Tennis Industry magazine


Climbing the Walls

By Mitch Rustad

While recreational participation for racquetball and squash isn’t monitored nearly as closely as it is for tennis, officials for both court sports say the number of players appears to be rising, along with construction of new facilities. That’s certainly welcome news in the racquet sports business, where savvy retailers and stringers may be able to expand their offerings to include servicing racquetball and squash players.

Racquetball: A Bid to Recapture ’80s Glory

Since the boom of the 1980s, racquetball has endured a steady decline in participation, directly reflected by the membership rolls of USA Racquetball (going from its peak of more than 30,000 members in the ’80s to its current total of approximately 17,000). Like tennis and squash, the sport has lost its market share partly due to increased competition; myriad health and fitness options flooded the country in the ’90s, prompting many fitness facilities to convert racquetball courts into space for more popular fitness trends like aerobics and yoga.

But this unhappy trend has provided USAR with its current marketing strategy as well, according to Executive Director Jim Hiser. “Racquetball players are loyal and renew their memberships over and over,” says Hiser, “so that’s what we now sell to club owners. Racquetball isn’t just a fitness fad, and it’s also a great cross-training sport.”

USAR is already taking this message to the masses, with each local state association doing the majority of the legwork and outreach to area clubs, high schools and colleges, says Hiser. Their work appears to be paying off, as Hiser points to an 11 percent increase in membership in 2004, with about 4.5 million recreational (sporadic) players now in the U.S.

“We’re trying to infiltrate this recreational player base,” says Hiser, “because we have all these players but a relative few are members of our association. They don’t play tournaments, they just play at a club. We’re trying to get that group more involved to help convince the club owners to maintain the courts.”

Hiser says that USAR is placing a special focus on forming local youth clubs and teams in its promotional efforts.”

Though his focus is on the future, Hiser admits he’d like to also take a page from the past. “We’d like to be back where we were in the ’80s, when racquetball was the ‘in’ sport to play,” says Hiser. “It’s a very similar issue for tennis and the other racquet sports.”

Squash: Pro Game, Inner City Programs

Though its bid to be included as an Olympic sport will have to wait, squash is flourishing in the U.S. and worldwide, according to Kevin Klipstein, CEO of the U.S. Squash Racquets Association.

“Overall, I’m still excited, because it’s going to happen,” says Klipstein of the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic Games, which he fully expects to happen in 2016. For the 2012 Games, squash and karate were officially selected (out of five new sports being considered), but then failed to get the two-thirds majority to actually confirm the addition, says Klipstein. “We’re right on the cusp.”

Though USSRA doesn’t keep formal participation numbers, the health of squash in the U.S. can be indirectly measured by the growth of the men’s and women’s pro tours. Though there are a whopping 125 member countries in the World Squash Federation, currently 50 percent of all prize money in the world is paid out in the U.S., says Klipstein. “This is a real growth market for the pro game. We’ve shown we can sustain these pro events and gain sponsorships.”

Recreationally, the sport is also enjoying a commercial club-building boom, especially in Southampton and Westchester, N.Y., Philadelphia, San Diego, and other major markets where fitness clubs incorporating squash courts are on the rise. “There’s definitely court building going on,” says Klipstein.

In Philadelphia, some 20 courts were built in 2004, a “significant” number that also reflects the success of the urban youth enrichment programs being started across the country. “We’re using squash as a tool to advance these kids intellectually and athletically,” says Klipstein, “It combines squash instruction with tutoring and mentoring.”

Youth programs such as Squashbusters ( built an eight-court facility specifically for that program in Boston. In New York City, Streetsquash and Citysquash programs are also building new facilities.

With the health of the pro game, burgeoning youth programs, and growth in the high school and college ranks, squash is looking towards a very bright future. “The sport is very healthy and showing real signs of growth,” says Klipstein.

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About the Author

Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.



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