Southern Exposure: The Migration Story of Talent Development

Southern Exposure: The Migration Story of Talent Development

Southern Exposure: The Migration Story of Talent Development

By Tim Landeryou

In 1960, Puerto Vallarta was a small fishing town on the pacific coast of Mexico with a population of about 15,000 and little tourism outside of adventurous backpackers. Today, the coastal city boasts a wealth of tourist attractions, delectable dining options, and a burgeoning population of 275,000. Certainly, location played a key factor in PV’s development as a top tourist destination. Still, it took much investment, financial, and otherwise, by many interested parties to get it to where it is today. In many ways, racquetball’s popularity and talent development have followed a similar path, introduced to small Mexican and South American populations in the 70s and 80s, and invested in heavily, leading to a veritable takeover of the sport by these countries from historically dominant USA and Canada.

There is no doubt that the production and nurturing of young talent and the future of professional racquetball has moved south. Historically dominated by Americans, the major events on the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) and International Racquetball Federation (IRF) schedules are experiencing a refugee-like influx of Mexican and South American players. This southern shift was perhaps best illustrated at this year’s US OPEN, where not a single American player made the quarterfinals; a first in this tournament’s storied legacy. Kane’s dominance and current US residency aside, the sport has become dominated by Mexico and South America. What prompted this change? Why has the popularity of racquetball in North America waned in its historic home while simultaneously exploding in other countries? I was curious myself, and decided to dig deeper into the origins and development of these “racquetball factories.”

Much like pickleball today, racquetball’s origins were born out of a desire for something different. Invented by Joe Sobek in the 1950s as an alternative to tennis, racquetball gained fanatical popularity in the US, with approximately 3.1 million individual players by 1974. This number peaked at over 5.6 million in the early 1980s. This large and dedicated participant-fan base supported arguably the richest and most competitive pro tour in the sport’s history. Generous prize purses and lucrative endorsement deals supported a slew of professionals, fortunate to be able to focus solely on racquetball as a career.

Unfortunately, racquetballs frenzied race to popularity took on the qualities of a sprint rather than a marathon, and participation numbers (along with endorsement dollars) began to decline in the late 1980s. There is a myriad of contributing factors to the decline of the sport in popularity during this period, but most, if not all, likely fall under the umbrella of vision and sustainability. Clubs, which historically housed several or more courts, began conversions to “Fitness Clubs” with owners either selling to corporations or re-purposing court space for weights, aerobic machines, or other fitness equipment. Lack of sustainable programming, especially geared towards youth and schools, contributed to a break in participation continuity between the players/fans of racquetball’s heyday and their children/grandchildren. A major outside sponsor for the pro tour also remained elusive, which put pressure on manufacturers to support players directly, amidst a shrinking market and declining profits.

Racquetball’s meteoric rise to popularity was not contained within the continental US; military bases, traveling enthusiasts, and U.S.-based businesses introduced the sport to countries around the world. In many, popularity took hold even more frenetically than in the US, so much so that organizations were created to begin planning for international competitions. The International Racquetball Federation (IRF) was founded in 1979 by 13 charter federations to coordinate these contests as well as manage global growth and development opportunities for the sport. The budding organization did not waste any time either. Just two years after its inauguration, the first World Racquetball Championships was held in 1981. The sports mother country was still by far its most dominant, and this led to the USA hosting the first several versions of the event until it’s 4th iteration in 1988, which was held in Germany. 1987 also saw the inaugural hosting of the Tournament of the Americas (TOA), now called the Pan American Championships (PACs). While this event was also held in the USA, the sport’s popularity had clearly taken hold in other countries, as it was held in the US only once more in the next 32 years.

The TOA began as a showcase of North American talent, with the US dominating medal counts for close to 20 years. However, it also brought elite racquetball to countries whose fledgling programs were still in their infancy, as well as provided opportunities for countries with developed programs a litmus test for their athletes’ abilities against the best players from established countries. In providing sport exposure and promotion, the TOA certainly succeeded. In its first 12 years, it was hosted in 9 different countries, many of whom at the time had programs in their infancy. Every country except for two, have now won a gold medal at either the PACs or World Championships.

Though the sport may have been born in the US, it’s coming of age story on the world stage mirrors that of college grads and retirees with a bad case of wanderlust; exploring the far reaches of the globe and finding niches in which to adventure. In particular, the tropical climates of Latin America seem to have provided an ideal nursery for the sport to settle and thrive. Fledgling programs of the ’80s are now well-established bastions of talent development, and in the wake of waning participation in the US over the same period have taken the mantle of responsibility for producing and developing elite players. The migration south in these two areas is hard to argue. At the most recent US Open Racquetball Championships, not a single American-born player made the quarterfinals for the first time in the event’s storied history. The writing of this eventuality, perhaps, was already on the wall. A cursory review of results from the Junior World Championships showed that while there have still been individual champions, the US team has not won a title since 2010 after decades of dominance. On the adult side, the last combined team title was captured at the 2014 World Championships.

Any migration story is likely to involve the southern neighbor, and this one is no different. The sports first stop on its southern migration was Mexico, whose proximity to the US and large population created an ideal breeding ground for the sport’s growth. Early adoption, ease of travel to American events, and interaction with the elite players there provided Mexican athletes a tangible advantage in their development over other Latin American countries. Mexico was also one of the original 13 charter federations of the IRF, and competed in the first World Championships, World Junior Championships, and Tournament of the Americas. The country was quick to show its talent development abilities, capturing its first World Junior title in 1991 when Luiz Munoz took gold in the boys 16+u division. This fueled the growth and development of the junior ranks, and by the mid-1990s, Mexico had established a healthy rivalry with the USA in junior boys’ competition. The country continued to improve and had a breakout year in 2002, capturing 5 of the possible 10 gold medals (4 boys, 1 girl). This ushered in a period of Mexican dominance at the Junior World Championships, which saw the boys’ and girls’ teams collect four or more combined medals every year until 2010, and three or more gold from 2010-2018 (except in 2013).

These successful junior campaigns provided notoriety for individual players, coaches, and clubs as well as helped secure funding from private and public sectors, ultimately serving to grow the programs. Larger programs provided additional competition and higher quality training, eventually distilling talent and galvanizing the development of the country’s elite squad. Less than five years after a record six medals at the 2004 Junior World Championships, Mexico earned its first international team title at the 2008 Pan American Racquetball Championships (PACs), taking gold in the men’s and overall team competitions. The country never looked back, and from 2008 to 2018, it captured the Combined Team Title at every World Championships, PACs, and Pan American Games save three. The team also swept at the 2010 and 2011 PACs and 2011 PAGs, where they won the Men’s, Women’s, and Overall Team Gold.

Racquetball, today in Mexico, is well-known, with the Federacion Mexicana de Raquetbol (FMR) receiving support from the government to facilitate the development of the sport at the national level. State associations promote programs and athletes in their area, and municipal governments may also provide support either to programs or directly to athletes and clubs. Many of the elite junior and adult athletes will also have private sponsors to help specifically with training and competition expenses. The most obvious example of lucrative private sponsorship has to be Paola Longoria, the winningest Mexican player and most successful female player of all time. In true GOAT fashion, she has leveraged her popularity and success to sponsor stops on the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT), thereby supporting not only the future of the tour itself but the next generation of young female players as well.

While Mexico became arguably the most successful country outside of the USA and Canada on racquetball’s international stage, several countries adopted the sport successfully and have developed a solid field of elite athletes over the years. Venezuela became the first country outside of the USA or Canada to capture a Junior World Championship title when Fabian Balmori won the boys 16+u division in 1989. The country was never a perennial contender but secured several international medals in the 1990s and 2000s, perhaps the most impressive of which was their silver medal in Men’s Doubles at the 2011 Pan American Games. The Dominican Republic, as one of the founding charter federations of the IRF, also enjoyed some early success at the junior level, with phenom Claudine Garcia capturing the first Gold Medal for a Caribbean country in 1992. Other countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Colombia have had limited success, but several impressive podium performances over the years, indicative of small but effective development programs. Ricardo Monroy echoes this sentiment: “The competition is now bigger, there are no easy wins, and the level is very even.”

If Mexico wears the crown of most dominant racquetball country over the last decade, the country with the best chance to dethrone it – if not having done so already – has to be Bolivia. While somewhat late to the party – the country’s national sport governing body, FEBORA, was not established until 1982 – Bolivia made up for inexperience with enthusiasm and innovation. In similar fashion to Mexico, things began slowly, but quickly accelerated once athletes tasted international success. Bolivia’s first gold medal at the Junior World Championships came in 2006 when Maria Jose Vargas captured the Girl’s 12+u title and less than ten years later; the young upstart country was dominating the way Mexico had a decade earlier, capturing five gold medals in 2014, 2018, and 2019. Former national team member Ricardo Monroy garnered the country’s first adult gold medal on the international stage after winning the Men’s Open Singles at the 2010 PACs. When asked about support for Bolivian athletes, he said it was quite limited during his career: “Support was always from family, after a while the federation would pay for airfare, but family always paid for most of the trips.” This was confirmed by current national team athlete Roland Keller who says: “In my city (Santa Cruz) the only support we receive is airline tickets to tournaments and some physiotherapy. It is very limited from the national government.” Most athletes, Keller advises, are supported through sponsorship from private companies, and the amount of support changes with results.

Governments in Bolivia appear to be more focused on investing in infrastructure and programming, with new sports complexes built in 7 of the country’s nine departments and free training at the facilities for youth aged 8-16. FEBORA’s goal of “everyone in the country can play this sport” certainly seems to be going well. The sport is now second in popularity only to football, and the national team brought home the country’s first-ever PAG Gold Medal from the Games in Lima, Peru, in 2019. Bolivia’s #1 player Conrrado Moscoso, fresh off his victory at the Bolivian Iris IRT Grand Slam event, was the country’s flag bearer at the Games. The recognition and notoriety are perhaps foreign concepts to those of us used to racquetball being treated as a fringe sport.

The young talent is so abundant in Bolivia, and several top players have elected to represent other countries in international competition. The largest recruiter thus far has been Argentina for whom 3 Bolivians play under their banner between the junior and senior national teams.

Looking at the countries and circumstances that have produced great racquetball talent, similarities begin to emerge. Whether it was the US and Canada in the 70s and 80s, Mexico in the 90s, or Bolivia in the 2000s, the most common element was culture. The sport was simply ingrained in people’s lives. Whether that was a family afternoon out at the leisure center or court club, afterschool lessons with friends, or getting tickets to watch the big final match on the weekend, the sport was simply a part of life. Culture and popularity led to support from the public and private sector, growing infrastructure, and deepening the integration. Activities that children and families can enjoy together develop sports communities. Skills are learned, friends are made, and opportunities present themselves that are increasingly rare and exceptionally unique.

This is perhaps the most influential factor in the sport’s health across various countries; where are kids playing and thriving? It’s no secret that in the USA and Canada, the family clubs and court facilities of the 70s and 80s have mostly been torn down or repurposed in favor or fitness equipment or corporately owned facilities with unfriendly policies towards kids. Clearly there are places in the world where racquetball is not only surviving but thriving. What lessons can be gleaned from its history here as well as its migration southward? Will the rivalry for the next decade be between Mexico and Bolivia or will another country step into the fray? While the future of racquetball in the US seems uncertain, uncertainty has its advantages! We have two powerhouse countries locked into what could be a long-term rivalry, which is extremely exciting and, Kane excluded, one of the most profound and competitive eras in sports history. It’s comforting to see the sport so wholeheartedly adopted and developed by new corners of the world, even if bittersweet that it’s not being done at home. There may be many things to gripe about with respect to racquetball, but there are a lot to be thankful for as well. Personally, I’m choosing to look on the bright, sunny, southern side.

Governments in Bolivia appear to be more focused on investing in infrastructure and programming, with new sports complexes built in 7 of the country’s nine departments and free training at the facilities for youth aged 8-16. FEBORA’s goal of “everyone in the country can play this sport” certainly seems to be going well. The sport is now second in popularity only to football, and the national team brought home the country’s first-ever PAG Gold Medal from the Games in Lima, Peru, in 2019. Bolivia’s #1 player Conrrado Moscoso, fresh off his victory at the Bolivian Iris IRT Grand Slam event, was the country’s flag bearer at the Games. The recognition and notoriety are perhaps foreign concepts to those of us used to racquetball being treated as a fringe sport.

The young talent is so abundant in Bolivia, and several top players have elected to represent other countries in international competition. The largest recruiter thus far has been Argentina for whom 3 Bolivians play under their banner between the junior and senior national teams.

Looking at the countries and circumstances that have produced great racquetball talent, similarities begin to emerge. Whether it was the US and Canada in the 70s and 80s, Mexico in the 90s, or Bolivia in the 2000s, the most common element was culture. The sport was simply ingrained in people’s lives. Whether that was a family afternoon out at the leisure center or court club, after school lessons with friends, or getting tickets to watch the big final match on the weekend, the sport was simply a part of life. Culture and popularity led to support from the public and private sector, growing infrastructure, and deepening the integration. Activities that children and families can enjoy together develop sports communities. Skills are learned, friends are made, and opportunities present themselves that are increasingly rare and exceptionally unique.

This is perhaps the most influential factor in the sport’s health across various countries; where are kids playing and thriving? It’s no secret that in the USA and Canada, the family clubs and court facilities of the 70s and 80s have mostly been torn down or repurposed in favor or fitness equipment or corporately owned facilities with unfriendly policies towards kids. Clearly there are places in the world where racquetball is not only surviving but thriving. What lessons can be gleaned from its history here as well as its migration southward? Will the rivalry for the next decade be between Mexico and Bolivia or will another country step into the fray? While the future of racquetball in the US seems uncertain, uncertainty has its advantages! We have two powerhouse countries locked into what could be a long-term rivalry, which is extremely exciting and, Kane excluded, one of the most profound and competitive eras in sports history. It’s comforting to see the sport so wholeheartedly adopted and developed by new corners of the world, even if bittersweet that it’s not being done at home. There may be many things to gripe about with respect to racquetball, but there are a lot to be thankful for as well. Personally, I’m choosing to look on the bright, sunny, southern side.

1 Comment

  • Larry Varnick, December 30, 2019 @ 12:05 pm Reply

    It’s a shame that’s so many clubs have chosen to repurpose there racquetball courts in favor of fitness areas. We probably only have ourselves to blame as we have not what is necessary to perpetuate the sport. There is nothing going on junior high school or High School level. There just is not enough exposure to racquetball at this point to bring young people into the game. I agree this is a sport that you can play your entire life. I don’t know what the answer is to revive this in the United States, but it’s really something that we need to find a way to do. I for one have been playing for many many years and have won several state titles and have played in the US OPEN.

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