The true history of racquetball was declassified in early 2013 during a two-month long Email round-table discussion by most of the fifty living professionals and movers and shakers of the industry.
Muted, dirty secrets as well as the genius decisions were presented that have contributed to the development of the game since it was named Racquetball at the 1969 National, and even before that at the ‘first’ 1968 Paddle-Racket National. One of the most interesting findings was the underlying reason for the most pivotal time in the sport from 1980-81 when the game went from boom to bust ‘overnight’.
1979 was the best year racquetball ever had, and it had been a great decade. During that year, it was the fastest growing sport in the US and the world. A top USRA/NRC official recalls, ‘By now Nielsen and other big-name research companies were agreeing, spouting 10 million players. ‘Court clubs’ were growing like crazy, with amazing 12-court, 16-court, even 32-court complexes. We had a few, mostly positive, television experiences. A portable glass court was a reality (if not financially feasible). It was a beautiful world.’ And then the recession of ’81-82 hit and unless you’re 50 years or older, you don’t know what it was like. Out of control inflation, prime interest rates at 22%, unemployment abounding.
‘People did what people always do when they’re scared—they hunkered down. They cut out unnecessary spending. Racquetball, like so many other industries, was hit hard. That would have been reboundable, except panic set in. The central figure in racquetball, Bob Kendler was in poor health (he died in December ’82), and even worse financial straits as most of his wealth was tied up in real estate, highly mortgaged. He couldn’t pay. The mafia bombed his house because he owed them. Seamco, which had been playing both political sides for a decade, had lost the market share battle to Penn, so NRC/USRA and Kendler was bankrupt. Several other racquetball associations went bankrupt, and many racquetball courts were forced to close, with the racquet companies headed in the same direction. The Kendler top staff for ten solid years from 1970-1979 left the Chicago office, and on return in 1982 for a quick two years last line defense, found the racquetball world had changed drastically in the two years while they were gone.
‘So two decisions were made in the corporate board room that sealed racquetball’s fate: 1) speed up the ball; 2) make larger racquets. Both were made as a means of generating new revenue to replace lost revenue. The competing organization IRA that in 1979 had changed its name to American Amateur Racquetball Association (AARA) did not have the old ‘balls’ sponsor to stand up to the sport’s major funders, so they went along with the plan, rewriting the rules that had to be re-written in order to make these two decisions legal. Essentially, the governing AARA nailed the committed players with the have-to-purchase-new-equipment-or-you-won’t-be-able-to-compete policy. Overnight, the game became faster and more dangerous—appealing to elite male athletes and that was about it. Quick profits almost never play well over the long haul. Good bye easy-to-learn. Good bye to anybody-can-play. Good bye skill, finesse, and strategy. Good bye any semblance of looking to the sport’s future. Hello, mine’s bigger and faster.
Outdoors offers a fresh option to players. Rob Mijares unwinds at the annual 2014 WOR World Championships in Las Vegas. (Mike Augustin)
‘We had our decade in the sun and then the fickle American sporting public moved on to the next thing. In 1979 the USRA/NRC ran 128-page magazines with nearly 50 pages of ads in each. In 1982 it barely could publish a 32-page magazine with 10 pages of ads, and half of them were fitness companies. Agree or disagree. It doesn’t matter because we’ll never know the roads not taken. Unless the ball is slowed, and small head racquets come back. I think common sense tells us the sport could not have remained on the growth train that we all experienced especially, after all the horrible economic problems passed, it’s simply not possible to have a club and make money. Club owners realized that they were not in the racquetball industry but in the fitness industry and had to provide as wide an array of fitness activities as possible to maintain their membership base even if it meant converting racquetball courts to new fitness areas. It’s now an amenity for clubs, and it will be difficult to make it more.’