In December, we published what some might consider a controversial article featuring Markie Rojas. Within this article, we highlighted the financial struggle many players on racquetball tour experience: relying on prize money from tournament successes is not a sustainable financial model. Our article was not written to criticize tours, players, or tournament directors. Rather, a goal of RYDF is to actively help those in racquetball overcome challenges just like this. We see ourselves as part of the solution. However, sometimes to offer solutions, problems must be identified.
So how does a player not only financially survive as a professional but profit from it? Some do, such as Rocky Carson and Paola Longoria, and one young RYDF supported player is in the early stages of attempting to replicate their success. We caught up with Mexican Lalo Portillo to learn more about what he is doing to make his racquetball career a success on and off the court.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Lalo Portillo and I am from Mexico. I am 18 years old and I am currently living in Seattle because I am in an Intensive Program to learn English. One day I would like to be a pilot and to do that I need to speak fluent English. I have been at the school for one semester and I will finish my second semester in March. I have one sister in Mexico who is in her last year in high school. My dad is a civil engineer and my mom stays at home and takes care of the family.
What about racquetball? When did you start and how successful have you been?
I began playing racquetball when I was six years old. I used to live in Querétaro where I did gymnastics, but my family moved to San Luis Potosi and gymnastics was too expensive there. Instead, my dad would bring me to the racquetball courts because my parents were members of the club and it was free for me.
The first tournament I won was the Mexican junior nationals at age seven. It was a multibounce event, which qualified me for the junior world championships, which I also won. I have won many junior national titles in Mexico as well as world titles. In 2017, I won the 18s doubles title at the World Juniors but lost to Mauro Rojas in the final of the 18s singles.
What are your racquetball goals?
I want to be the best racquetball player in the world one day. That is one of my goals. But another goal I have is to be the youngest player to ever win the US Open.
You have been much more visible on social media recently. Why are you doing that?
Well, there are two reasons. The first is to help grow racquetball and share the sport with other people who may not know too much about it. I want more people to know what it is and maybe it encourages them to want to play it also. If I can, I want to use social media to present racquetball to those who do not know what it is. The other purpose is to help build my image and brand to help me get more sponsors.
Can you explain what you mean by building your brand?
Yes. I want to be a professional racquetball player, but I know that at the moment there is not a lot of money in the sport. If you win first place in a tournament you can make some money, but that is very hard to do. But many players in other sports make a lot of money from sponsors, and sometimes they make more money from sponsors than their prize money. They do not even have to be the best player, but if they are very popular, the sponsor wants to work with them. I think it is important to try to be like that.
Paola Longoria is a very good example of what you can do to make money from sponsors that are not normally part of racquetball. Her popularity in Mexico helps her to make money and makes racquetball more popular. Of course, it helps that she is successful on the court!
I am not just doing this to get sponsors so that I have more money. Well, I do want more sponsors to have more money, but I need more money in order to travel to more pro stops. If I can play more and better players, I can learn more quickly and gain more experience. Sponsors can help me go to tournaments, which helps me improve my racquetball skills, which helps me earn more prize money by getting better results in tournaments.
How did this start and what specific things are you doing to build your image?
I have been working with GOAT Sports Performance for the last few months. We are developing a plan to grow my image and develop a sponsorship plan. One of the videos that I watched that GOAT Sports made was an interview with Gearbox Sports owner Rafael Filippini. He talked about how to promote yourself as an athlete and gave examples of players who understood they were their own business. Since watching the video, I have been talking with Rafael and getting his advice so that I can learn from the best.
I have also started creating instructional videos about racquetball and have a playlist of videos I have made so far. I am slowly making short videos to help those who might be interested in learning more about racquetball skills and technique.
The last thing I am doing is to create video logs about my racquetball and life experiences. I want to be able to share with people my experiences studying in America, traveling to tournaments, and what it is like to be a professional racquetball player. I am really excited about this and I want to show people my experiences and adventures playing racquetball. I am hoping to travel a lot this year, which will give me lots of great material!
What are your plans for the near future?
I am still a junior player in Mexico, but I want to try and qualify for China if possible. The competition is very hard in Mexico but I want to get the experience. I will also compete in the junior national championships in Mexico, but I hope to be able to compete in many pro stops this year. I am grateful to RYDF for helping me over the past several months to travel to some of these tournaments. Without their help, I could not have gained so much experience.
Developing a social media presence that might attract sponsors is a long-term project, and cannot be accomplished through short-term efforts. It requires consistent work to develop a brand and image that is attractive to potential sponsors. As an 18 year old, Lalo is a young professional that understands the value of social media. Within this interview, he has shown how he has learned from others, such as Rafael Filippini, and has begun making specific efforts to grow his visibility.
While unfortunate, the current reality of professional racquetball is that athletes must find sources beyond prize money to support their careers. This is a difficult task, and requires substantial work. However, should Lalo succeed in securing sponsors and building a larger social media presence over the next several years, it is important to recognize the longevity of this effort, which began in 2018.