January - February 2002
Vol. 13, No. 1 | Contents

Then & Now
Above: Pressed and formal on his first day on the job in 1978. Right: St. Onge takes on a new role in 2002, not too much the worse for wear. [More photos]

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St. Onge Speaks Out: Part I
Interview with former Executive Director Luke St. Onge

You've been at the helm of this organization for 23 years. Why the decision to step down?
Luke: Sometimes you feel that you've -- possibly -- done all that you think you can do in a certain area and additional opportunities come up. I felt the time had come to take advantage of some other things.

Are you confident in making this move, and in the ability of remaining staffers to pick up in areas that you'll give up?
Without question. I've had the opportunity to work with 28-30 National Governing Bodies within the USOC, and our staff -- not just because of my involvement with them -- but our staff is looked up to as one of the best, if not the best, staff within the National Governing Body operation. The way we're currently organized, with three major departments -- each totally responsible for its own little economic center -- we've given [each department] the ability to go ahead and continue to operate. Without question, we'll maintain our position as one of the best NGBs within the USOC.

Many of the staff and board are active racquetball enthusiasts, rather than "corporate types." What are some of the drawbacks of that dynamic, and what are the advantages?
I really don't see any drawbacks from somebody participating in the sport and sharing in the responsibilities of administration. The positive aspect of it is that they understand [the issues], from the player's standpoint. I think the USRA represents those players -- and having a staff and a board who have an intimate knowledge of the playing aspect of it can keep on the straight and narrow, and not get lost as many sports do. People are living vicariously through the administration of the sport and we are very unique in that we are still participants. Tennis is a similar type organization where, basically, everyone still plays tennis. In racquetball -- we all play the sport and we have that element that makes us unique.

How can the sport resolve the conflict between being perceived strictly as a recreational activity, as opposed to being taken "seriously" as a major market sport?
Well, I think that every organization continuously looks at where they're heading financially, and also at their responsibility level to the sport, philosophically. If you go back in the history of this organization -- in 1978, there were four organizations fighting for governance of the sport at exactly the same time. The court clubs in this country were going through the evolutionary process of becoming full fitness clubs. Many other factors entered into it, but I think that one of the main functions of this organization -- as you go back in the strategic plan and responsibilities of 10-12 years ago -- was the unification of the sport, and I think we've accomplished that.

Now we have to set priorities, and the USRA has made the decision that it cannot be all things to all people. We represent competitive players, and feel that manufacturers have a responsibility for the total promotion of the sport on the grassroots level -- because they have the money that they can put back into it through the Racquetball Manufacturer's Association [RMA] and AmPRO, which is now a separate entity similar to the USPTA for tennis.

To answer your question, that battle goes on, but I think that the USRA -- looking at its pipeline and the building of competitive players from age 6 to age 80 -- whether pro or not -- has do what we can do for the sport, in the market that exists out there. We have to exist outside of our current market.

In trying to make the sport more marketable and competitive with "mainstream" sports, what do we stand to lose?
If you focus only on the business end of it, we could be facing exactly what you might have seen happen at the USOC recently, when they hired a CEO from the private sector. That move, in a very short period of time, basically destroyed the emotional, cultural and underlying reasons that people became involved in the first place. By concentrating strictly on the bottom line, the USOC almost lost most of its volunteers and alot of what made it a unique organization. It would be very, very sad to see the USRA leave itself to the bean counters. That kind of influence is currently being kicked around and, from my standpoint, I think that one of the things that make us unique is our people. The reason that they are part of this -- both staff and volunteers -- is personal. If we change that mix, it's my personal opinion that what will happen is that we will just become another run-of-the-mill organization with a limited staff and a couple of national championships -- but we will not be the true governing body of the sport.

What do you see happening with the USRA's leadership in the coming months?
I don't see anything [changing] if we maintain what our meeting agenda was in August. We did a strategic plan; if that is fulfilled, my shifting into the areas that I'm going into -- I don't see any changes. In fact, I actually see other people rising to the occasion. I think change is good in this area -- there will be come new ideas -- there'll be some new blood brought into it and the opportunity to excel on new proposals that are being brought forward and the ability of the people to grow -- both on the board level and the staff level -- so I see nothing but good come out of it.

As part of the re-direction that went on this past summer, what are some of the things that are going to lose priority for the USRA at this point?
I think that you can use the analogy of a corporation that attempted to diversify and got into areas, under-capitalized, then couldn't really do them justice. So I don't think the USRA is saying that certain things aren't important, but it's going to go back and re-focus on its core programs and its core responsibilities … to insure that there is a competitive progression from age 6 to age 80. That means from age 6 to junior, into high school, into intercollegiate, into the open or even professional -- if that's where the competitive athlete's interest is -- and then through a lifetime of sport that carries them to age 80, to 85 and even into their 90's.

That does not mean that any other part of the sport is not important to us, but what is important -- and it's one of the reasons we are where we are -- is that we never make false promises and I think that we have to be very, very careful that when we make a commitment we follow through. We are finding ourselves being thrown all different directions, with special interest groups trying to influence us, and there was no way we had the economic resources, nor the staff, to be able to do it all. So I think, very wisely, we looked back to realize that we never will be all things to all people -- and we're going to concentrate on our core and create that excitement within the sport that we felt when we started.

Using a couple of program examples, where has the USRA overextended itself? And how should the USRA combat the perception that some programs are  being "abandoned"?
I think this is the first step right here -- and certainly there is no magic bullet. I think back in the late 80's, early 90's, when we felt that the sport would have a savior from the outside of some large corporate giant coming in and saying they want to own the sport. That might still be a dream down the road but I think we have to face reality. Again, it's no different than a family or corporation -- you have to look at what makes you who you are.

Nothing is being abandoned and, based on our ability to get the word out (about re-structuring) and also what AmPRO and the RMA will be doing, you will see a total and complete unification within the sport and us all working towards common goals with each of us doing what we do best. If additional monies come in at a future time, then we can generate additional programs; but we took a long, hard look at what we were doing because we weren't doing a lot of things very good. So that's how we have to handle it and I believe that the industry is accepting these facts.

Do you think the USRA has been over-zealous in some program areas?
Certainly, I was … part of my makeup is being enthusiastic and so on -- looking at everything through rose-colored glasses and sometimes reality is kind of a great teacher. We thought we could do a lot of things in our progression -- take a look at the tremendous development of the magazine. It is certainly a very important part of the future of the sport, as well as the future of the USRA, with the revenue it generates; it represents us not only within the sport but certainly outside the sport. The only other thing which really gets outside the sport is U.S. Open's broadcast on ESPN -- outside of that we're preaching to the choir internally, and we have to continue to make that commitment to reach outside our sport -- to expand it and let people know what this is all about. We've done well with the events; we've done well with memberships. Our membership is actually going up, in light of most other organization's membership numbers going down. We're far from where, maybe, we should be -- but again with re-trenching and re-focusing, you're going to see a lot of changes in that area. I certainly hope so.

You've been called a visionary for the sport, and a lot of what you have done to bring the association to this point has been very aggressive. What's on the horizon?
I think that is up to the leadership of this organization -- certainly, as you go down the road, whoever emerges internally to become the exec of this organization and whoever is the [board] president -- they have to be on the same page. They have to have a vision of what's best for the sport as it relates to the United States.

My personal opinion -- which is contrary to many within the sport -- is that our future is tied to international development and the ability to become an Olympic sport. I've been criticized [for this] many times, but only a very few have the ability to see what is really going to happen when this happens to us …what's going to fall in place. The Pan Am Games rival the Olympic Games, but will never have the same aspect. I think the only way to defend it is -- not only will revenue flow into the U.S. operations, but will flow into all the international federations from the Olympic committees, because that is our responsibility [for development].

When that happens, the building of courts will take on a whole new look. Speaking domestically, certainly we have seen the downsizing of large clubs and are finding it very hard to find a place to host a very large number of players. Aside from Houston, we're almost reduced to looking at, at least, two or three clubs within a given area to hold an event. My dream and my vision of making this change is not only the international … to become an Olympic sport because the opportunity exists now for that to happen … but in my working in a club aspect. Within five years this club [Lynmar] will become a 14-court facility, and be geared as the premier tournament club in the United States. That's the vision we currently have, and it certainly is reachable.

What are some of the notable risks that you have taken,  in your term,  that have been successful?
I think, probably, building a team that looked outside of our own market. It's the biggest trap a sport can succumb to … that people within your sport who have the greatest passion for the sport know the best for the sport, and they really don't. They might go down and they play and come back and have an idea, or they see something happen -- but it doesn't necessarily translate to the entire market that we're going after. We have to have a much larger vision of where our sport "fits."

An interesting thing is what is happening with LA Fitness. LA Fitness has recognized the importance of racquetball as part of the mix within the fitness market. Go through all the important parts 'racquetball players have highest retention within the club' and all that aspect of it. But the bottom line is that racquetball is part of the fitness mix. But if you go back 12 years ago, and someone said racquetball is part of the fitness mix -- it was blasphemy -- because racquetball was an end in itself back then. Now racquetball is not an end in itself. We have to recognize changes going on in this world, the evolution of fitness industry, and how do we fit into that? And if we come back and say 'you guys owe us something' or 'racquetball is an end in itself' -- it's dead wrong. It's part of the total big picture, and we have to find out how we fit into that picture. And how we can, at that point, expand our role. We've not done a good job in that area.

What do you see as your most outstanding accomplishment?
I would say that on an accomplishment basis, it was being able to take the sport from the IRA, to AARA to USRA, in spite of what Dick Squires wrote [about racquetball] in 1978 (in his book "The OTHER Racquet Sports"). At that time, as I mentioned earlier, our organization was one of four -- once it was even five -- national organizations all fighting for the sport. When [Squires] kind of described each of the sports, I'll give you a quote about racquetball, which I think is kind of interesting: "today, eight years later, the IRA is just barely still functioning with a fairly feeble voice from out of the past." That's when I became involved with the IRA on a paid-staff basis, and he really was being kind in what he was saying, at that time.

I think that it was a great opportunity to come into an organization that was basically well-founded but had the wrong people involved, and to be able to change that into a basically 'surviving' organization. In 1982-83, everyone else had fallen away because the basic principles of their organizations were flawed -- ours was not. Ours represented the player, and represented the future of the sport. Then, to build a team as we went along and to grow a small operating budget; to have the decent operating budget that we now have and to basically be the voice of racquetball in the United States, was all very exciting.

I would say that, along with the international development that I think is absolutely vital to the future of our organization, I think is absolutely critical for the fun aspect of this sport to survive. This is the thing that I think what has made us what we are today -- the culture of our organization -- that may be at risk. Those who come after have to be very careful to preserve it.

And what have been some of your disappointments?
I would say that one of the biggest disappointments has been the inability to raise the dollars that are so desperately needed to promote the sport correctly in the field. I would say that, along with a certain regret as I move to another area, of not being able to develop the intercollegiate aspect of it. I think that the greatest growth right now, membership-wise, is on the campuses. That's where the courts are being built and probably the biggest neglect that we have had over the years is not working within the university culture itself, within the physical education aspect of it, which has the infrastructure to really support our sport. We will never be able to build that bridge and then also within USRA itself -- that people coming out of these programs are immediately accepted into the club aspect of it. That is something I regret and I hope that whoever comes after me -- the board and so on -- will recognize the importance of these areas and will continue to go after them -- especially with the changes being made internally now. This area, along with the junior end of it, certainly limits us but those three areas have the greatest potential and the greatest amount of growth to our sport.

What are you going to do next?
Well, I will take a director's position within the USRA and I'll maintain our relationship with the United States Olympic Committee. Our biggest sponsor is the USOC, not only from the direct-dollar aspect but also from the fringes such as exposure to major corporate sponsors, many more opportunities for athletes, and access to the Olympic Training Center. We're looking at a whole new clinic process, dealing with OTCs across the United States, even creating a "university" for racquetball, not only domestically but internationally, where athletes as well as coaches will come to the United States and train for long periods of time. 

As I mentioned, I'm also going to become general manager of the Lynmar Health and Racquet Club, and I will have the other side of the coin, so to speak. This opportunity came about when a good friend of mine was fortunate in acquiring the Lynmar Health & Racquet Club and our goals are to make it the very best health club in Colorado, with service to its membership as well as within five years create, as I mentioned before, a 14-courts facility to become the major tournament competition site in the United States. It's not that I'm going away -- I think I will be focusing on two major areas that are very important for the sport and certainly for USRA. One has great economic potential, as well as visibility, and the other will become very practical as a tournament site for USRA and certainly for the international federation.

What will be your function at the international level with the IRF? Will that change at all?
No, it won't. I will be able to spend more time with it, as I mentioned earlier, with the changes within the IOC within his presidency -- with the 2008 games going to China, the opportunity exists for racquetball to be included. If Keith Calkins, who is president of the international federation, and myself feel that the opportunity -- because of these developments on the international level -- exists for us to become an Olympic sport, now is the time to make the move. I would say that there is a one in ten chance of it happening, but the reality is that if we don't go after it, it will never happen. 

The benefits to the sport, as I mentioned before, are huge, but no membership dues are used to support this effort. I think it is very important that our membership, and critics, understand this, and that the results or benefits that will come out of this will be absolutely dramatic for the sport, both economically and in visibility for the athletes, as well as for the sport itself.

Always a big fan of the “grip and grin” St. Onge never turned down a request for a photo. Right: with Kim Russell and Kane Waselenchuk  in 2002; Bottom: with a pair of singles champions in 1981.

USRA Re-structure Underway
Luke St. Onge steps down after 24 years as Executive Director


In a major re-structuring program, the USRA has begun an effort to streamline its national office operations to respond to the sport’s challenges. After nearly twenty-five years of service to the U.S. Racquetball Association, Luke St. Onge recently announced his decision to step aside as the Association’s Executive Director, effective January 1, 2002. The USRA Board of Directors will undertake an administrative re-structure over the next six months, which includes the acceptance of an offer by St. Onge to remain on staff, taking the newly-created position of Director of USOC and International Relations.

St. Onge was named Director of the then-IRA [International Racquetball Association] in 1978, after serving on its Board and relocating from Pennsylvania to take the helm at the national office, based in Memphis, Tennessee. In the following year, the IRA changed its name to the American Amateur Racquetball Association [AARA] and the sport began to develop internationally and seek recognition by the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1983, St. Onge orchestrated the national office relocation to Colorado Springs, where it remains today, and in 1989 racquetball became the youngest sport ever to be offered full-member status in the Olympic family. St. Onge guided the AARA through the most volatile and tumultuous years of the sport’s history, which at one time saw five national organizations vie for controlling governance of racquetball. Only one organization survived the power struggle, to thrive into a new century and become what is now the U.S. Racquetball Association.

Throughout his tenure, St. Onge has remained active as a racquetball player, and competitive at the national level. Aggressive as an administrator, he is credited with re-establishing the association’s flagship publication, RACQUETBALL; building a national staff of highly-skilled professionals; and re-uniting the fractured sport under its current administrative structure [USRA]. He has gained worldwide recognition for the sport through his involvement with the International Racquetball Federation [IRF], which now boasts over 92 member countries. As he did with USOC acceptance, St. Onge guided the IRF to full International Olympic Committee [IOC] membership in 1985, and to Pan American Games inclusion in 1995, again earning the distinction of becoming the youngest sport ever to ever do so. In his new position, he and IRF President Keith Calkins will devote their energies to the ongoing project of having racquetball accepted to the Olympic Games program in 2008.

In addition to his new duties, St. Onge will also become involved with the USRA’s official training facility, the Lynmar Racquet & Fitness Club, which recently changed hands, and whose new ownership approached him to join their management team.

Other changes to become effective in January will include establishing the American Professional Racquetball Organization [AmPRO] as an independent entity, separate from the USRA and under the direction of Gary Mazaroff. Remaining directors Jim Hiser (programs), Kevin Joyce (membership) and Linda Mojer (communications) will play an active role in the re-distribution of duties and administrative re-structure over the coming months.

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