About 20 years ago there were more than 200 racquetball courts in Western New York in pristine condition. Leagues were in abundance, often with waiting lists, and court time was difficult to obtain.
The Buffalo Tennis & Racquetball Center had 12 courts that were booked at an astounding 98 percent occupancy rate 24 hours a day. Junior programs were held at most clubs and some local tournaments had well over 300 entries. It was estimated by the National Association of Court Builders that over eight million players were involved in the sport throughout the United States.
Today, there are about 50 courts in Western New York. There are fewer leagues and court time is much easier to obtain even though there are fewer courts.
When the fitness craze started about 20 years ago, racquetball took a back seat. To make more money, racquetball courts were taken out of facilities at an alarming rate.
"Taking out racquetball courts was an easy decision," said a former manager at the Bally Fitness Center. "If I put Nautilus equipment in the space formerly occupied by a racquetball court, I could run 100 people through there in an hour, versus two players who were playing singles or four players who were playing doubles in racquetball."
Bally also had a policy that allowed new racquetball members to pay a membership fee that allowed free lifetime racquetball. This practically eliminated any court time revenue from singles or doubles play.
Junior programs that were in abundance are now down to one day a week at BAC Eastern Hills. Court time is limited and expensive during the week; especially when you're a 10- or 12-year-old. With the lack of court time available during the week for juniors and virtually no support from high schools, there is very little incentive for junior players to continue in the game. Conversely, local tennis clubs have junior programs that run seven days a week.
Another problem that players have been fighting for years is the upkeep of the courts. Some clubs do a decent job, but other facilities do patch up work, which greatly irritates many of the members and often makes them take up another sport or activity.
However, things aren't quite as bad as they look. The University at Buffalo's nine courts are used regularly, and UB has become the choice of most of the local tournaments due to the facilities available, the upkeep of the courts, and the support of the administration. The Buffalo Fitness Center has three new courts and a new Gold's Gym will have one.
Joe Garbarino is one of Western New York's best ambassadors of the game. He has been nationally ranked and travels to eight to 10 tournaments a year. Garbarino was in San Diego a few months ago at a national level racquetball meeting and found that Western New York remains behind the times.
"Cities such as Milwaukee, Columbus, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Chicago still have a large racquetball base," he said. "They have full-time racquetball people who promote and administer the overall program in their clubs. We have only part-time people doing that in Buffalo.
"It is also a fact that clubs that are owned by racquetball-oriented people do much better, as they keep the courts in good shape and really promote the game. We need to get more people involved that are heavily involved in racquetball in Western New York."
Pat Bernardo is the New York State Commissioner of racquetball based in Albany which, along with New York City, still has a strong following for the sport. Bernardo is also the head pro at the Colonie Club in Albany, which has 12 courts.
"Many of the clubs have full-time racquetball staff to promote the game," he said. "Club owners are heavily involved and courts are booked solid for everyday play. There is an eight-team league of local colleges. Most of the schools have excellent courts that are in good condition. Racquetball is alive and well in our area."
Luke St. Onge is Secretary General of the 91-country International Racquetball Federation and is a former Executive Director of the National Racquetball Association. He was one of the leaders in racquetball's growth 25 years ago and says the game is still strong.
"Twenty years ago, eight million players were involved in the sport of racquetball. Today, it has stabilized at six million," St. Onge said. "Over 1,800 courts were built in colleges and other facilities last year throughout the United States. The sport is not dying. There are many areas where the sport is strong. Clubs that have a full-time racquetball person can do well. Racquetball is a sport; not a fitness fad. Tennis and racquetball have a far higher retention rate than persons who are involved in fitness."
For the past few years the number of players playing racquetball in Western New York has remained steady in league and tournament play. However, to ensure that the game doesn't lose any more players locally the following steps must be taken:
1. Clubs and other facilities must not remove courts.
2. Courts should be kept in top condition at all times.
3. A full-time staff member should be hired to promote racquetball at each individual club or facility.
4. Juniors must be given reduced court fees and access to playing time during the week.
5. Clubs and other facilities should provide free clinics to promote the game of racquetball.