Will The Last Player on The Courts, Please Turn Out The Lights?

Racquetball, once a king of the court with close to 14 million players nationwide, has dwindled drastically in the 21st century, leading many to wonder where it has gone.

As seen in the movies Along Came Polly and Splash, in the 80s, the racquetball court was the equivalent of today’s local Starbucks. It was a place where people would get together with friends or colleagues to discuss business and personal matters while getting some endorphins pumping. Unfortunately, just like leg-warmers have gone out of style, so too has the sport that once ensnared the country.

This has left the remaining players and fans the daunting task of keeping the sport alive by encouraging new players to join, keeping the courts from being converted to other uses and persuading old players to return from their self-induced retirement. As the old saying goes: “easier said than done!” It has become such a difficult undertaking that many small clubs and concerned individuals have turned to larger organizations, such as the United States Racquetball Foundation (USRF), for advice and suggestions.

Racquetball court converted to SPINCLASS

The United States Racquetball Foundation is a non-profit organization that is focused on promoting the sport of racquetball and ensuring it not only survives but thrives in the future. By encouraging players new and old to pick up their racquets they believe they can revitalize the sport so that it will be around for generations to come.

Although the USRF focuses on the big picture of the future of racquetball, that does not mean they have forgotten about the small local racquetball communities. Sports are not solely enjoyed on a national level — they must be fueled by the small-scale clubs, which is why the Foundation devotes much of its time helping local clubs and leagues increase their membership.

The Foundation recently received a plea for help that touches to the core their passion for ensuring the future of the sport of racquetball. This letter pushes all the hot-buttons of why the USRF was founded and why the founders are so passionate about their mission. Here’s the letter and our response:

Dear US Racquetball Foundation,

I am an avid, 63-year old, recreational racquetball player who is concerned about the dwindling number of local players. The town I live in has a decent population of about 60,000. It is a university town, which would lead one to think that it was ripe with opportunities and prospective members. As it turns out, any college students who play don’t join the local club, seeing as they can play on campus for free.

Your website states that your vision is to "ensure the future of racquetball;” this common goal is what prompted me to write you. I was wondering if the USRF has any suggestions or could provide assistance to the program staff of the local club at which I play.

For the past twenty-five years, since 1974, I've been playing the sport three times a week at the local club, which has four courts. My club offers a racquetball league, of which I have been a devoted member. That all changed when fall came around; for the first time, the club did not have enough players sign-up to have a league. It was astounding that only two guys signed up: me and my thirty-year-old son! That’s not so say that there are only two players in my community; there are maybe twenty regular players in town, but most don’t participate in leagues.

What further distressed me was when I came across an old list I had typed up about fifteen years ago with the names of players I could call up for a quick game. Of the twenty names on that list, only four are still playing. Some moved out of town, so I am hopeful that they may still be playing elsewhere, but most stopped playing due to age, injury or switching to other athletic activities.

It seems that the popularity of the sport is declining because there are hardly any people under the age of forty playing. The few younger participants that I know play because they have a mother or father that plays; my son is a prime example. Regardless of the fact that the number of players has lessened, the local club still runs a successful city tournament in March, although numbers have dwindled there too. The tournament used to take three days but because of the concerning lack of players, it can now be completed in two.

Anyhow, yesterday I was chatting with the Program Director at the club; we were racking our brains, trying to think of ways to breathe new life into the local racquetball scene and of getting the youth involved. To be frank, we weren't coming up with any brilliant ideas. It was then that I decided to email your association to see if you have suggestions or can assist those of us at the club in our endeavors. My guess is that this is an issue that is not only occurring in my town but is happening on a national level.

Thanks,

A Devoted Racquetball player

 

Our Response:

Dear Devoted Racquetball player,

Thank you for your eloquent and poignant letter “Will the last player on the courts please turn out the lights.” It states the essence of why the United States Racquetball Foundation exists!

We’re a dedicated group of long-time players who are committed to ensuring the future of racquetball through comprehensive long-term planning, proven sustainable fundraising models, and transparent business practices. We’re determined to strategically develop grassroots racquetball participation throughout the United States.

Currently, we’re undertaking several operations to encourage new players. Last spring, the USRF awarded our first grant to Life Time Fitness with the intention of introducing 5000 new players to the sport of racquetball, via 1200 free clinics open to all comers, over the next two years. We’re also supporting an on-going juniors program, and had a fabulous opportunity drop in our laps in conjunction with the UnitedHealthCare US Open on October 1, 2013. The USRF sponsored clinic that was free and open to the public (limited to 30 juniors) on the Stadium Court. Rocky Carson and Rhonda Rajsich, along with other nationally-ranked top pros and coaches, stepped in to support the juniors and the USRF!

Furthermore, our Member-Donor Andrea Hartman has expanded our efforts to involve the students in a “Taste of Racquetball,” at a free event for juniors, at the Plymouth Creek Athletic Club; our first event was held this September. In conjunction with Life Time Fitness, Andrea also initiated “Discover Racquetball” for students ages 6-17 which will be part of the Wayzata School District Community Education.

We’re gaining pertinent information/data on what works to obtain and retain players of all ages and levels by tracking the success of these programs. We intend to provide templates to smaller clubs to help increase their membership. As you can probably guess, the speed that we can implement our many ideas for ensuring the future of racquetball is dependent on current players recognizing the problem, and moreover, being willing to do something about the problem. If you’re willing to join like-minded players, we’d be grateful if you helped us with some of our current needs.

First, we need volunteers to get the word out that not only do we know we have a problem but we are a group of people dedicated to giving our time, energy and treasure to solutions - we’re very serious about making a lasting difference.

Your skills can also be put to use in other ways. If you’re an excellent writer, we have opportunities for our website, Facebook page and other social media outreach. Would you like to help us out with this writing, and see your passion and message being passed on to others?

Fundraising is also a large portion of our current needs. We’re a 100% volunteer organization, and need money to fund grants to build up our number of players and to raise an endowment to provide future funding.

Lastly, we need people to spread the word about our organization and give us feedback on the programs we’ve initiated. We need people to sound the alarm and make us aware of what sounds like a rather desperate situation that we’re hearing from all over the country. If you’re willing to take on any of these opportunities, we’d be overjoyed! Even though you’re just one person, you can instill the love of racquetball into many others.

I don’t want to see another racquetball court converted into a spin class, Yoga or Pilate’s studio. I do have hope that within my lifetime I’ll see the return of the vibrant racquetball community I experienced in the past, and will easily find players in my own age category! In order for this resurgence to happen in the sport we so love, we can ill afford to have any more courts being converted to alternate uses!

Thank you so much for contacting us and sharing your story. 
Sincerely,

Kathleen Klukas, USRF Executive Director