Squash Mad

Any business people out there prepared to take a new punt on squash?

Portsmouth Squash Club had a thriving junior section in the 1980s

Bitter-sweet memories planning World Squash Day and a club reunion

By ALAN THATCHER, Squash Mad Editor

On top of organising World Squash Day, and pestering clubs and federations all over the planet to pull their fingers out to promote the sport, I have also been involved in planning a big squash reunion in November.

Both events have made me think long and hard about the difference between the boom years of squash in the 1970s and 1980s, and the dramatic collapse of playing figures in subsequent years.

The reunion is a wonderful chance to take a trip down memory lane with friends from Portsmouth Squash Club, where I played (and learned a lot) during the 1980s.

The club grew to 12 courts thanks to the energy and vision of two squash-loving business partners, Richard Blair and Drusilla Moody, and Portsmouth became National Club champions when Bryan Patterson arrived as coach and built a star-studded first team alongside a superb junior academy in a thriving club atmosphere.

Richard and Dru gave me the opportunity to stage my first professional events, including the Fosters Lager Series which involved Aussies Chris Dittmar and Rikki Hill playing local heroes Patterson, Martin Shaw and the brothers John and Richard Le Lievre.

I have been busy digging out a huge box of press cuttings from 35 to 40 years ago, when I was based in Portsmouth and writing a weekly squash column during that wonderful, golden era.

Patterson, who now coaches at CitySquash in New York, holds summer camps in Hampshire every summer and is coming back over for a Pompey reunion in November. Before then I need to stick all those cuttings into a big A3 scrapbook to share some great memories with all those attending.

Back then, with so many big clubs, we never foresaw the collapse that was coming. Although I do remember Rex Guppy once complaining that team players booking all the peak-time courts caused a significant drop in the number of casual players using the club in midweek, and that was at his magnificent Kingswood club in Essex where he had built 17 courts!

Rex founded an association of commercial club owners, and they delighted in taunting amateur committees about the need to put business priorities ahead of any other consideration. There was a clear gulf between the old SRA and the businessmen who had moved squash forward, expanding UK playing numbers close to three million in the process.

As the SRA demanded subscription fees based on court numbers and membership figures, they met considerable resistance from many of those club owners who felt that the sport should instead be paying them for their services.

There have been so many factors involved in the decline of squash, starting with the loss of courts due to many of those owners cashing in on the value of their properties and selling the plot of land for housing or commercial development, and gym chains buying up clubs and changing the use of so many venues. It will be a bitter-sweet moment when I return to Portsmouth to a club that has shrunk to just four courts after three decades of gym club ownership.

We have seen players from those boom years hanging up their rackets in large numbers, usually when age overtook their enjoyment of the game, and clubs appeared to have little idea of how to stem the tide. Suddenly it became clear that the popularity of the sport had diminished and there were very few younger members coming through to fill the gaps.

A mountain of media cuttings from the golden days of squash

In essence, squash has missed out on three generations of junior players since those boom days. Many clubs now have a group of juniors, a smattering of players in their 20s and 30s, and the bulk of their membership aged between 45 and 65.

But let’s take another step back and try to understand what caused the massive growth of squash in the 1970s and 80s. Simply, the popularity of squash grew on the back of entrepreneurs sensing an opportunity to make money out of the sport. The growth was NOT driven by any squash federation or amateur committee.

Society was very different in those days. The beginning of squash’s decline coincided with the arrival of burger chains and foreign food takeaways.

People’s eating habits changed dramatically and we are now seeing the result in a society struggling to cope with issues of obesity in both children and adults.

Drink-driving laws meant that people started drinking at home instead, and now every supermarket is cashing in, with shelf after shelf stacked with cheap alcohol.

People who only used to drink when they went out out for an evening are now guzzling booze at home every night while they slump in front of the telly.

A healthy sport like squash should be promoted as a valuable part of the solution to these issues, and a great way to improve the lives of thousands of children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Very few clubs or county associations have a clue about addressing these issues, so squash clearly needs some smart-thinking individuals to set the ball rolling. World Squash Day gives every club on the planet the opportunity to join forces on one special day to open their doors and show the world what a great game we have.

Many clubs show enormous creativity to stage some special events. Others simply don’t bother. It will be no surprise if they are the clubs with dirty courts, leaky showers and a bar full of middle-aged men with no female members in sight.

The decision by David Lloyd Clubs to close more than 100 courts and replace squash with a fitness class called Blaze means that parts of towns and cities like Southend, Derby, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes and areas of London are being left without squash facilities.

It is yet another tale of woe for the sport but it does offer an opportunity for a new style of club to fill the gaps, one with squash as major part of the sporting, health and fitness activities on offer.

As I have mentioned to several people in recent weeks, it is a little bit crazy to place the future of squash in the hands of a third party. So it is up to squash lovers to provide the solution. We need a new breed of entrepreneurs, just like those pioneers of 40 years ago, who are prepared to take a punt on squash. Those salaried officials and committee members who are ignoring World Squash Day are not the people to take the game forward.

COMMENT: Readers are invited to share their thoughts below.

 

Posted on September 26, 2018

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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.

18 Comments

  1. Phil Whitaker September 26, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    Half the population is overweight enough to find Squash impossible. Get them on a Keto diet and turn their health around and Squash – and Racketball – will become much more appealing.

  2. Mark Bellinger September 26, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    Sadly it is surprisingly difficult to take a punt on squash very seriously as a business until they start running it like a business.

    For more than two years I have been asking, suggesting, insisting and in fact trolling the PSA to get something as simple as profile pictures for the professionals players added to the website.

    Their latest response in August 2018 was and I quote “Hi Mark, we will have a new staff member joining this month and will be looking at getting players to send their own pics in order for us to do the updates when time permits.”

    How seriously should I or other potential businesses think about investing in a sport who takes that attitude?

    I also remember sitting watching the British Open in Hull and whilst enjoying the titanic battle taking place between two gladiators of our great sport, I couldn’t help but overhear a long conversation in front of me between someone from the PSA, who spent a good hour telling the person next to her just how hard it is to get sponsors for squash.

    I know she was from the PSA because after the match I politely introduced myself, handed her my card and said that I had heard her conversation and would like to help, so give me a call.

    Still waiting.

  3. Ferez S. Nallaseth, PhD September 27, 2018 at 3:50 am

    Thanks for this sad but insightful analyses, Alan.
    They do raise a couple of interesting questions. Especially in terms of the interactions between the business and squash communities. As well as the relationships between nutritional, entertainment, work and exercise habbits. In the UK Tennis, Soccer and Cricket playing populations seem to span the socioeconomic and so vocational spectrum of Squash playing
    populations. It’s natural to wonder why unlike Squash these
    other sports are thriving in the UK? This is unlike its global
    growth as has been reported here and elsewhere.
    Best,
    Ferez

  4. Ian Stephenson September 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Another great article, Alan that, in my opinion, hits one of the big nails right on the head: In the modern era, all sports need CASH, either generated or funded. When I was MD of my own company in the 80’s and 90’s I did my bit by sponsoring Cumbria Squash and my club, Windscale; not only that I was pro-active – played the sport and took a county development role, plus coaching 100’s of youngsters. The success or otherwise of squash throughout the UK is like a patchwork quilt, but I wouldn’t mind betting that the ones who are doing best have a commercial approach and are operated by paid managers, with little ‘interference’ from ‘died-in-the-wool’ committee structures?

    • Alan Thatcher September 27, 2018 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks Ian. You have certainly done your bit for the game, so Cumbria owes you a massive thank you. Clubs need to be run as a business, but those run by volunteer committees leave themselves wide open to being hijacked by pushy parents with a very narrow, personal agenda. I have seen some absolutely appalling behaviour from people like this down the years, including one angry Dad who was so rude that he cost one particular club the biggest sponsorship deal in their history. I have also received reports of under-11s swearing on court while their parents (including a county chairman) were upstairs swearing in the gallery. I have seen parents running county teams and selecting their own children ahead of better players, I have seen Mums and Dads encouraging their children to cheat, and witnessed some insanely jealous behaviour from angry Dads that defies description!

  5. Paul September 27, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    I guess the thing with racket sports and especially Squash is they are difficult games to learn/play . As kids are not doing as much sport in general as are parents did in the 60/70s etc.. All sports are suffering with participation numbers when they hit adulthood.
    So the easy option for this generation is to hit the gym as there’s little skill required..
    For me growing up in th 80/90s playing sport everyday the transition to Squash was the perfect fit as I hit 18. First job in London building had Squash courts tick ! Squash clubs had Bars and were very social. Squash was very competitive single play compared to my Tennis/Badminton club (doubles)etc..

    But going forward a squash business can’t rely on this flow of players coming through as we know the work/social life in the U.K has changed completely.

    We certainly need to make squash easier for beginners at a club I.e if you were to borrow a racket /ball at David lloyd you would be given a very bog standard racket and a dreadful old double dot ball. So no wonder people trying Squash like this wouldn’t get very far !

    Maybe the solution for Squash is to be part of a bigger project for racket sports /children play..

    I.e there are many trampoline /softplay areas that have opened up across country if there’s a way to combine squash into these with other leisure facilities available.

    • Alan Thatcher September 27, 2018 at 6:31 pm

      Hello Paul. Agreed, squash fails totally in helping adult newcomers to enjoy the sport. Clubs are more than happy to bank the subscription fee, but very few clubs ever offer free sessions for new members who need to be taught how to play the game safely, and with the right ball. Most beginners hit the ball back down the middle of the court, and this is why injuries occur with wild, uncontrolled racket swings. How many clubs insist on beginners wearing goggles? How many clubs provide the correct ball (beginner ball or single dot) for newcomers?
      I have always gone out of way to help newcomers because I remember that I was a newbie once and I am eternally grateful to the guys who taught me how to play this brilliant game more than 40 years ago.
      Agree that gym work is much simpler. You can go at your own pace, hide in the corner, and not get involved in anything competitive or anything that requires skill.

  6. Ian Clarke Johnson September 27, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    Very well written article, Alan. A pressing point to me is that squash seemingly needs a facelift as far as public image goes – I play in the northeast of the country and there is a very odd but very strong view around here (from discussions I’ve had with those who don’t play or know the sport, at least) that squash is for snobs and the pompous! Not sure how such a sentiment can be dispelled without direct contact between the sport and the unaware so unsure what to suggest to rectify this but it certainly seems a prominent – and most incorrect – view held by many around here.

    • Alan Thatcher September 27, 2018 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Ian. I agree wholeheartedly with the view that squash has an image problem. It’s not just the north, there are plenty of people in the south who think squash is a “posh” sport. They have clearly not visited a squash club in the past 40 years. The boom years coincided with social barriers being broken down and I have played in plenty of club teams where the players came from a real mixture of backgrounds.
      Sadly, squash also has a significant image problem in key parts of the media. A friend of mine who works for a national TV channel told me that his colleagues (the commissioning editors – the people who decide what programmes to broadcast) think squash is too middle-class and middle-aged.
      I now know how that opinion has been formed. These people have clearly not bothered to watch the top pros, nor have they bothered to set foot in a local squash club. This type of opinion is formed when people visit a local leisure centre …. and guess what type of player is the most prevalent!
      At the heart of this problem is the disconnect between the clubs and the professional game. I stand at the club bar and hear blokes talking about football, beer, cars and golf, but hardly ever hear anyone discussing professional squash.

  7. Aubrey Waddy September 27, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Mixed feelings reading your oh so pertinent column, Alan. I played in Portsmouth just before that exciting period at the club. What a buzz there was around squash then. With reference to Mark Bellinger’s comment on your blog, the whole country knew about a charismatic Irish player with a semi-biblical name, Jonah Barrington. The Hampshire team of those days included John and Richard LeLievre and Martin Shaw (sadly, not Chris Dittmar and Rikki Hill, or Hampshire would have romped the intercounties championship for years).

    To add to your thoughts, the game of squash itself needs attention, and so does its presentation on the crucial medium, television.

    For recreational players by far the most important consideration is the ball. The vast majority of us, without thinking, play with the slowest ball available, the double yellow dot. According to Dunlop this is intended for ‘Advanced Players’. Most players aren’t strong enough to get these balls to their proper working temperature, especially if the courts are cold. So the ball they use doesn’t bounce enough. So the game is less fun. So players move away, to racketball. Or give up.

    Thus ball temperature has to be on the agenda. Manufacturers should give us the correct temperature range – in play – for each of their grades of ball. Just feel a double yellow in a match between two ‘advanced players’, that is to say, at the minimum, good club players in their twenties and thirties. The ball will be hot.

    These days you can buy an infrared thermometer for as little as £10. With one of these you can quickly measure the temperature of a ball. Clubs should promote single yellow, red and blue balls, and encourage players to experiment using a thermometer. They can be advised and find the ball for them that reaches the desired temperature and becomes sufficiently bouncy.

    A couple of illustrations: I saw two girls aged 10 or 11 having a hit at my club recently. It was summer but the double yellow ball was stone cold and hardly bounced. There were no rallies, although the girls were skilful enough. They could have been having much more fun.

    Another illustration comes from two of the best o-75 players in the world, playing in the semi final of the UK National Masters championships, on a cold court in Manchester. It was pathetic! The rallies were exclusively two or three shots long, including the service. The ball seldom reached the back wall, and then only after an overhit lob serve. No changes of tactics. No variations of pace. No test of stamina.

    Another change would help the pro game specifically, because it’s televised, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be adopted for everyone. If you consider the course of a tennis match, there are plenty of minor peaks in the tension: every few minutes at the deuces and game balls and break points. Major peaks occur in tie breaks and at set points and match points. Squash has only the equivalent of, at most, five periods of tension in a close match, which with the pro men will frequently last a long 90 minutes. There’s not enough tension for the ordinary sports fan, flicking through the channels on a wet Saturday afternoon. Therefore squash needs to focus again on its scoring system, with perhaps best of, not five but seven, shorter games, still point a rally. First to seven points should be about right. A secondary benefit would be fewer games given up because of an insurmountable lead. It would be interesting to hear the opinions of the top players.

    And no deuces! Sudden death in a squash match is incredibly exciting. I saw it once in the exhibition tournament John Nimick used to promote in Boston. Sudden death was played for the decider in best-of-three game matches. The tension at ten all in the third game was dramatic and absolutely nerve shredding. The organisers of the Canary Wharf tournament have shown a willingness to experiment with scoring. Surely others can follow?

    Squash is already so much better televised these days. All credit to the organisers of the pro sport. It could still be improved. The BBC has shown how to employ not one but three cameras behind the front wall, with one following the general play and one each on the competitors for replays between points. This is expensive, but easily justified, given the likely payback of enhanced viewing figures and enthusiastic major sponsors. Other camera positions are essential to show the extent of players’ forward and back movement. High on the sidewall halfway along the court is a location that could highlight how far players are travelling; so can high on one side behind the court, which has been successfully trialled. By itself the traditional camera position, again high but central behind the court, takes away the drama: two world class athletes at the limit of their physical skills appear to be strolling. Their apparent movement is minimised by foreshortening. Modern pro squash offers incredible skill and physicality. It’s essential these characteristics are seen.

    Well done, Alan, for so forcefully supporting the game of squash. In response, the sport’s authorities need to wake up. They’ve already changed the scoring system a couple of times, and to their credit, have lowered the tin for the pros. The upheavals have been even greater in the United States. Still more has to be done to distance the game from its elitist 19th century origins and make it truly fit for the 21st century.

    • Alan Thatcher September 27, 2018 at 7:01 pm

      Aubrey, thank you for a very detailed and intelligent response. I agree with the ball issue, and have already mentioned that in an earlier reply. It’s simply criminal that clubs fail to help their members derive more enjoyment from the sport by playing with a ball that corresponds to their ability.

      I agree that the scoring system could do with further experimentation to enhance the TV coverage. Commercial channels prefer short segments of play that can fit in between the advertising breaks, which is a major consideration. True, this may harm the purists’ view of the game, but professional sport stands or falls on its relationship with TV and the sponsorship this can generate.

      Time we got on court, Aubrey. We’ve been threatening to do it for too long!

  8. Phil Whitaker September 27, 2018 at 7:58 pm

    Well said Aubrey! I’m with you on all your points, although I’d add Racketball to the mix. If long-term players are switching to the bigger ball to avoid injury – and being joined by younger players who’ve never played Squash – this is a commercially successful proposition. At my own club, Beaconsfield, Racketball is rivalling Squash. Not everyone has aged as healthily as you have! Oh – and what’s your secret?

  9. ted gross September 28, 2018 at 7:17 am

    In the States, the game was at its most appealing for average players when:

    1 We played softball on (18.5 ft) hardball courts before they were all torn down, and

    2 We couldn’t import the real Dunlop ball, so by default we used a different brand, which was a faster single yellow dot.

    At the Uptown Racquet Club we had 14 courts – 12 hardball and 2 softball.

    It was common during prime time for the 12 (18.5 ft) courts to be filled with softball players, and the 2 (21 ft) courts to be typically empty.

    I’m convinced that for rec players the softball worked best (and was more fun) on a smaller court, with a faster ball.

    And this is despite the low tin.

    • Alan Thatcher September 28, 2018 at 1:20 pm

      Thank you, Ted. Great to have an American perspective on these issues. With court closures and falling participation numbers across the UK, perhaps it is time to look at ways of reinventing and relaunching the game for a whole new generation of players.

  10. Aubrey Waddy September 28, 2018 at 9:47 am

    interesting comment, Ted; if we could start again with designing the game it should include substantial elements of hardball

    • Alan Thatcher September 28, 2018 at 1:23 pm

      Hardball Doubles: Probably the most fun you can have on any type of squash court. We have just one such court in the whole of Europe, at Edinburgh Sports Club. Interestingly, they have successfully added a Padel court and are planning (or have built) a second.

  11. ted gross September 28, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    Alan, I forgot to add:

    Occasionally one of the softball courts at the Uptown Racquet Club was booked during prime time –

    And of course that was by Mick Jagger!

  12. ted gross September 28, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks Aubrey. In my opinion hardball was not a great game for recreational players. Hardball did display well at the pro level.

    For a few years we had the best of both worlds – softball on the smaller court.

    Not particularly enjoyable at the higher levels, but just perfect for the masses.

    Once we converted the courts, we’ve never approached that level of passion among recreational players.

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