Tennis Industry magazine

 

Courting Other Sports

Racquetball and squash may represent opportunities for your business.

By Peter Francesconi

Tennis has a lot going for it: The sport is growing in participation, equipment sales, “play occasions,” exposure on TV, and pro tournament attendance. But at least two other racquet sports — racquetball and squash — also appear to be finding their own levels. And while they may appeal to a slightly different crowd than you see on a tennis court, consider the potential these customers may hold in helping your business.

If you are a tennis retailer, it may not be too much of a stretch to expand your product line to carry squash and racquetball equipment, too. If you have a tennis and fitness facility, maybe it’s time to convert that fitness room back to a racquetball court.

Racquetball and squash are fast, fun sports that provide full workouts. “There aren’t too many sports you can play in 45 minutes to an hour, get a complete workout, have fun doing it, and feel like you’re competing,” says Randy Stafford, the president of the board of directors for USA Racquetball. “There are long rallies, and it’s very easy to play.”

Racquetball

Racquetball was huge in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was one of the few “fitness” activities out there. According to the SGMA, there were nearly 10.5 million players in the U.S. in 1987. That number, though, steadily declined due to competition from other sports, and courts disappeared to make room for ever-growing fitness and aerobics classes.

“It may have seemed that racquetball was going downhill,” says Jim Hiser, executive director of USA Racquetball. “But it was probably just headed to a level where it should have been all along.”

Now, though, the sport appears to be holding its own. The SGMA says there are nearly 5 million recreational players in the U.S., and Hiser says participation has increased about 12 percent in 2005. “In talking to people at clubs, they’ve noticed more players using racquetball as a cross-training sport,” says Hiser.

Key, too, are programs for junior players and high school players across the country, says Hiser. Also, about 50 colleges promote racquetball.

But perhaps even more encouraging is court construction. “Right now, you have very large chain fitness clubs expanding around the country and building racquetball courts with them,” says Stafford, who is in the court-building business himself. Chains like L.A. Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and others, he says, “are building hundreds of courts. Plus, there are a lot of colleges and universities, YMCAs, military bases, community centers, and more building courts.”

Helping to boost the popularity of racquetball is the fact that different factions of the sport — membership, tournaments, pro tours, manufacturers, etc. — are now coming together under the umbrella of USA Racquetball, much like what tennis went through in the last 10 years. Also, the tour stops are getting more exposure, including air time on The Tennis Channel.

“We’ve done well the past several years in racquetball,” says Ben Simons, business manager for indoor court sports and accessories for HEAD Penn, which supplies racquetball racquets, gloves, eyewear, and Penn racquetballs. “The industry itself has shown some growth in the last few years. And that’s a great help to us.”

And like in tennis, racquetball and squash players are becoming more knowledgeable about their equipment, which may represent an opportunity for savvy specialty retailers. “We see growth of racquetball in pockets around the country,” says Chuck Vietmeier, the product manager for Gamma Sports. “For instance, Ohio is always growing for us.” Gamma supplies strings, vibration dampeners, and replacement grips for racquetballers.

Vietmeier says that since racquetball players have gone to larger-head racquets, “they seem to be breaking more strings.” But also, racquetball consumers are much more familiar with string products in general. “We used to have four to six strings that would say ‘racquetball’ on the package,” he says. “Now, we find we don’t even need to do that, since players are familiar with our specific Gamma lines. We just market the strings in general, not specifically for racquetball.”

Squash

On the squash front, “We’re looking at steady growth, between 5 and 10 percent per year over the last several years,” says Kevin Klipstein, the CEO of the U.S. Squash Racquets Association. The majority of that growth is at schools and clubs, “although not in the usual private club arena,” he adds.

Currently, there are between 250,000 and 300,000 squash players in the U.S., and about 3,500 squash courts, says Klipstein. USSRA membership is about 8,000, which is up 7 percent over last year, he adds.

“Although squash is a smaller sport in the U.S. compared to racquetball, it’s a very important piece of our business,” says HEAD Penn’s Simons. “My perception is we’re seeing growth in the junior and collegiate sections, and in urban types of programs. And that’s great, because it’s longevity for the sport.”

Klipstein says that over the last two years, participation in junior club programs was up 40 percent. “We see our biggest challenge and opportunity in building out play at the middle and high school levels,” he says. Klipstein also says he’s seeing an increase in interest in public-private partnerships in building facilities.

The USSRA, partnering with the National Urban Squash & Education Association, also has a major urban squash education initiative to introduce the sport to inner-city kids and provide squash instruction, tutoring, and mentoring, says Klipstein. Right now, there are five programs, in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., with one soon in San Francisco, he adds.

All this is good news to string manufacturer Ashaway. “The squash business is very good,” says Steve Crandall, Ashaway’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re seeing a consistent 3 to 5 percent annual growth for the last few years in the U.S.

“There seems to be a fair amount of momentum, especially at the junior and intercollegiate levels, that I think creates a market that sort of sustains itself,” Crandall adds. “There seems to be quite a good marketing effort to get young people involved.”

For More Information

USA Racquetball: 719-635-5396 or usra.org

U.S. Squash Racquets Association: 610-667-4006 or us-squash.org

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About the Author

Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.

 

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