In 2017, the Rojas brothers of Markie and Jose quit playing professionally. There was no major announcement; they just stopped entering tournaments. Markie began a teaching career, and we caught up with him to try to understand why the #7 player on the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) would quit the sport.
Although Markie had already seen some success on the pro tour during his formative and then college years, he wanted to play professionally fulltime and make it a career. However, after the end of one season, “I knew on April 15th 2017 (tax day in the United States) I couldn’t do it anymore. From 2013-2017, my ranking got higher but my pay got lower. This past season was a lot of soul searching, but I knew even as early as September 2016 that I needed to find a new career path.”
We asked Markie to be a little more specific so that we could all understand the revenue and costs from playing on the tour. He played nine IRF Tier 1 events during the 2016-2017 season. He was contracted to play ten, but there were only nine that year. Here is what he sent us.
“That $350 a month is what I had to live on during the 2016-2017 season as the number seven on tour,” said Markie. “How can I realistically pay living expenses such as rent, car, gas, food, insurance, club membership, and so on with this kind of income? I cannot, I could not, and now I teach. Now, even on a meager salary of a teacher, I see my monthly income and, to me anyway, I am rich! I wonder why I played racquetball.”
Such thinking is hard to accept, but without external sponsors for players (and potentially for tours who can pass on some of that income to players), or funding from governments or sports federations as some countries have, living as a professional is almost impossible. With these numbers, Markie was below the poverty line in the United States, and he was eligible for food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
What Needs to Change
We asked Markie about personal sponsors. Why had he not secured individual sponsors rather than rely solely on prize money? “It’s a comment I’ve heard many times before,” he responded. “But until you’ve tried it, it’s hard to explain. Have you asked businesses to support an athlete in a sport few people know about and even less know is a professional sport? Why would a major company want to support me or a sport when we have no national or TV coverage? Even though I did pretty well on tour, and even won the US Open pro doubles with my brother, it doesn’t mean so much in a small sport.”
So what needs to change we asked him? “Tournament Directors also struggle to raise sponsors because they can’t identify a clear return on investment,” said Markie. “Current sponsors are those who love the sport, and we appreciate them so much, because they keep the sport alive, but they are not external sponsors independent of the sport. What happens when they cannot continue “donating” their funds as sponsors?”
“For me, the atmosphere of the sport and tournaments needs to change to attract new sponsors and keep players like myself in the sport. Why is basketball attractive? They have music, they have a younger generation playing, and it all relates to them. You must find a way to get out of the health club. A lot of players and fans like to drink beer, but we cannot have a beer sponsor. We need to attract a newer generation. I like a little what World Racquetball Tour (WRT) does in this respect, but I think they could go further. As a player, I do not want to change the speed of the sport, but as a viewer, we probably need to. Will changing the rules hurt or help us? I do not know what it would be like with slower balls or smaller racquets, but that does not mean we cannot experiment.”
No one likes the idea that professional players are leaving the sport because their financial struggles. However, as Markie’s story has shown, “making” it on tour is likely limited to the top two or three professionals, or those that receive funding from an external agency or government. Although players may be able to secure personal sponsors, the lack of nationwide visibility and a clear return on investment means that only friends and associates are likely to invest in a professional player’s career. Consequently, many players on tour work part time in some capacity to fund their careers.
Tour leaders and those invested in the sport must work toward finding external revenue sources that can in turn support those seeking to make racquetball a career. It has been done in the past, and with the increased opportunities to expose the sport through social media and electronic formats, it can be done again. Although RYDF is proud to have supported 40 athletes through the provision of hotel rooms during the 2016-2017, such efforts will not overcome the clear financial challenges of competing as a professional on the tour.