Thursday, September 21, 2023

The future of squash: Ed Alvarez shows how clubs must be run as a business for our game to recover

‘Hoping that gyms will be loyal to squash is wishful thinking’  By EDUARDO ALVAREZ - Squash Mad Columnist I am writing from the squash ghost town of Toronto, Canada. As COVID-19 continues to keep our sport on pause, and I look at the struggles of non-profit, squash-only clubs, it might be worth taking a deep […]

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  1. Excellent article on real issues with so many good points…..just like Alan Thatcher’s recent article on the pro ball. The loss of courts is the largest challenge the industry faces and we’re seeing that happen. Life Time built two facilities in our area 15 years ago, both with courts that energized our local squash scene. However a recent third facility in the same area has no courts. They are very close to trends and this is extremely disturbing.

    The question of whether it’s a coaching business or a club business is valid. Unfortunately too much focus is on juniors, elite juniors and competition although I certainly understand that is where the $$$ is for pros. Facilities are very busy 3pm to 7pm which are the after school hours for junior programming but often that’s it. Many traditional tennis and racquets players have scorned pickle ball but the numbers can’t be ignored and now the clubs and pros are finally waking up and starting to embrace the opportunities with new courts, clinics, lessons, and equipment sales. Squash is a wonderful but difficult sport to learn for racquets players, and extremely difficult for non-racquets players, largely due to the pro ball. Pickle ball is booming because it is easy and has attracted former racquets players plus people who have never picked up a racquet. The answer is in front of us and unless the squash community wakes up, I’m afraid the sport will continue to decline. At some point you lose enough courts that you lose critical mass which will accelerate the decline. We need to broaden the appeal of squash by embracing alternative ways to use our courts. That doesn’t mean current squash players have to change, just that clubs and pros should work to bring in new players. We need bolder alternatives than advertising and marketing the existing sport. We need to actively embrace ball alternatives as an option. Personally I think Squash57 (UK racquetball) is the true answer to broaden the use of our courts and save squash. I’ve been drawing skilled tennis and platform tennis players to the squash court with Squash57, no way that would have been possible with traditional squash. I’ve seen people buy equipment to play with spouses who have never been on a squash court before. It’s hard work to start up something new but rather than just focus on the next clinic or tournament or ranking system, it needs to be done, and sooner rather than later. Checkout

  2. Hi David, Great points. Yes, the LifeTime observation is key. These chains may easily pull off squash. IHRSA is showing a 13.9% decline in participation, pre-covid. SGB, around the same number. I believe we need to address the equipment. Squash57 is a good start, but squash can retool in its own right. The people have spoken, they want easy-to-learn and fun. Let’s give them that with easy equipment.

    To me, Squash57 evolved out of people wanting an easier version of squash. (customers sending a message to everyone in the game) Essentially, we borrowed a racquet from another sport, made British Racketball or Aussie Racketball; a new game. It is at this moment, that squash should have said, “hang on, let’s fine tune this to be more like squash, but easier to play. Our players are telling us something”. Instead, it just let it continue as another sport, without seeing market demand spelled out and retooling squash and our equipment. Now we have two sports.

    It’s like when kids started taking Schwinn-Stingray bikes and doing jumps and modifying them. The brands said, “ah, BMX!”

    I think there is a version of squash like BMX, Mountain biking that is more suitable. Anyway, thanks for your insight….

  3. I love squash. It will die fast without a huge infusion of Saudi cash around the globe or a miracle of an Olympic inclusion. Pickle ball is kicking our ass. We have 12 maybe 18 months to change course and it’s over. I started playing tennis during the pandemic. It’s so much harder than squash. Sorry. But Roger Federer is 100 times more talented than than Jansher Khan. It’s not even close. This sport needs to wake up or it will go the way of the dinosaurs.

  4. Good article and a lot of common sense in it. I am trying to find a piece of land in my area of Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland to build a not-for-profit squash complex and if I can source some land any complex I build will have other facilities in it to ensure traffic (fitness studio, gymnastics facilities perhaps etc), a bar and cafe etc and it will be open to all (annual sub or pay-per-play) and will be marketed to the local schools for day use and will look to earn additional income from hiring it out for exhibitions, shows, children’s parties. There will be a large monitors on which to watch Squash TV. A sports complex centered on squash has to be an attractive venue to lounge around, spend time it, meet friends. That’s the plan anyhow………….

  5. Hi Eduardo, a very timely article. Our tennis & Squash club has four squash courts but only 11% utilisation from over 50% of players aged over 50 and playing racketball (Squash57). No teams, No Juniors! There is little or no new blood. It is not sustainable and if it were a business we would be closing and repurposing the space.

    However, there is clearly an opportunity to promote and attract indoor “bat&ball” activities in a fresh and attractive way. 1. Get people in the door 2.create a memorably great experience 3. give people of all ages; choices for fun versus personal development and life skills not to mention the health benefits.

    I’ve just submitted a strategy paper to my general committee to this affect, with #interactiveSQUASH at the heart of being ambitious and adventurous by thinking about; the business of it and the fun of it, in the same breath.

    Lee, Sussex UK

  6. Hey Ed,
    One piece I would add is using the same adult model of casual play with Juniors. I watched this first hand at a club in SW Ontario. Went from 10 juniors to 100. It was not about technical/High Preformance, but inclusion and fun. Atmosphere is key. The model could not be accepted or understood as it flipped everything anyone knew about a club. The struggle with balance as adults thought “juniors” were getting all the courts and could not adapt to the new model. Not seeing that this was an amazing way to keep the club prospering.
    Anyway, I could go on forever at how I marvelled as it grew, but in the end fell apart as it couldn’t get the support as it was Juniors, not the adult model you speak of in the article.
    This is a strong article and I agree on many levels. Just open the model a little wider and understand juniors can drive a club as they come in groups and only a small portion want HP. Most just want a place to feel comfortable and belong, same as an adult


  7. Thanks Eduardo for your reply.

    The primary stake holders in squash are club owners/managers, pros, associations and equipment companies. Regarding equipment companies, squash is such a niche sport that I don’t think we can expect much leadership from them. Pros go where the opportunity is and in the USA, that is the juniors. It’s hard to imagine them dedicating a lot of time to build a business that might pay off in 2-3 years. Club managers/owners have a large stake in this discussion because it’s their business, but it’s a very fragmented group and squash is often just a portion of their business along with fitness. I think the driver has to be the player associations at the national and local levels.

    I view the US and UK markets similar with the exception of college squash. In the US, so much of our focus is junior squash as an opportunity to play in college and to a lesser degree national teams. Unfortunately it is fraught to build a business where the majority of your revenue is based on a sliver of your membership, those that are 10 – 18 years old. I don’t see any stats on adult play but my guess is it’s extremely limited. And that includes all those juniors that stop playing at age 22. Adult tournaments and leagues were way off prior to Covid and I doubt they will return to even those very reduced levels. I’d love to see a graph of the breakdown of players (or association members) by age. College squash is now cutting back on teams and at some point parents may decide that jetting around the country trying to collect ranking points as a way to possibly boost a college application is a mission that isn’t worth it. If we see a pull back in the juniors with no adult squash to lean on, you can say good night.

    Without college squash, the UK has faced these challenges already and one solution to boost participation has been Squash57 (UK racketball). I admit it’s a bit of a bastardization of a sport, but so was pickle ball. I’d love to hear some real stories, positive and negative, from club owners or pros in the UK or elsewhere where an effort was made to boost play from Squash57 or from alternative balls or whatever other efforts they are trying to increase court usage.

    Personally, I love Squash57. As a former A, I can still beat 95% of the squash players in my club but at 60 years old I enjoy Squash57 because it’s new and doesn’t beat up my body as much. I’m done with deep lunges to retrieve drop shots and then racing to the back corner. One thing I have found is that Squash57 also is more accommodating when playing different levels. I can have a fun game with long rallies and burn 400 calories with a C player. In squash if I do that, they tend to just shoot drop shots to try to win points which kills the rallies and the enjoyment. Plus you can play doubles!

    We need a more active effort to change the ball from the double yellow for adult and recreational players and that needs to come primarily from the associations. I don’t know if World Squash is pushing other balls or considering other ways to boost squash, but I know they are promoting Squash57 with Patrick Osborn leading the charge in a range of countries. Canada Squash has a new initiative to promote Squash57. The World Squash Squash57 motto is “lifetime sport, easy to learn, hard to stop” which is exactly what we need to increase number of players and court usage. We need all the stake holders and especially the associations, to get on the same train.

  8. Hi Dan, Yes, recreational juniors is just fine. Agreed. It is more about the idea of recreational squash and casual participation that drives numbers. This is most people; doing a recreation on a casual basis, including kids. As long as the number of players per court is high, the sport can survive at a location. The only thought is “revenue per member” might be lower with juniors depending on the split between the club and pro and if there is a lower junior membership rate.

  9. Brilliant write up Ed.
    This is what I’ve been saying for months now – squash has no business sense and it’s frustrating. We always hire ex-pros instead of business men. Obviously a combination of the two would be perfect.
    Also, I’ve been saying we do not know how to use marketing and the media properly, or even try half the time.
    You’ve nailed it with this write up Ed. Nice!

  10. Ed. Extremely thought-provoking and comprehensive presentation. I would add that it might be we should think “racquet sports” and not try to engage in fratricide by playing the game where for one sport to gain another must lose.
    Racquet sports – all of them – teach, promote and maintain hand-eye coordination and dexterity/mobility- both upper and more importantly lower body. These are capabilities everyone needs for a full and enduring life. And they support World Champions and enthusiasts who value fitness and fun alike

  11. Excellent points, Ed. I would add that we all need to think “racquet sports” and not engage in fratricide wherein we treat sports like a limited pie where one must lose for the other to win. How many times have you observed two people meet and one says “Do you play squash?” and the other responds “No, I play tennis.” We would be humored if one said “Do you eat chicken/” and the answer was “No, I eat steak.” Most people eat chicken AND steak, and perhaps most people could play tennis AND squash – or pickleball or badminton or padel or table tennis …….

    In point of fact racquet sports are developers and promoters of hand-eye coordination and physical dexterity/mobility, both of which are key elements of a happy, healthy and long life. A long life that is enjoyable and productive, and not simply a function of years passing. They are skills that once incorporated into one’s life are like breathing – they provide great benefit without stress, anxiety or even thought.

    Without any negative connotation related to the typical North American squash pro paradigm you have so accurately outlined, we need to pivot to a model where the squash – or racquet – director is a proverbial Pied Piper. Squash needs coaches for whom the goal is pleasure on the court and not a championship or a leg up on entry to an Ivy League school. Those latter events will come, but I think given the burn-out we have seen – how many 25-year-old former college players are still enjoying the game on the court? – it suggests we need to focus on how much fun playing squash can be, and what lifestyle benefits emanate from participation.

  12. Olympic illusion unfortunately. Let’s be positive : It’s still time to react. What we all know as passionates is that squash is mad ! It’s now a question to make it happen for every level of familiarity with rackets.

  13. Hi David, I think Squash 57/UK Racketball is a more playable sport for most people. We do have an issue with players over 40 (even 35) fading away from squash. This is a large demographic. As per Andy’s article, I think we also need to look at the squash ball in general. Agreed. The pro double yellow is not that playable for injured or older players. But, it is tough to admit defeat and switch to another ball. Perhaps if it was endorsed by former pros, it might be ok. This has to come from the top down. The progressive line of balls, is really a mirror of the progressive tennis line, based on mini tennis. It is a “learning” range of balls. “Progressive” not being a word that world beating former A players want to switch to. Squash needs to get sorted out, over and above Squash57. I believe that sport is a good way to solve court usage problems, but it does not solve squash’s issues.

  14. Hi Andy, I’m actually surprised that more teaching and playing pros don’t want to open clubs. Perhaps they don’t see it as a good business. And to your point regarding the ball, that is a huge problem that is not being addressed. Thanks for the comment.

  15. Hi David, Yes, I think we need to really just understand that we are selling a product with the benefits you outlined. It is really about shifting focus to recreational enjoyment of racquet sports. Our sport needs to find that again. Ed

  16. The discussion here is so valuable. I agree wholeheartedly with the need for new approaches to recruitment and retention, and with the vital distinction between the coaching business and the club business. Back when I did it, I was astonished that one could go through 3 levels of coaching certification in Canada or the US and never learn how to administer a program, prepare a business proposal, or talk to a club manager about how to improve a program’s profitability. I think that if coaches were exposed to this, a lot of them would be perfectly capable of creating more compelling cases for their sport within the context of a multi-sport facility.

    At Open Squash (formerly Manhattan Community Squash Center) we have reached capacity in our first club (5 courts, 500 members and a waitlist), and will be opening another location in the Financial District in 2023 with 8 courts, including an exhibition court.

    So, yes, we are intentionally focusing on squash as a standalone activity. Granted, there are probably more squash players per square foot within a 10-mile radius than just about anywhere else on the planet, but we have challenged ourselves to create new squash players as well. We are doing this in two ways: advertising and promoting a junior program for total/near beginners, then inviting them to bring friends while we work to get their parents involved; and, second via lots of social media to attract adult who are looking for a new sport – supported by beginner clinics, round robins, box leagues, etc.

    I hope to keep up with comments and new articles on this topic, as we have an opportunity to innovate here, and to learn from those newer sports that have taken off recently around us.

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