Coping with Covid: It’s time to connect with your casual users to keep the game alive
By ANDREW MOUNT – Squash Mad Correspondent
From time to time we happen upon a special piece of writing; something clearly composed with a combination of passion, insight and containing a vision of how the game can survive the setbacks imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Andrew Mount has penned an engaging essay about the familiar feelings of falling in love with squash. But, with playing numbers already dwindling ahead of the enforced lockdowns across the world, he calls on everyone engaged in the sport to work harder than ever to help others share that experience.
It’s time, he says, for every club to embrace the silent majority of their membership list; put your arm around the casual users, mentor those who may be passing through now and again, and help to grow the numbers back up before it’s too late.
Pour a coffee, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy Andrew’s article, which he originally entitled Squash Audit: A COVID-19 Pause for Racquet Reflection.
Nervous murmurs in squash pockets around the world contemplate how squash will survive another blow. As club owners, club professionals, general managers, administrators and board members alike batten down the hatches to sustain the 2020-2021 season that never was, speculation has begun for how clubs will turn the corner from COVID-19 and begin to rebuild their memberships.
If you have held a seat at one of these tables, you will understand the traditional challenges with promoting and selling a fringe sport that is thoroughly enjoyed by a loyal few but tucked just far enough out of reach of the critical masses.
If only one of our ‘all-in’ campaigns for Olympic inclusion had worked, squash would have made it. Instead, the ever-riveting monthly membership bean count is read, ‘up 7 this month, down 15 year-to-date.’ On a good month, it’s a trickle but more often than not it’s plus or minus a couple of drips.
The promotional old faithfuls of open-houses and referral programs are deployed to combat death by membership dribble. All the while we watch pickleball with wide eyes and open mouths as they are ushered to the enviable stage of mainstream, with a wiffle ball and oversized ping pong paddle in hand and a junior tennis net in tow. A friendly invite from them as they pass by, ‘do you want to play with us, we have an extra paddle?’ A growth spurt akin to a long-lost cousin of ours, racquetball, who survived the 90s in a select few border towns. We can thank our associations for pulling us through that decade.
Take a backseat IOC, it’s COVID-19’s kick at the can. Best of five, COVID-19 to serve, Squash to receive. Before we get started, excuse my little pre-game pump-up session for squash. I promise it won’t take a minute.
This could be a five-setter. What you already know, but may have forgotten, is that you (the game of squash) are cherished by loyal followers all over the world. You’re a lifestyle, life-changing and life-sustaining. An obsession, a distraction, even an escape for some. A cathartic result unmatched by most 45-minute exertions. An intoxicating talent for connecting long spanning friendships both in club and out. Your game is on the upswing, revived and led by US Squash.
Joey and PJ have us glued to your PSA Tour with the right mix of humor, enamored by the acrobatics and imagination of your immortals. While the World Squash Federation trends us into the future through ventures with Esports. Perhaps we will be sparring with partners across the globe from our living rooms through the mirror. Squash, you may provide the ultimate balance of fiction and sweat. Can you imagine the confidence factor of that ranking system and relevant matches that would follow?
You’re retro, nostalgic and seeping into current trends; portrayed in movies through the popped collars of Ivy Leaguers, depicted for your agile mind, witty moves and short white shorts. Follow a simple game plan to capture COVID’s queen. You may not realize this now, but battling and winning this one is exactly the test that you need.
A good stay at home defence is your cornerstone for this match. It’s not sexy, almost no one will notice it, but us squash mortals rely, as we hustle, lob and lunge, working to create sustainable and surefooted ground from which we will eventually collect. A flash in the pan if we try to shoot our way out of this one. But first, settle in with good length, and let COVID-19 know that you’re willing to wait … and stay on court as long as it takes.
Before we deploy our traditional opening move, pounding the proverbial pavement donning sandwich boards touting our crown of ‘healthiest sport,’ perhaps a slight shift in tactics is needed. An audit to rescue the revenue row from our COVID-19 shattered memberships.
Consider for a moment your ‘passionate enthusiast’ club membership grouping. Full of great ideas on how to improve everything – from programs to coaching. The first to register for a tournament, volunteer, consult or steer a committee. They often have formed a grade worthy thesis on club operations. Don’t you love their energy! Believe it or not, congrats are in order. You’re halfway there because you’ve groomed members that care. It can be damned hard to remember to celebrate this when the sauna is down.
Now, to the other end of the spectrum, where our attention should turn. Think of your least engaged member, what is their name? OK then, can you at least describe what they look like, which programs they play in? Blonde, brunette or bald? Late 20’s, early 50’s? What is their club hypothesis? We have no idea, do we! This is our real enemy.
Not Covid-19, not the IOC, but from within, the disengaged member; unheard, unencouraged, unlistened to, uninvited, unknown and now unseen. Our enemy is our opportunity, but, like a winning position, it’s fleeting.
What the squash industry needs right now is for every club to turn their attention inwards, engaging the unengaged with the vigor of our once pitch or three. We will do it with such conviction that our own past-time depends.
But first, this process requires an awakening, an apparition, a visit from your squash past. Think way back to the first time you braved the nakedness of the back glass. Almost on cue, a person appeared who proved essential to our own squash story. They encouraged us and acted as our survival guide, connected us to the club, navigated us through the agony of our first tournament and invited us to the ever popular after-match-table. Remember them and their unconditional optimism for us! Weren’t they amazing!?
Here I finally get to the solve, like a 50-shot backhand rally only a Khan could appreciate. Pencil pushers to the front of the line, your time to save squash is near. The quiet voices of the unengaged can be heard in the strokes of an audit of your club’s player pathway; an itemization of your club programs, events and activities. An unbiased tally of the degree to which your individual members are using your club. Fob reports, court booking records, pages and pages of registrations for leagues and tournaments all collated. Hmmm … 300 members, this could take more than a while.
Let’s cut to the chase instead, a moment of racquet reflection, why a flurry of miraculous corner digs when a volley from mid-court will do. Can we pick out our 50 unengaged John and Jane ‘Q’ squashers from our membership line-up? The ones we know we don’t know and are in need of our squash love and attention? Listen closely now and you will finally hear:
“I’m not good enough. I don’t know anyone. No one knows me. Why doesn’t this ball bounce? Why does this feel like the high school cafeteria? Suddenly, I can’t find time to get into the club. I can’t commit that far in advance, I don’t have anyone to play, the club is intimidating. Why won’t my box leaguers return my emails? How do you get the ball out of those impossible back corners? Which program do I belong in? This game is too tough.”
This (the Covid lockdown) is our chance to respond. Uncover the leaks in your programming, bottlenecks in your processes and fill the cracks they fell through. Don’t wait, go get them and their COVID bubble families.
Bring them on board, network them in, help them catch our squash fever and what’s your reward? Empty courts are missed opportunities and often a sign of the future. A perfect opening for a golf simulator, a yoga studio or Tough Mudder training.
Your club’s either growing or dying.
There’s no status quo. Inclusion is the new club cool. Invite them onto the court. Maybe you will be just what someone needs, you’ll get that warm feeling of passing it on, and perhaps a leading role in someone’s precious opening squash chapter.
I think you are now following my path to the ball. Your ‘passionate enthusiast’ moves back into the play. Time to focus their words and energy into actions; mentoring, moulding, maybe even hand holding. It’s your culture today that predicts your tomorrow.
It’s no guess to me, it’s your practices toward your engagement that your club’s future relies on. And now for some undeniable truth, a club doctrine of sorts; the more engaged are your members, is a membership health indication; safety in numbers is a validation of your processes and player pathway. Your club feasibility moves beyond your ritualized monthly headcount, it’s now a temperature-taking.
Here’s a ball. Here’s a racquet … the humanity of our sport awaits. Love-all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Many thanks to Andrew for allowing us to share a superbly-crafted piece. Readers are invited to share their thoughts below.