Racquetball: Alive and Well- by Luke St. Onge, Secretary General, International Racquetball Federation
I have been involved with the sport of Racquetball for 44+ years now and have lived through the days when many gave up on the sport, calling it a fad. I am happy to share with you that Racquetball is definitely alive and well.
Many things have contributed to the popular belief that the sport has gone away. However, based upon the latest Sporting Goods manufacturing figures, there are over 4,000,000 active players in the United States with a core of 1,250,000 who play up to 30 times per year.
I’ll provide a little background for those who are not familiar with how the sport was born, how it has grown, and where it is today. This brief history does not address everything that took place…
The sport began in the early ’70’s and was an outgrowth of handball. Robert Kendler actively promoted racquetball, along with handball.
Racquetball caught on with multitudes jumping in to build courts and trying to capitalize on the latest fitness fad. Many, many private clubs were built with little understanding of how to make a profit. There is no question that overbuilding was occurring.
It was reported at one time during this period that there were over 14 million players. No such figures could be substantiated. Chuck Leve of Racquetball magazine conducted a survey and, based upon the number of courts that existed as of the early ’80’s, there would have to have been 500 players per court. No possible way!
A new industry was born mostly on poor information. At the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Convention held in New York in 1978, there were 256 Racquetball displays. The following year after reality set in, there were fewer than 70.
Indeed, there were clubs that did make money. But as time went on and the revenue per court reached maximum potential, owners looked to diversity. The National Court Club Association merged with the North American Tennis Association and became the International Health and Racquet Sports Association (IHRSA).
Several other factors changed the landscape for Racquetball.
There was a major recession in the early ’80s that affected disposable income. Would it be spent on recreation or family needs? Family needs naturally won out.
Somewhat controversial was the industry’s move to market to the Big Box Retailer and deemphasize the Club Pro Shop.
Significant turnover at the club level resulted in managers and owners who did not understand the sport. Opportunists jumped in and promoted whatever was the latest and greatest thing for which 800 square feet of club “real estate” could be utilized. The Racquetball industry did not react to this threat, and by the late ’90’s, no one other than the United States Racquetball Association (now USA Racquetball) was promoting the sport to club owners.
Despite all of these issues the sport continues have a place in the Fitness Industry:
• Racquetball and racquet sports have one of the highest retention rates of members in a club.
• Racquetball, promoted properly, returns a much higher return per square foot than Fitness.
• Racquetball has a built-in player pipeline coming from well over 1,200 universities that offer racquetball clubs, courts, and courses.
In the United States, USA Racquetball (the sport’s National Governing Body operating under the aupices of the United States Olympic Committee), several key manufacturers and suppliers, and three professional tours (two men’s/one women’s) comprise the backbone of Racquetball.
USA Racquetball, in partnership with its state associations and independent tournament directors and clubs, sanctions over 500 competitive events annually. National Singles and Doubles Championships are offered as well as events for Junior, High School, and Collegiate players. The US Open of Racquetball, heralded as the sport’s premier event, takes place each October. The US Adult and Junior Teams compete alongside numerous other countries at their respective World Championships.
USA Racquetball’s continuing strategy for the sport’s growth involves outreach and support to clubs and universities, retention of competitive players, and strengthening connections with recreational players. The continued health of Racquetball will be directly connected to success in bringing the sport to the next generation and beyond.
As an example, Life Time Fitness, operating in the US and Canada and based out of Minnesota, employs racquetball programmers in many of its locations. These individuals provide instruction, coordinate leagues, and organize both formal and informal events. In fact, the aforementioned US Open is competed at several Life Time clubs in Minneapolis. A strong Junior program in Minnesota has contributed to Life Time being named as the site of the 2016 USA Racquetball Junior Olympics in June 2016 that will determine the members of the US Junior Team who will compete in Mexico this November.
Internationally, Racquetball is booming in North, Central, and South America, with significant development in Asia as well. The International Racquetball Federation (IRF), connected to the International Olympic Committee, strives to support a growing number of developing countries on every continent. It offers several events each year: the IRF World Seniors Racquetball Championships (age 35 and above), the IRF World Juniors Championships (ages 10-18), and, biennially, the IRF World Championships (adult elite level).
Indeed, racquetball has to be able to generate revenue opportunities for clubs that provide the field of play (courts) and program accordingly. The sport can and should be a viable part of the Fitness mix — a lively pursuit that affords a calorie-burning, competitive, social, interactive, fun, never-boring experience. If a club backs up its significant real estate investment (courts) with an experienced employee who will concentrate on optimizing that space, the result will be loyal members and increased profits.
Many clubs have made the decision to “re-purpose” court space in an attempt to bring something new and different to the attention of its members and potential members. Often, this re-purposing results in making the court no longer playable as such. The fact is, if that space can remain viable for racquetball and perhaps also be utilized for paddleball, wallyball, handball, and even a version of basketball, the “new and different” can be brought to the forefront for players who haven’t yet experienced how much fun and fitness can be discovered in a 20x20x40 area!
Luke St. Onge began playing racquetball in 1972 and became a Board member of the original USA Racquetball in 1977. In 1978, St. Onge became CEO of that organization and served there until 2001. He then became a club manager as well as Secretary General of the International Racquetball Federation (IRF) that fosters the international development of the sport, serving over 70 country federations under the International Olympic Committee. The IRF offices are located in Colorado Springs, Colorado.