Tennis Industry magazine

 

Expand your Racket

By Mary Helen Sprecher

Hey, remember us? We’re those other racquet sports. You know, racquetball, squash, badminton — even ping-pong. Sure, tennis has been getting all the attention lately, but we’re growing, too. In fact, in the same SGMA report that showed tennis as the fastest growing traditional participation sport in the country in the last eight years (up 43 percent), guess what sport came in second? Racquetball, up 11.6 percent in participation since 2000.

Even more significant, the SGMA reports that in the last year, total r-ball participation is up 18.1 percent, squash is up 15.5 percent, and table tennis is up 7.8 percent. The SGMA says this is “statistically significant growth,” by the way. Even badminton participation is up 2.6 percent in the last year. And badminton and table tennis are already Olympic sports. (Squash was unsuccessful in its most recent bid to the IOC, but it’s only a matter of time.)

You may not have on-site pros in these sports, so here’s what to do: Form a relationship with one of the manufacturers, and ask them to send one of their team members to hold a demo day or a clinic. Keep some loaner equipment around for people to use. And by all means, keep encouraging them. Why? Because it’s good for your bottom line. If you get enough interest, your pro shop will be making more because players will need racquets, stringing services, shoes, clothes — you name it. Doesn’t that sound like a win-win situation?

Racquetball

Steady, Realistic Growth

A funny thing happened to racquetball at the height of its popularity. People forgot about it. The baby-boomers (the most enthusiastic players in the 1970s and 80s) drifted away from the sport.

Okay, not so funny. But look at what’s happening now. The prodigal players have returned. The boomers have turned into boomerangers, and they’re looking for courts, partners and equipment. Even better news? They’re not the only ones. Racquetball is on the rise. The bounce-back, say industry insiders, is because of two playing demographics.

“You’re seeing college-age players,” says Jim Hiser, executive director of USA Racquetball, the sport’s national governing body, “and you’re seeing those people who used to play, who are now saying, ‘You know, I really enjoyed racquetball.’” The return of the older player is a boon for clubs. Once a player joins the club, he or she usually finds not just the courts, but also other amenities, including exercise equipment and personal trainers.

“Well, you know what they say,” says Ron Grimes, president of E-Force. “65 is the new 45. People want to keep playing.”

Courts: New and Used

Terri Graham, business director of indoor racquet sports and paddle tennis at Wilson Racquet Sports, links the growth of racquetball to the colleges and universities that are building multi-million-dollar wellness facilities to help recruit students. “Those centers have beautiful racquetball courts. Most of those colleges offer racquetball as a credit course. You can take it for an easy credit, but people are learning it’s fun, so they keep playing through college.”

As a result of returning players, clubs are seeing a demand for racquetball courts again. When the sport fell out of favor during the 1990s, many courts were used for aerobics and weight training. Now, some facilities are getting requests to bring back the courts.

The demand for racquetball is also resulting in new construction. Two corporations in particular (Lifetime Fitness and L.A. Fitness) put racquetball courts in each new facility constructed. And that, says Doug Gamin, indoor promotions manager of Head/Penn and director of the U.S. Open Racquetball Championships, is a recipe for success: “It’s an amenity the club can add, and it requires very little upkeep and costs relatively little per square foot. There are also proven statistics showing that clubs offering racquetball have better member retention.”

Boxed In

The enthusiasm of manufacturers and officials, however, is guarded. There are obstacles to growth, including a lack of public facilities. “Accessibility to courts is a big challenge,” says Ben Simons, senior business manager for racquetball and accessories at Head/Penn. “You have to be a member of a club to be able to play.”

Graham also cites a lack of full-time (or even part-time) racquetball pros in clubs. That, she notes, translates into inertia. “Some clubs have this idea of ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Well, no, they won’t. They expect players to show up without instruction. If you can ask a club manager, ‘Do you have spinning? Do you have aerobics?’ They’ll say they do. Then you ask if they have an instructor for those, and they’ll say ‘Of course.’ Bingo: You can’t expect any program to grow without someone there to get it started.”

Another problem is keeping players after college. Recent graduates often do not make enough money to afford athletic club memberships, and they stop playing. A lack of racquetball professionals with celebrity status (think Venus and Serena) has also hindered visibility.

Women and Children Next

Manufacturers agree that there are two markets in particular that are not being addressed: youth (the pre-college age group) and women. Racquetball remains a predominantly adult sport (few public schools have courts, and many clubs do not allow children to play because of insurance regulations or safety concerns). It is also a predominantly male culture. Grimes estimates that 85 percent of players are men.

Why the lack of women? Pick a theory, any theory: Racquetball is an aggressive game, whereas tennis (particularly doubles) tends to be more strategy-oriented and social. Many women who are returning to fitness after raising children are seeking lower-impact workouts. Other fitness concepts have been marketed more effectively to women, including aerobics, yoga, Pilates and spinning.

Graham says Wilson has worked to address the two neglected markets with new product lines. For the youth market, it introduced a SpongeBob SquarePants-themed starter set, containing a racquet, balls and eye guard. The line did not do well commercially, she notes. However, the company also unveiled its Hope line of racquetball equipment, designed for women, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. That line has had widespread acceptance among recreational players.

Bouncing Back Up

Despite the threats, however, the sport is making gains. It may never reach the near-obsessive craze it enjoyed in its heyday, but in its place has come steady growth that manufacturers believe is more realistic.

Scott Winters, vice president of indoor court and paddle sports for Prince, says Ektelon (Prince’s racquetball division) has seen a spike in sales of beginner equipment packages, an indicator of new players taking up the sport.

“The period where courts and clubs were being overbuilt, and where you had racquetball-only clubs, that’s gone,” says E-Force’s Grimes. “But racquetball itself has staying power.”

USA Racquetball: usra.org.

Squash

Outreach and Increased Play

With all the talk about tennis and its upward swing, clubs may be overlooking another racquet sport that has been quietly growing in popularity. Thanks to new urban outreach programs for middle school children and other initiatives aimed at bringing in the new generation, squash is poised for a comeback and defying its old stereotype of an upper-crust prep-school pastime.

To Kevin Klipstein, CEO of U.S. Squash, the national governing body for the sport, youth enrichment programs like SquashBusters in Boston and SquashWise in Baltimore are an idea whose time has come. The programs, which recruit disadvantaged or at-risk children from public elementary and middle schools and teach them the basics of the game using donated courts and equipment, also teach good sportsmanship, social learning and the value of hard work, academics and community service.

And – surprise – they grow good students, not just good athletes. The SquashBusters website notes that 24 students began their program in September 1996, and “that first team graduated from high school with an 84% matriculation rate to four-year colleges.”

In Baltimore, the Meadow Mill Athletic Club began its own outreach program in 2007, working with students from a local public school. “I want to help kids get an opening they never had,” says Peter Heffernan, director of squash at Meadow Mill. Other cities with urban squash programs include Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, New Haven, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Diego. The National Urban Squash and Education Association (NUSEA), formed in 2005 to promote outreach efforts, offers grants to new and developing programs.

Getting people interested in playing squash means physically getting them onto the court. Many clubs offer free clinics for adults. “If people just have the chance to play, they get addicted,” says Steve Hall, who manages Dunlop’s squash division.

Hall uses squash ball sales as a barometer for the growth of the sport, and says that those sales have increased. Dunlop, he adds, is evolving to meet the needs of the outreach market. “From a product side, we’re looking at things that will play down to a more beginning level of player. The market is growing for cheaper racquets, so we’re putting more emphasis on introductory and junior products.”

Hitting the Wall

One of the problems facing squash in the U.S is the lack of municipal courts. Another is a lack of clout. Squash has yet to be named an Olympic sport, although it came close in 2005, and despite a concerted effort this time around.

Then there’s everyone’s favorite villain, the economy. “The 2008 U.S. Squash Open couldn’t be held,” says Klipstein. “We were running into real problems from a sponsorship perspective.” U.S. Squash is now planning the next U.S. Open, which will include both men’s and women’s championships.

The lack of money being put into squash programs trickles down to a shortage of space in clubs. “I think some private clubs do not focus on squash because they can generate more revenue with other fitness programs,” says Philip Laird, president of the Massachusetts-based Architectural Resources Cambridge, which has designed a number of squash facilities. (After all, a squash court can accommodate two players. A spinning studio? A lot more.)

Having fewer courts has led to many clubs’ reluctance to hire a full-time (or even part-time) squash pro. No formal programming means no way to bring in new players. In addition, essential aspects of squash have changed over the years, causing rifts in the sport’s community. The ball itself, and the dimensions of the court changed. Singles squash has been emphasized and taught more than doubles; as a result, limited doubles facilities remain.

There are, however, things that haven’t changed at all, according to Doug Whittaker, head squash pro at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. The sport, he notes, “has the best workout known to humans and it’s very social. Some would call it legalized warfare: you against the opponent.”

It is those things that are unique to squash, according to Klipstein, that make the sport strong enough to survive its challenges. “Anecdotally, you get a feeling that once people try squash, they’ll stick with it. I expect us to catapult in the next year.”

U.S. Squash: www.ussquash.com

National Urban Squash and Education Association: www.nationalurbansquash.org

Badminton

Growing on the Competitive Level

If your only image of badminton is the backyard game you last played as a kid, brace yourself for a paradigm shift. After all, this is an Olympic sport we’re talking about, and in that arena, the shuttlecock can move at speeds in excess of 200 mph. Sure, it’s still played on a recreational level (with plenty of picnic pick-up matches still taking place), but on a competitive level, it’s also growing in popularity. Quietly and steadily, it’s growing.

“If you’re not in the sport, it doesn’t feel like it’s there, but really, there’s this whole competitive nature out there that people don’t know about,” says Terri Graham of Wilson Racquet Sports.

Officials at USA Badminton, the sport’s national governing body, say that interest in the game tends to be concentrated in “pockets” around the country. “I’m always finding these little pockets,” says Cecil Bleiker, media services director. “It’s popular in certain areas: Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco. In some places, it’s huge. There are old established clubs dating back to the 1930s.”

Competitive badminton enthusiasts enjoy their sport either at designated clubs, or in local organizations that regularly set up courts in school gymnasiums or rec centers. They describe the agility, speed and strength players develop, and wax poetic about the sport’s aerobic benefits.

Two recent television commercials have showcased the sport as well. In one, a woman remarks that thanks to Aleve, she’ll never have to give up badminton. The other commercial? Well, that’s more tongue-in-cheek, showing David Ortiz and Brian Urlacher sucking down Vitamin Water, then winning a badminton doubles match with a smash that lodges the shuttle in an opposing player’s leg.

While mainstream publicity tends to elude badminton in the U.S., the sport enjoys international popularity. In China, for example, badminton is played by all ages and at all levels. (China has also dominated the Olympic badminton scene in recent years.)

Threats to the Game

With the exception of the Olympics, there are few widely televised badminton matches and as a result, fewer opportunities for aspiring players to see competitive badminton. Unfortunately, say USA Badminton officials, there are other setbacks. Those who want to learn the game, for example, may have difficulty finding lessons or pros if they do not live in one of those “pockets.”

“The most important thing is to get good coaching, says Dan Cloppas, CEO of USA Badminton. “For example, if you have your footwork wrong, if you’re not trained correctly, you can have a lot of talent, but you won’t move beyond a certain level. And finding someone at the local level can be difficult.”

Worse, they say, where the sport really needs to grow, in high schools and health clubs, gymnasium space (where courts can be set up) is used instead for basketball or volleyball.

The good news, though, is that bringing the sport onboard at the club level is easy. One of badminton’s charms is that the courts are not very large (44’ long × 20’ wide for doubles, 44’ × 17’ for singles), and that the nets can be set up quickly. A ‘‘try badminton” event could be held on indoor or outdoor tennis courts, with each tennis court able to host two badminton games simultaneously. (On hard courts, painter’s tape can be used to mark lines, much the same way as when using the QuickStart Tennis format). If there’s enough interest, regular badminton play can be implemented.

Plus, says Roger Petersman, senior business manager for tennis and badminton at Head, “It’s easy to learn and it’s inexpensive to take up.” He believes the sport is poised for growth.

And Graham agrees. “Someday, someone’s going to open their eyes and say, ‘Where did this come from?’ But really, it’s been there all along.”

USA Badminton: www.usabadminton.org

Table Tennis

Out of the Basement

You know a sport has scored a comeback when People magazine takes a page away from its coverage of reality TV, red-carpet blunders and high-profile hookups and breakups, to talk about it as the newest fitness trend. Ping-pong has re-emerged into the spotlight, thanks in part to Susan Sarandon, who has opened the Manhattan club SPiN NYC, known as the “table tennis Taj Mahal.” Facilities include standard tables, pro courts and a stadium court, pro shop, robotic ball machines and more.

According to Michael D. Cavanaugh, CEO of USA Table Tennis, the national governing body, it’s about time people started paying attention to the merits of what he calls “the ultimate basement sport.”

“Given the effects of the economy, there are several intrinsic family values to the sport. Children can play with adults, teenagers can play with senior citizens. But I think that it’s just recreation for many families until they see it played professionally. When you see that, it’s just jaw-dropping.” Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since 1988. According to Cavanaugh, the U.S. dominated the sport in earlier decades, but since that time, Chinese athletes have moved to the forefront.

The USATT has about 9,000 registered members, but according to Cavanaugh, there are an estimated 23 million tables in homes. And, he adds, there’s room for growth. A health or racquet sports club can put a ping-pong table in an unused area and create a social hub for members. Plus, he says, the sport’s benefits go beyond simple fitness: “We now have evidence that playing ping-pong mitigates the effects of Alzheimer’s.”

USA Table Tennis: www.usatt.org

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About the Author

Mary Helen Sprecher  is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.

 

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