I am often asked “Why has racquetball declined so much?” Two weeks ago I was in Minneapolis at the U.S. Open National Racquetball Championships. I had the good fortune to interview three nationally recognized racquetball icons as to why there are only 4½ million players playing the sport now throughout the world as compared to more 12 million players 30 years ago. Here are some opinions on what’s happened:
Jason Mannino: He was the No. 1 ranked racquetball player in the world in 2003. He is presently the president of the International Racquetball Tour and is in charge of all of the professional tournaments. Mannino feels that if clubs are built that people will come to play racquetball. However, Mannino said there has been a big shift over the past 30 years as people work out using fitness, free weights, and aerobics to get in shape.
“This has greatly hurt racquetball. LA Fitness clubs are presently following a pattern that has greatly helped bring back racquetball to many areas in the United States,” Mannino said. “In most of their new clubs 4-5 racquetball courts are put in. In addition to racquetball a club must have all kinds of workout equipment, classes in all areas of working out, basketball, and even tennis if possible. Racquetball used to work by itself. Those days are over. You must have a club with all or many of the aforementioned. If it isn’t multi-faceted it isn’t going to work.”
Pat Bernardo: He is the president of Racquetworld.com, the biggest racquetball distributor in the world.
“People just want to drop into a local club to work out,” he said. “The problem today is that racquetball is competing against way too many sports. Kids of today like to be involved in a team atmosphere.”
Bernardo also points out that the racquetball game is faster than ever before and is hard to follow on television. Therefore, even if a kid is interested in playing, he really can’t relate to the speed of the ball.
Racquetball also comes with a price tag. To play, you must join a club. Court time can also be expensive. Bernardo feels badly about the state of the game as he relates it provides a tremendous workout.
Dr. “Bud” Muehleisen: Affectionately known as Dr. Bud, he is often called “The Father of the Game of Racquetball.” He has been involved both as a player and club owner and has won 69 national and international titles.
“When racquetball was booming 35 years ago a beginner could have as much fun playing the game as an advanced player,” Dr. Muehlsisen siad. “Ninety-five percent of the players at that time were recreational players who loved the game because it was easy to pick up, you could find someone to play with at virtually every level, get a great workout, have fun, and the game was huge participation-wise.”
Dr. Muehleisen stressed that the advent of much faster racquetballs and more powerful racquets has greatly hurt the game and has taken the fun away from the everyday player who really doesn’t have the skills to use today’s modern equipment.
“Only five per cent of the players are involved in tournament play,” he said. “The rest of the players want to have fun, keep the ball in play, and have good rallies. That is virtually impossible for the recreational players today.”
Phil Primerano Jr.: He is the general manager of JB’s Tennis Shop, the area’s largest all-purpose racquet sporting goods store, and one of the area’s finest racquetball players.
“I agree that the speed of the ball and the powerful racquets have greatly hurt racquetball. When I watch films of pro racquetball, even ten years ago, there were prolonged rallies and a great exchange of points,” Primerano Jr. said. “Today, at that level of competition, a rally might last three shots each at the most.”
Primerano Jr. noted that people who watch the pros or better players could actually get turned off by the play because they realize that they can’t play at that level.
As far as a new racquetball club opening in the area Primerano Jr. gave an exuberant “Absolutely!” to the idea. He said, “I have no doubt that a state of the art racquetball facility or facilities with four courts and a fitness center included would be very successful in the Williamsville-Amherst area.
By the way, LA Fitness recently opened two clubs in Western New York. There are no racquetball courts. When asked, a manager said, “There is an extremely strong chance that we will be building some racquetball courts in our new facilities in the near future.” Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Two of the largest local racquetball facilities have courts that are barely playable due to front walls that have due to holes or cracks, or they are so poorly lit that it is hard to follow the ball. What are the chances of the public taking up racquetball when they visit local clubs and see the courts in such bad shape? Don’t get me wrong. There are some facilities with a low number of courts that are in very good shape.
Suffice to say, with so many different sports looming today for kids, especially with the advent of Title IX for girls, sports such as soccer,volleyball, lacrosse, swimming, softball, and gymnastics — which weren’t quite as popular years ago — have greatly hurt the number of players playing racquetball. To say that racquetball can’t be promoted and revived would not be true. Three to four of the facilities have leagues with up to 50 players total in A, B,and C divisions. There are also junior classes under the jurisdiction of Greg Maliken who also does a yeoman job in running the City A League.
I strongly agree with Dr. Muehleisen about the racquets and racquetballs. If the racquets for the average player were smaller and racquetballs less lively, the every day player would be able to enjoy the game more and there would be more people playing.
Tournament players could still use the larger racquets and faster racquetballs. Primerano’s suggestion that a racquetball club or clubs with up to five courts in each venue and a full complement of fitness equipment would be successful in the right areas of WNY is a good idea. If they are managed correctly and maintained properly, the facilities have an excellent chance of succeeding. It would be wonderful if racquetball could once more be a fixture in WNY.