Monday, February 18, 2013

Cut the Racket

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the local paper about how the YMCA was considering closing the racquetball courts. I had no real opinion on this at the time; I don't play racquetball, or care to. The Y has three courts and they seem to have a small core of devotees, all significantly older than me (I'm not sure exactly what that means anymore, but I am guessing north of 60). OK, a little older.

The racketeers quickly mobilized, and for the last two weeks, a few of them have been  standing on the street in front of the building wearing "SAVE Y COURTS" t-shirts, raising their fists just like they used to in the sixties, fighting the power.

This weekend the chair of the Y responded with a little data, suggesting that the fitness center is far more popular than the racquetball courts, and that the two occupy roughly the same amount of space. The ballers shot back about how they were not informed of the decision, and that racquetball is awesome.

I am of mixed minds on this. The fitness center is not that crowded, in my estimation. I work out 4 days a week, usually around 8 AM, and it is rare that I cannot get immediate access to the equipment I want. I use the Smith rack, dumbbells and chin-up bar, and one of the cardio machines. The recumbent bike is my preferred vehicle, but the three in the facility are usually occupied, so in the past I have chosen the stair steppers, for which there is never a wait. However, a few weeks ago the stairs disappeared, and when I inquired as to their whereabouts I was told that they were being replaced. The new models arrived, looking more modern--with built in televisions and heart rate monitors, as well as some handles to get your arms swinging--and they were far superior in every way except one: they did not do a good job of approximating the act of climbing stairs (which is what I look for in a stepper). Perhaps there are medical reasons, but I couldn't get used to swinging my legs parabolically, so I switched over to the 21st century version of the NordicTrack, I mean, who cares, right? It's just about getting in your workout.

Which is why I have a hard time sympathizing with the old timers, who decidedly did not grow up playing racquetball, since it is a relatively new sport. If they love it that much, they can go play it somewhere else, but if the Y is really serving the community, it needs to serve the people who want to get their workout in, and right now, that means cardio machines and weights. They can always go outside and play against the wall, which is really what inspired the game in the first place. I' suspect the Y did not do a good job informing the community of their plans, and I'm not sure that there is a business case for expanding the fitness center, but I am sure that racquetball takes an egregiously disproportionate share of the physical space based on the number of users.

Anyway, it's nice that the expansion of the fitness center and the demise of the racquetball courts looks like it will have modest benefits for Big D. That's not the way change always works, but if you're playing the numbers, that's the way it usually does.


  1. I think the key difference between racquetball and more NordicTrac machines is that racquetball is a social activity, wearas NordicTrac is a solo thing. So racquetball can foster community and build social capital in a way that NordicTrac can't, and in a way that is a valuable thing for the YMCA's mission.

    NordicTrac is good if you are just going there work a workout, but its also a symptom of the bowling alone phenomenon - its a singular task replacing what had previously been a key element of a social network.

    The old-timers aren't there just for a workout, they are there to hang out with other old-timers while doing physical activity. And apparently they've built enough of a community around it that they've gone so far as to print T-shirts. That adds value in a way that having a bigger weight room does not.

  2. All good points, except that the space devoted to the eight racquetball players just doesn't make the cuts. I'd love to see the Y offer more competitive activities in the gym. They do plenty of stuff for youth but not that much for us residents of iPod nation. We're happy there, but a social nudge might be beneficial to the community.

  3. Maybe the solution is to figure out how to get more people interested in playing racquetball.