The IRT’s dilemma: boosting men’s professional racquetball with limited budget
As Kane Waselenchuk — the undisputed greatest racquetball player ever — makes history with a more than decade-long run of crushing opponents, the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour ought to be basking in the national spotlight. But racquetball remains a niche professional sport, wrestling with growing pains like a start-up venture — constantly seeking financial support to expand its market reach. And there’s only so much money available from a limited pool of sponsors, often small- to medium-sized businesses, to help finance Tier 1 tournaments, which draw the top 10 players who wow crowds with amazing kills, gets and rallies.
Asked to grade the Tour, IRT President Jason Mannino gave it a “B,” but he has high hopes for next season with possibly 12 to 15 Tier 1 stops. “Next season it looks like we’ll have a robust schedule,” he said. “This year, we had a couple of cancellations that were beyond our control.”
Waselenchuk sees the IRT Tour caught in a catch-22: If there was more money, top players could be promoted better at more Tier 1 tournaments to help boost interest in the sport.
A positive aspect is that professional racquetball is healthy as far as talent, said Waselenchuk, the 12-time UnitedHealthcare US Open Champion who just completed the 2016-2017 IRT Season undefeated — never losing a game (87-0) and winning seven Tier 1 titles. (He skipped one Tier 1 tournament because of flu.)
“We’re kind of in a transition,” Waselenchuk noted. “It’s the beginning of a new era with a lot of international influence. When I’m at the pro tournaments it just seems in general that there’s a lot more players from other countries, South America and Mexico, and then there’s a few from the U.S. and Canada.”
The IRT’s top-ranked players include #1 Waselenchuk, #2 Rocky Carson and #4 Alvaro Beltran, who are all in their mid-to late-30s — considered ancient in most professional sports — but they don’t appear to be retiring anytime soon. Right on their heels is the next generation, in their early to mid-20s: #3 Daniel De La Rosa, of Mexico, and the Rojas brothers, #5 Jose and #7 Markie, both of Stockton, Calif., and #6 Jansen Allen, of Rice, Texas.
Waselenchuk isn’t worried about the competition, though. The last time he felt “overwhelmed” in a game was when he was still a teenager facing Cliff Swain, a two-time US Open Champion. He laughingly described how he walked on the court and he was “star-struck for a second.”
After they both warmed up, Swain — a racquetball legend — was first up in the server’s box. “He hits me the serve and I was like ‘holy crap.’ I had never seen anything like this before,” Waselenchuk said, noting he lost that game 11-1. Swain lost the second game, but ended up winning the match.
Undeterred, Waselenchuk was driven to succeed, partly because he came from a family with “not a lot of money”— at times relying on charity organizations in his native Canada. He wanted the freedom of having money to afford things he liked. Now, he sees that same sort of “hunger” from a lot of the players from Latin America, where governments, such as Mexico, financially help support racquetball players.
“I think the game is growing internationally faster than it’s growing in the United States for whatever reason — maybe marketing, maybe just overall support from athletic clubs,” Waselenchuk said. “You see a lot of athletic clubs taking out racquetball courts.”
He noted that gym operators have to be educated about racquetball players “who are pretty much loyal and they’re there at certain times, all the time.”
Marketing in general also needs to improve, according to Waselenchuk. “First of all, it’s one of those sports that you have to see live,” he said. “You don’t have the same appreciation for it if you don’t.” Though matches are available online on the IRT Network, Facebook and YouTube, Waselenchuk notes the camera angles mostly show players’ backs as opposed to other sports where you can see athletes’ faces.
“We give that angle in racquetball all the time and we’re like whatever,” Waselenchuk grumbled. “I think that technology has helped as far as clarity in being able to see the ball but we struggle — it’s tough to see. That four-wall glass court is phenomenal. I love playing on it. But I think we need to experiment with making it a little bit more TV-ready.”
He suggested using a technique that squash uses where there’s a film on the wall so players can’t see out but viewers can watch. “Just try it,” he said. “This is what I don’t understand. I don’t really feel like we’re trying to change anything. And we’re not trying to take those risks. We really got nothing to lose. But then I can also turn around and say it costs money and we don’t have money.”
Mannino takes issue that not enough is being done to market the sport. “When I took over the Tour in 2009, we had 980 Facebook fans and now we have over 15,000,” he said. “Our database was right around 1,000 and now it’s over 38,000. Those are the things I point to when I look at our growth.”
While the IRT Tour hasn’t grown a lot on the financial side, it has grown a tremendous amount in terms of reach — being able to get racquetball in front of so many more people, he added, noting the international market, especially in Latin America, has come alive to deepen the talent pool of the IRT Tour.
In a nod to Waselenchuk’s point, Mannino — a two-time US Open Champion — said: “Sure, the marketing could be better. If we had an unlimited budget, it would be. But we market the best we can with the budget we have. And I think we’ve done a tremendous job. … What other industry in the last seven years has grown 15-fold in their reach?”
While financial support for the sport remains a vexing issue, the IRT Tour likely will remain a viable enterprise thanks to the passion of those who champion men’s professional racquetball.
By Jim Medina
Jim Medina is an award-winning journalist who got hooked on racquetball at the former Dan Gamel’s Racquet Club in Fresno, CA. A graduate of Fresno State, he now lives in Oxnard, CA. He is an A-level player striving to raise his game with the help of a thriving racquetball community at LA Fitness in neighboring Ventura. He is a media consultant who can be reached at [email protected]