Tennis Industry magazine

 

Stepping Up Their Games

When it comes to getting new players, racquetball and squash can learn from tennis’s outreach.

By Mary Helen Sprecher

A friend in my racquetball league told me that it had been hard for her to take up the game initially because she couldn’t find anyone to teach her to play.

The club she used to belong to had racquetball courts, but no onsite pro. People played, but she didn’t know them personally, and without someone to give instruction to a beginner, it seemed to be a closed community.

“The people at the front desk told me that if I wanted to take up racquetball, I should just hang out by the courts and ask one of the guys,” she said disgustedly. “They said, ‘Oh, you’re a woman, they’ll be glad to give you some tips.’”

Well, that got me thinking about the importance of free clinics in increasing the use of court facilities. Tennis has generally done a good job with new player initiatives, but it’s time other racquet sports stepped up their game, too. Unfortunately, in many clubs, sports like racquetball and squash aren’t flourishing because there isn’t a lot of outreach. And because money is tight, it’s hard (if not impossible) to hire a teaching pro. As a result, the sports don’t gain any traction: the player population never changes, and the courts are often empty.

As a sport, racquetball’s arc in popularity has been similar to that of tennis. There was a boom period (racquetball’s was around the 1970s to the early 1980s) where every court was filled, followed by a decline in which people left in droves to try new sports and different workouts. The difference here is that tennis eventually realized how to fix things: In order to get anyone playing, you have to teach them the basic skills. After all, if they didn’t grow up with a sport or didn’t have friends to teach it to them, people generally don’t take it up on their own; it’s just too intimidating.

A few years back, my club offered a free racquetball clinic, hosted by a pro who plays for one of the racquet companies. It worked, people showed up, willing to learn. (I should know, I was one of them.) From there, the pro moved up to organizing leagues and tournaments. Now there’s a whole new community that plays: men, women and even kids, and courts are tough to get at peak hours. In fact, when one of the other clubs in our network broached the idea of eliminating a court or two, the player backlash was so severe that (a) the club reversed its decision, and (b) the uproar made the local newspaper. It was a killshot the entire racquetball community cheered for.

It’s too bad racquetball doesn’t have the equivalent of the Tennis Service Representative, whose job it is to help grow the game at the local level, starting in community centers, parks, schools and more. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of places where the racquetball and squash courts are getting very little use, except as a location for everything from medicine ball workouts to hitting walls for those who want to practice their lacrosse throws. That just makes me wince.

As a now frequent player, I can tell you that if those clubs offered regular free racquetball and squash clinics and kept a supply of loaner racquets, goggles and balls, it could make a huge difference in the growth of those sports. As a technical writer about athletic facilities, I can tell you that when you let sports like lacrosse practice happen in those courts, the floors get marked and the walls get dinged and damaged, leaving them even less inviting to racquet sports players. Keep up the courts by enforcing rules about footwear, equipment and more, and you’ll find your players are more enthusiastic about using them.

If you’ve been wondering why racquetball or squash at your facility seems to be stagnating and not getting new participants, ask yourself what you’ve done lately to help them grow. Many sports are “try and buy” — you just need to make the first move.

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

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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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