US Satellites Thrive, Expand Into Top Tier Action
The number of men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) Satellite events has been steadily growing over the past five years, featuring 61 stops during the 2014-2015 schedule both within and outside United States borders. “Satellites are a great way to expose professional racquetball to cities who don’t get a chance to view the pros too often,” said #5-ranked professional, Jose Rojas.
Adam Karp, former pro racquetball player and current IRT Vice President of Event Development, said the Satellite Tour was designed for two purposes. The first is to allow lower ranked players the opportunity to play higher ranked players without a qualification process like at Tier 1s. “It kind of lets these guys test themselves against the best and see if they can compete,” Karp said.
Rojas won the Tier 3 Lou Bradley Memorial Pro/Am over #9-ranked Charlie Pratt in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in February 2015. To qualify for that final against Pratt, he had to face up-and-coming players Jimmy Crawford, Ryan Ratchford and Brad Hansen. “It’s humbling to be able to give the amateur players a chance to play against the pros,” Rojas said. “One thing is to watch our matches from outside of the court, and the other is to actually be on the court against us. So the fact that they get a chance to compete makes it fun for both players.”
The second purpose is to start filtering some of these satellite events into bigger and larger Tier 1 tournaments. “The IRT has been designed to give tournament directors access to hosting an IRT event of any size from a one day shootout to a Grand Slam event,” Karp said. “This provides an opportunity for tournament directors, tournament sponsors and tournament players to realize the excitement of an IRT professional event. Many of these tournament directors and their sponsors have used this excitement to grow the event each year and some have been able to grow small tournaments into full Tier 1 IRT events.”
The largest tournament in the nation (excluding the UnitedHealthcare US OPEN Racquetball Championships Grand Slam) is the Longhorn Open, a Satellite pro stop that fulfills another criteria as a fundraiser for the University of Texas at Austin Racquetball Club. Event organizers note a focus on customer service and competitive matches while also sending the team to the Collegiate National Championships each year. Around 325 participants compete annually at the Longhorn Open and the waitlist has reached 70 or more entries the past three years.
“The main goal here was to build a collegiate program and to have it be viable from a financial perspective and just a general interest perspective,” Soly Kor, Longhorn Open Advisor and Fundraiser said. “All we had to do was create a recipe for a tournament that everyone wanted to play and that was it.”
Although Kor and the Longhorn Open currently have no plans to expand the tournament to a Tier 1, the trend toward transitioning from a satellite is evidenced by several new Tier 1 tournaments this year. “We’ve been having success with Satellite events growing each year, but this season has been incredible,” Karp said. “We had three previous satellite events make the exciting transition to full Tier 1 professional stops with great success.”
The Krowning Moment Pro Invitational and Bobcat Open 30 minutes away in San Marcos made the transition to Tier 1 status this season and raised funds for the Texas State University Bobcat Racquetball Club. The tournament also received support from top ranked Austin native Kane Waselenchuk, ProKennex and the IRT to help the Bobcat team purchase new equipment and travel to tournaments including the Southern Collegiate Racquetball Conference Championships. The Krowning Moment Pro Invitational and Bobcat Open also marked the return of professional top-tier racquetball to Texas after a hiatus of more than 10 years.
The Turkey Shootout in Garden City, Kansas also evolved from a long time satellite in November of 2013, the Shamrock Shootout in Lombard, Illinois in March 2015 and the Summer Kick Off Pro-Am in Fresno, CA became the newest member of the Tier 1 pro stop club, closing the 2014-2015 racquetball season the last weekend in May, 2015.
So how does an event make the transition? Dan Jaskier, President of Glass Court Swim & Fitness Club wanted to do something special for the 30th anniversary of the Shamrock Shootout and to honor his mother who passed away seven years ago and previously operated the club. He garnered 20 sponsors for the first IRT Tier 1 event in the Chicagoland area since 2009.
Jackie Regan, the Chief Operations Officer of the Garden City YMCA, emphasized having a core group of supporters help fund the transition. “Once we got the ball rolling and we got some prize money coming in a lot of the local players that own businesses said, ‘Yeah’ I’ll help out,” Jaskier said. “It was a really nice gesture by them. These are customers that have played in my tournaments year after year after year.”
In Garden City, IRT President Jason Mannino and John Scott of the IRT Network approached former YMCA Health and Fitness Director Stacy Crase about making the Turkey Shootout a Tier 1 tournament a couple of years ago. “She [Crase] really embraced the tournaments. The Garden City Turkey Shootout in fall and the Carl Myers in spring really took off under her care,” Regan said. “She built relationships with people and really got those going big…So we went to some of our donors and we went to our convention & tourism bureau and got funding there to bump it up to go Tier 1.”
Both Jaskier and Regan are optimistic that both tournaments will be mainstays on the pro Tier 1 tour. “These two tournaments are proof, that with enough hard work, Tier 1’s are possible to attain from satellite events,” Rojas said. “These satellite events give those tournament directors who are on the fence about pro racquetball, a chance to at least view a few of the pros and see all of the action. I think one day, these satellites will have no other choice but to create Tier 1’s because they are naturally going to be compelled to watch the best racquetball players in the world.”
Photo of Jose Rojas from the 2015 Shamrock Shootout & IRT ProAm by Juan Martinez.
By Eric Mueller
Eric Mueller started working with the IRT after joining the 2014 UnitedHealthcare US OPEN Racquetball Championships Media Team, where he garnered coverage for top racquetball pros and amateurs in their hometown media while also helping to provide updates to the racquetball community during the tournament. With a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, Mueller also brings experience in sports reporting and news writing for newspapers like the Pioneer Press in St. Paul as well as the Southwest Journal and the Downtown Journal in Minneapolis. He has also worked in marketing for the St. Paul Saints professional baseball team and for Gopher Athletics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Mueller currently works as a Public Relations Intern for the Chicago Bandits professional softball team.