How do we get more people playing the game? How do we get more people (non-players and players) watching the game? The two biggest dilemmas faced in racquetball.
I have observed the evolution of the sport from the stand point of owning a racquet club for twenty nine years and I have seen the dynamic improvement in technology and tremendous advancement in physical skills exhibited by the top players. How can they keep getting better and better? I congratulate them. However; as we age, most of us cannot keep getting better. Yet, I see that the age demographic has increasing become older and in fact, the most common player coming into the sport today is one that played ten or fifteen years ago, quit to have a family or career, remembers what a great sport racquetball is and wants to play and get back into shape. We can only imagine what that is like for someone who thought he was pretty good, is out of shape, faced with a larger racquet and a ball that is traveling much faster than he has ever seen. Pretty discouraging I would presume and many never come back a second time.
Dilemma Number One – How do we make the game suit the vast majority of players who consist of those just starting, those trying to get their game back, those working hard to improve but slow going, those who just want to enjoy the sport or those competitive players who can’t devote the time to play well and stay conditioned. Let’s face it; racquetball is a very demanding sport for those who take it seriously. You can’t just walk on the court two or three times a month, play at your peak and not suffer for a couple of days after each match. After a while people start choosing between pain and golf. I personally believe that the reason that more women don’t play racquetball is because it is so demanding.
Perhaps the answer lies in developing a level of play that is less physically demanding yet develops skills that are equally as admirable as serving the ball 150 miles an hour. Those skills being, of course, touch, strategy, deception, quickness and maybe even slicing the ball if we get rid of the ridiculous “carry rule”. The answer could be to slow the ball down and keep it in play to create longer rallies. You might even see more diving from some of the old guys if they could get close enough once in a while. It could also improve television viewing and even allow non-players to appreciate watching the sport. I know from taking many non-players to watch the sport at its highest level that they cannot follow the ball much less know what is going on and they get bored and don’t enjoy it.
I don’t suggest that making another “dead” ball would accomplish the above. The goal here is to give slower players more time to get to the ball making the rallies often last longer and more opportunities for sophisticated shot selection. The ball should be bouncy yet slower. Can this be done? I think so. Make the ball bigger. Possibly this innovation if perfected might also yield another advantage of making the ball easier to see on TV.
I know that most of the readers of this are probably advanced players and love to see the sport played at its fastest level as I do but think of yourself in a few years. Your skills, your quickness and your stamina will someday diminish but if the game became one of skill more than stamina then players could compete more successfully at older ages not to mention that there might be some benefits in longevity for the elbows, shoulders and knees.
This is not a radical idea, but a proven one, as one of the world’s oldest and possibly most popular sports, table tennis, recently faced the same issues as racquetball. Table tennis players had begun increasing the thickness of the fast sponge layer on their paddles, which made the game excessively fast and difficult to watch on television, so fast that it was necessary to make changes to keep the spectator involved. In 2000, the International Table Tennis Federation instituted several rules changes aimed at making table tennis more viable as a televised spectator sport. First, the 38 mm balls were officially replaced by 40 mm balls. This increased the ball’s air resistance and effectively slowed down the game resulting in longer rallies and more spectator appreciation.
In 2001, the International Table Tennis Federation made another change in the game and service rule to increase excitement and interest in the match, bringing me to racquetball’s other dilemma
Dilemma Number Two – How do we make the games more dramatic, exciting and suspenseful for the spectator?
Here, there is also a proven model in table tennis. In order to create more suspense and excitement, they changed from the 21 point game, change server each five points, to 11 point games, win by two and change serve each two points. This certainly made the games faster and minimized the service advantage. Matches are played to any odd number of games, usually five.
This method of scoring results in faster point fluctuations, it also minimizes the server advantage and the “win by two” requirement creates additional suspense and excitement for spectators. Another benefit is the flexibility in the number of games played. It would lend itself to five game single elimination tournaments and three game round-robin tournaments. Lastly, the most important benefit relates to Dilemna Number One, by making the games shorter, skill becomes a greater factor than stamina allowing the weekenders, the unconditioned, the newbies, the families, the old guys and hopefully more women to enjoy the game simply because the sport is slightly less demanding and even more fun.
I know that most advanced players simply by their aggressive nature may oppose these ideas just as the Chinese opposed the table tennis changes. They felt it was an effort to stop their domination of the sport. However, today China still dominates because superior skill and athleticism will always excel just as it does in racquetball.
I invite you to search some table tennis clips on YouTube.com and see how the ball can be seen even at speeds of over 100 mph and at long distances, all without the benefit of professional lighting or photography. USA Table Tennis, a sport organization faced many similar challenges and problems that we face today, made adjustments, has remained an Olympic sport since 1988 and now claims to be the most popular racquet sport in the world.
Should we just keep asking the same questions and getting the same old answers; bring more kids into the sport, promote racquetball in high school and college, get more women to play, get major sponsors, get racquetball on TV and in the Olympics, hoping someday we’ll get a different result. Not likely.
Maybe it’s time for a change in racquetball.