Time for squash to fight back as Sport England figures reveal a worrying drop in playing numbers
By Alan Thatcher, Squash Mad Editor
Figures released by Sport England showing a massive drop in squash participation are deeply disturbing for all those involved in the management and promotion of the game.
Sport England’s annual Active People survey is the biggest measure of sports participation at grassroots level and includes those 16 years and over who take part in a sport at least once a week.
Sadly for squash, those figures do not include the majority of junior players. It would be interesting to hear from ESR just how many juniors there are between the ages of six and 16. This figure would surely provide a significant boost to the statistics.
However, the stark drop from 290,000 regular players in England in 2010 to 196,500 today indicates just how serious the problem is that confronts new ESR chief executive Keir Worth.
Despite outstanding success at international level, with Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro recent world champions, and England’s men and women currently world team champions, Sport England have already made clear their feelings to England Squash about the fall in participation numbers. Their insistence on management change led to the exit of former chief executive Nick Rider.
Worth knows that continued funding from Sport England is dependant on a rise in playing numbers, and he is busy planning the restructuring of a governing body that receives more government funding than any other nation in squash.
Squash is not alone in showing a drop in participation. Golf, basketball and swimming have also seen a dip, and the general reduction in people playing sport can only be viewed as a national embarrassment two years after staging the Olympic Games (at a huge cost) in London. Tennis has also been warned that funding will be reduced unless participation figures improve.
Persuading children to put down their mobile phones or leave their X-Box alone to get any kind of physical exercise is becoming harder and harder for parents and teachers alike.
But let’s focus on squash, and attempt to analyse the reasons for the sport’s decline from a phenomenal peak of almost three million players in the whole of the UK in the 1980s, and attempt to find ways to reverse that trend.
The simple, most obvious reason for decline, is the closure of clubs and courts. Without four walls and a floor you simply can’t play. I have written articles before which reveal the damage to the sport caused by clubs being sold by commercial operators who were simply cashing in on the property value of the plot of land on which their clubs sat.
The next cause of decline is the ongoing “rape” of squash by the so-called health and fitness chains. They buy up clubs, often with little or no resistance from members, and fill the courts with gym machines.
From a business perspective, this is very difficult to argue against, although gym chains fail to factor in some simple figures about squash. Squash players are loyal to the sport, and, with the club forming a significant part of their social life, I would bet that squashies spend far more money over the bar than solitary gym users who perform their routines in front of a mirror, sip their water, shower and go home with little or no social interaction with other members.
Squash players will also buy rackets, shoes and clothing, pay for restrings, support social functions and, often encourage their children to follow them on to court and into the sport.
Looking back to the 1980s boom, squash was viewed as the latest fitness fad, and club operators wanted to cash in. We need to understand that the seismic growth of the sport was engineered almost entirely by commercial interests. It did not come from within the sport itself. Therefore we should not be surprised when commercial expediency results in club facilities making way for a new project that will generate increased revenue for the owner of the business.
Ironically, we are seeing similar trends in the gym market, with clubs changing hands or closing down as the number of visitors goes into decline.
Two years ago the number of gym users in the UK was put at seven million. With many paying exorbitant joining fees and a monthly membership contract, these outgoings were often the first thing to be stopped by people trying to balance their personal budgets during a biting global recession.
I recently unearthed a report from Squash Player magazine from the 1980s, which trumpeted that squash-playing numbers were close to three million, with around 750,000 female players. Look around the English squash landscape now and you will struggle to find many counties running women’s leagues with more than a handful of teams.
It was almost as if all those female players from the 1980s and 1990s hit 50 years of age together and gave up the sport all at the same time, with almost no younger players coming through to take their place. With women’s squash on the verge of extinction, these latest figures show that the male game is heading in the same direction.
If you want to do some research, and work out how long YOUR club has left to survive, find out the average age of the members in your club. I would imagine the most likely figure to emerge is 52. Check your membership figures over the past ten years. Is there a trend? How many players simply vanish at the end of each financial year? How many newcomers do you welcome?
Armed with those figures, you can now work out your own Doomsday Scenario for your club. Knowing the average age of your club members, simply apply the most likely age when your senior male members give up playing squash. It could be 55. It could be 60. If you are not bringing in enough new members to replace those who are retiring through old age, then you now know how long your club has to exist.
It’s a stark, chilling situation to be in. So let’s try to shine some light on measures that may reverse the trend before it’s too late. Squash has missed two or more generations of junior players. Now we are playing catch-up. There are plenty of solid, successful clubs around that we can learn from, clubs who have constantly invested in coaches whose targets were to keep the squash courts busy, build a strong junior section, and keep new members coming in through the front door.
Many clubs in the UK struggle because they rely too heavily on volunteers, and finding people willing to give up large amounts of their time for nothing is becoming increasingly difficult.
The US system is vastly different. Most clubs are commercial, multi-sport operations, with full-time staff managing every area of the business. Squash coaches are often called program managers, responsible for building numbers and generating revenue streams. If they hit their targets, they receive a handsome bonus. If they fail, then the courts are likely to be closed and that area of the building given over to other activities which can generate revenue.
It’s probably not the kind of management structure you will see developed by many small, local, volunteer squash committees in the UK. But give a coach some financial incentives to build numbers and fill those empty day-time courts with school groups and fitness classes, and anything is possible.
America is now the biggest squash nation in the world in terms of participation, with more than 1.2 million players.
I am an optimist. I love this sport with a passion, and like to think I am doing my bit to help squash fight its corner in my little patch of Kent. It’s one of the top two counties in England in terms of participation numbers, but that’s set against a backdrop of 100-plus court closures over the past 20 years or so.
I would like to think England can grow those figures again to match America, but we need some bold leaders at club, county and national level to make it happen.
Our top athletes are great role models and we must promote their successes to raise the profile of the sport.
We need to grow doubles and racketball to retain our members for longer.
We must also stop focusing solely on the top 10 per cent of players and create a wide range of activities to keep our bedrock 90 per cent of members happy.
We need to engage more with our local communities, and fill our empty courts in the daytime with a multitude of events. And, most importantly, we need to make our clubs welcoming to women.
Good luck to Keir Worth (above) as he attempts to restructure our national federation.
It’s time to create another boom period for squash.
England is not alone in facing problems of club closures and falling numbers. Take a look at this video from India.
James Willstrop and Ramy Ashour have provided some magical moments in tournaments all over the world, and several times in the Tournament of Champions.
Sadly, injuries and operations meant neither of these gifted racket-stylists could play in this year’s event at Grand Central Terminal. However, the two met up in New York during the event, just a few days after Ashour had undergone a knee operation.
Ramy Tweeted this picture of the two Prince players sharing Ramy’s crutches in his apartment in New York, where he is now based.
Glamour girls meet in Winnipeg
Squash glamour girls Donna Urquhart and Dipika Pallikal met on court in Winnipeg as the Australian enjoyed her return to the WSA Tour following an operation to cure a foot injury.
With the tournament named the Winnipeg Winter Open, I hope she was wearing more than the gear she is modelling in this photo below.
Donna beat Laura Pomportes of France 3-2 in the first round and Amanda Landers-Murphy of New Zealand 3-1 in the quarters. However, in the semis, Dipika triumphed 11-5, 11-5, 11-8 and went on to win the tournament, beating Heba El Torky 11-4, 11-9, 11-8 in the final.
Meanwhile, Dipika and her occasional Indian team-mate Joshna Chinappa were sited on the cover of another magazine looking like professional models.
Talking of glamour girls, world racquetball champion Paola Longoria seems to be spending as much time in the studio as she is on the court, judging by the latest batch of images showing the Mexican maestro promoting products.
Here she is on the cover of a Mexican magazine and (below) her latest photo-shoot featured her endorsing the health-giving properties of Powerade.