(First published on February 22, 2013. Updated on March 13.)
The SquashSite Forum (Let’s Talk) has wandered into some fascinating areas of politics, corporate greed, weak management and sporting apathy while discussing the subject of squash courts closing down (mainly in the UK and Australia).
Reading the impassioned and sometimes angry posts, I thought it was time for a brief history lesson so that the whole scenario could be placed into some kind of context.
Squash, as most people know, began life in a private school (Harrow claim the honour), and other private schools soon began adding courts of their own.
Before long a few gentlemen’s clubs in London (populated by the wealthy alumni or old boys of those schools) built courts of their own. So, too, did the British armed forces, in various parts of the Empire. That’s how the Khan family upgraded from ball-boys to the world’s greatest players in the 1950s.
In London, expensive, private clubs like Queen’s, Hurlingham, Lord’s, RAC, Bath Club, Lansdowne, the Naval and Military Club and others also added a few courts. There is a court Buckingham Palace.
Royal patronage in racket sports goes back many centuries. Henry VIII, apparently, enjoyed playing real tennis. I always wondered if he encouraged his team of executioners at the Tower of London to take up the game. It might have improved their swing for a cleaner cut.
When squash was exported across the pond to America and Canada, a different strain of the game was developed called hardball, along with a hugely enjoyable and far superior brand of doubles squash on (sensibly) a much bigger court.
Squash began to be added to the sports schedules at colleges like Harvard, Yale and many others. The popularity of the sport meant that wealthy American alumni were also building squash courts at their old boys’ clubs, in much the same way as they did in the UK.
Some hotels, catering to the whims of these same wealthy travellers, thought it might be a nice idea to add squash courts to the facilities on offer to their guests (as did the ill-fated cruise ship, The Titanic).
A smattering of independent private members’ clubs grew up, often with courts being added to tennis clubs, and in the early-to mid-1900s a small number of stand-alone squash clubs began to emerge. These were mainly viewed as middle-class establishments.
More private schools built courts, and wealthy land-owners often enjoyed the convenience of having their own squash court available, possibly attached to the stable block.
So far, so good. You still with me?
This admittedly selective list illustrates the point that squash, in much the same way as other racket sports like real tennis and fives, was enjoyed mostly by the wealthy and privileged.
Society changed dramatically after the Second World War, with a vast expansion of interest in music, fashion and leisure activity. Ordinary people wanted what the rich people had. It was a massive social upheaval.
Entrepreneurs sprung up and were quick to spot any gap in the market. Thus, in the 1970s and 1980s, squash became the trendiest sport in town.
New clubs were built, often with ten or more courts, and squash enjoyed an enormous boom in popularity.
The boom was not driven by the sport itself, or those federations who managed it. The growth in the sport was driven by social trends and the chance for club owners to make money.
Even local authorities decided to ride the wave, adding squash courts to the new council-owned leisure centres. And how are they doing these days?
Look around squash now and you will see that not many of those large clubs survive today. As property prices have risen, those club owners have cashed in their asset or sold out to businesses providing the new and equally transient fad of gym membership.
Gym operators quickly worked out that they could squeeze two dozen treadmills into the space occupied by two squash players and the sport was doomed to a decline dictated by finance directors, ironically the very people from the social group that the original courts were aimed at.
Interestingly, most of the squash courts still survive at those private schools, military establishments and private sports clubs in London where the game began to grow. The big colleges in North America are building squash courts by the dozen, cementing the sport’s place among what may be defined as an elite social group.
Interestingly, squash clubs in the USA are showing the rest of the world how they can operate successfully, both in sporting terms and as commercial entities.
Take a look at the new venues at Chelsea Piers, in New York, the CityView Racquet Club on Long Island, and the Boar’s Head complex at Charlottesville.
Check out the progress of chains like LifeTime Fitness and ACAC.
Professionally managed, with top coaches managing extensive programmes, they exist to deliver a quality experience for every member and an annual dividend for every shareholder.
Too many small clubs in the UK rely on volunteer committees, who have little or no idea how to operate in in the current financial climate.
Although squash has become a popular, everyman sport in the UK and elsewhere, clubs need to look carefully at the measures they need to put in place to survive in a climate of enormous competition for leisure activities. The biggest challenge is choosing how to engage with a generation of children who live their lives through their computers and mobile phones.
As squash bids for a deserved place in the 2020 Olympic Games, to showcase the amazing talents of our leading players, the grass-roots game needs careful management.
Squash clubs need to fight their corner more than ever, to keep this great game in a healthy condition.
It is heartening to see that England Squash and Racketball has managed to generate a funding pot of £13.5m to develop the sport over the next four years.
Every county needs leaders to take up the cause, to make plans to develop the sport, and spend that funding wisely.