Jonathan Clay wants to be the catalyst to racquetball — and he's launching a national resurgence of the sport by bringing a pro tournament to New Jersey.
"Racquetball was so big in the '80s that it wasn't uncommon for (sports) clubs to not have one piece of workout equipment, and only have racquetball courts," Clay said. "The sport needs someone with marketing knowledge to give it the kick it needs to grow back to where it was. It's stuck in a very small niche, and that niche has the potential to explode."
After earning a graduate degree in marketing from Rutgers University in 2005, Clay began working in the events department of marketing firm Jack Morton Worldwide. But to simultaneously pursue a business in racquetball, he taught lessons, participated in local tournaments and formed athletic apparel company Rollout Racquetball from his home in Middleton.
"The recession, in a funny way, sort of helped me out. I took a cut in pay at my job and the company wasn't doing so well, and there wasn't a whole lot of room for me to grow," Clay said. "I thought, I have this business and it's starting to do pretty well, so let me see what I can do with my job hobby and see if I can make something of it."
After serving as president of the state's amateur racquetball association and running local tournaments for three years, Clay applied his marketing and client services knowledge to the sport by launching Rollout Marketing Solutions in 2007.
While building sponsorships for professional players and expanding his Rollout clothing line on a national platform, Clay caught the attention of International Racquetball Tour commissioner Jason Mannino, who sat down with him in November to discuss bringing a pro tournament back to 3 Cubed Athletic Center, in Fairfield.
"Pros have not set foot in New Jersey since the (New Jersey Open) was held in this club over 10 years ago, back when it had 20 courts," Clay said. "I looked at it from a business perspective, and I saw it was a great opportunity. It's a way to bring the most influential racquetball tournament and the top 10 players in the world to this state."
According to Clay, nearly 200 racquetball players of all skill levels — including local amateurs hoping to play the pros — will compete for $20,000 in the four-day tournament in December, drawing several hundred spectators to New Jersey and broadcasting live online to more than 20,000 international viewers.
In the meantime, Clay's traveling to local tournaments around the country — not only competing as a semi-pro, but also picking up team sponsorship opportunities, hiring regional coordinators to manage the teams and promoting his brands. He hopes to have 300 players — with at least one in each state — managed by 25 full-time regional coordinators by 2013.
Clay said Rollout was recently named an official advocate of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, to include racquetball as a national fitness goal, and it was selected as the official sponsor of USA Racquetball, the sport's national governing body that's recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
"I'm taking the Rollout brand and bringing that to an official relationship, so it's like a new company for me, in a sense," Clay said. "In this niche, I'm one of the strongest brands out there. As the sport grows, my company will grow as a result. Hopefully, 10 years from now, it will grow back to the '80s."
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