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Interest in Racquetball Again on the Upswing

August 12, 1990|BILL WALKER

In the early 1970s, racquetball zoomed into orbit, seemingly destined to exceed tennis in popularity.

It was a ride seldom seen in sports: from a game played on stolen time on handball courts to one adopted, according to the American Amateur Racquetball Assn., by more than 10 million Americans at its zenith in 1982.

Clubs proliferated. The game became a favorite of a wide cross-section because it provided a social setting and served to tune up the cardiovascular system. Its rules were simple, proficiency could be acquired quickly and it could be played by either sex.

It was fun.

Ten years later, racquetball hit the wall.

A variety of reasons were offered for the game falling into disfavor: overbuilding, mismanagement, competition from small health clubs with low overhead that offered alternative ways to get into shape (aerobics, Nautilus), a pro tour without direction that generally failed to raise interest and advanced equipment that integrated the power game into the sport and made for shorter rallies.

Probably each contributed in its own way, and there was a lot of bleeding. Although racquetball never quite reached a moribund state, the sport lost about half of its players.

It is on the upswing again, although the climb is not as breathtaking. AARA membership, which basically reflects the number of tournament players, is probably the most valid indicator of the sport's health, and John Mooney, assistant executive director of that organization, provides figures that indicate a strong pulse.

According to Mooney, dues-paying members numbered 22,005 in 1986; as of July, 1990, that figure had grown to 30,792, an increase of nearly 40%.

Jerry Hilecher, who played racquetball professionally for 15 years, believes growth will continue at the amateur level, now the primary focus of marketing within the racquetball manufacturing industry.

"The (men's) pro tour failed in providing the proper image and representation for the product," he said. "There's no leadership left."

Amateur racquetball, meanwhile, is taking steps toward showcasing itself. It has been designated as a medal sport for the 1991 Pan American Games and will get worldwide exposure the following year as a demonstration sport in the Barcelona Olympics.

"Racquetball has definitely bottomed out and started back up again," Hilecher said.

"There were a lot of people in it earlier because it was faddish, almost a buzzword. You know, 'It's a social thing, everybody's doing it, I'll do it, too.'

"I don't know if it'll ever be like it was before, but I see steady growth. The players in it now will stay, and new ones will come in, mostly from grass-roots youth programs."

There is a faction that believes the sport is doomed. Both sides agree, however, that even if racquetball perishes, it will not do so with the swiftness of its birth.

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