climate.
My third thing is Kane. Waselenchuk announced he will not be playing next season aside from the US Open. Kane initially was conservative about his reasoning. Depending on who you ask and their particular interest, or their relationship to Kane, or fans with particular views on the sport's most dominant player, there were tons of thoughts and speculations. (The new ownership began its tenure with its stuff all out in the open. And it ended the season pretty much the same way... let's just say Denver.) The situation doesn't feel settled. Not by a long shot. I could be totally wrong and this could be the end of it and Kane may just not show up anymore except for special occasions. His extended absence during the second half of the season did set the field as "opportunity" for players and shook up the new blood enough for new cream to rise to the top. Right now, he is playing the wildcard on opportunity to win IRT T1 events moving forward.
This season felt different as a fan of professional racquetball. Across the board. New ownership for the IRT. IRF focus for the WRT. Whether there is a big change in how the two men's tours keep operating in racquetball remains to be seen. Eventually, everything changes.
A Bit Of A Post-Script
This was my first full season working with the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour. I can say all of my formal interests in racquetball have gravitated to the LPRT, as have my expectations for the sport. It's been a year of rebuilding for the women's tour and I've personally seen what the players as professionals, put into their careers. As a fan, all of it makes it really enjoyable to see the level of competition they bring to the tour. It feels almost personal when I watch them play. Isn't that what following along and being a fan is supposed to be?