Squash Mad

Alan’s Blog: Time for a new squash boom in England

 

England produced two world champions in Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro

England produced two world champions in Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro

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.

ESR_KeirWorthI 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.

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England is not alone in facing problems of club closures and falling numbers. Take a look at this video from India

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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.

Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop share crutches in New York

Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop share crutches in New York

 

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.

 

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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.

Cover girls: Joshna and Dipika

Cover girls: Joshna and Dipika

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.

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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.

Got to love that drink

Got to love that drink. Paola does

 

Posted on February 1, 2015

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About The Author

Alan Thatcher

Lifelong sports journalist and squash lover. Event promoter, coach, author, voice artist. Founder of World Squash Day.

5 Comments

  1. Kieron February 2, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Interesting read and sobering statistics. Our club, in a corner of Derbyshire, has a thriving junior community with some excellent young players. But we do have a wonderful ‘volunteer’ coach who, at 70, does it for the love of the game.
    But I think ours is definitely not the norm. Playing S&D and Derbyshire we always try and play one or two of the juniors in the 3rd & 4th teams to give them experience of playing competitively – very rarely see this in other teams.
    At ours, there’s many members ‘retired’ from Squash and playing the more sedate Racketball – this seems to be getting more popular and I wonder if you added the numbers together whether the drop would seem quite as drastic.
    If ESR (both sports covered in the name) want to keep the level of funding, why can’t they argue this – after all, Racketball is an excellent way for the older Squash generation to still keep fit and active.

  2. Mainser February 2, 2015 at 9:45 am

    A good analysis, as always Alan, but perhaps the most telling thing is how few people have commented. In addition to players we need more people to be passionate about growing the sport. Some great examples round the country, but there needs to be better sharing of what works and what doesn’t.
    I also think a challenge for squash is understanding that more and more play is taking place in leisure centres and ES&R would do well to come up with strategies to engage with those players

  3. Peter Bryttne February 2, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Interesting that only yesterday we had this discussion at our club in Stockholm. What happened to all the 20-30/35 year old players? We have a booming kids’ section but it’s so empty above 20!
    Our two best players in Sweden are 30 and 40 years old. Well they’re not over the edge like me but we have no real contenders to threaten them and that is alarming. We should have a bunch of hungry 18-23 year old ones pushing hard.
    Why is this then?
    Well I guess there are quite a few reasons and they probably differ from country to country, region to region etc but since this is not unique for squash, but something we see in many sports, we need to look at our society and perhaps the social structures.
    With the huge growth of social interaction via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc we are fooling ourselves to think that we have become closer when in fact we’ve drifted apart. Sure I’ve been able to connect with some long lost friends from a hundred years ago but at the same time I’m talking (you know, REALLY talking) less with some of my closest friends. Add to this that we have so many more opportunities, so much that is calling for our attention that we have to make choices and prioritize. Well, if squash is not at the top of the agenda then guess what – you stop playing.
    What we see in some of the former eastern bloc countries and of course USA is amazing. What can we learn from them? What do we have to do differently at national, regional, club level? Well I think that squash federations have to start to put together “teams for the future” where we can share best practice.
    Me, I want to focus on the kids – I want to see more kids on the courts! This means, though, that we have to find solutions when it comes to courts – which in turn leads to questions on how the clubs should be run in the future.
    Gosh – there’s so much to be done!

  4. Ian Robinson February 2, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Insightful and helpful analysis – hitting several nails on several heads! In addition I lament the passing of the Senior National Ranking lists for ladies and men. I don’t think such lists have existed for at least a decade or possibly more. Neither is there a coherent annual calendar of tournaments that would feed and enable such ranking lists. Sports feed on activity and particularly competition to offer a focus for all those players motivated by the shop window of successes by our international elite. It is infrastructure and a competitive pathway from beginner through to seasoned player that will hook in the keen beginner and sustain long term playing careers. To compliment that there must be an enjoyable lifestyle commitment for that player which incorporates social activity in the sport as much as anything.

    Very sadly, squash is off the pace in this regard. On a positive note, there is plenty of scope for improvement, but that is down to those charged with looking after the sport and guiding it through this difficult transitional period.

    I for one, like Alan, see potential but there is an awful lot of rebuilding work to do yet.

  5. Mainser February 20, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Ian – watch this space – it’s about to be addressed 🙂

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