‘Do they care about the recreational player? Of course not. Do they care about the fact that most players are using the wrong ball? Apparently not.’
By LEE WITHAM (Squash Mad Special Correspondent)
The Gorilla in the room: I want to discuss a difficult issue that is very obvious, but is ignored for the convenience or comfort of those involved.
Squash is not in the best of health at the moment. Some aspects of the sport are doing extremely well. Recreational squash is not one of them.
The squash clubs and associations around the world have focused on their favourite child (performance squash) and forgotten their other children. In the 1980s (yes, 40-plus years ago) squash was the ‘in’ sport with courts sprouting up everywhere. In the 1990s this continued, and countries like Germany were building courts in record numbers.
Yet the focus was always on performance squash, with tournaments everywhere, every weekend. Squash committees were taken over by team and tournament players or parents of competitive juniors.
Do they care about the recreational player? Of course not. Do they care about the fact that most players are using the wrong ball? Apparently not.
Without recreational players, the sport of squash cannot survive. In business, companies understand that they need to look after all of their customers. In the hospitality business, which is not too far removed from the core business of our larger sports clubs, the same thing applies.
However, most squash committees never think about this stuff. Largely because these groups are often run by people whose prime objective is to look after family, friends and their own small social circle. Squash, therefore, needs to find some solutions.
Many squash associations and clubs are still referencing a Forbes article from 2003 claiming that squash is the healthiest sport in the world.
Sure, it was good press. People seemed to conveniently forget that Forbes is a publication for finance, industry, investing, and marketing topics. I am not disagreeing; squash is indeed one of the healthiest sports.
However, we have to be more specific about which element of fitness we can use to differentiate ourselves from the typical gym. Otherwise, people will keep visiting the gym as it’s so convenient. It’s not simply about the calorie burn.
Giving back to squash
All companies that are associated with and benefit from squash need to give back and support the game. Each company should set aside funds to help clubs to attract new players. Without the new players, their sales figures will remain static, at best, or reflect that falling numbers apparent in so many territories.
As an example, golf very often has roadshows, where players can test the latest clubs and equipment. This used to happen in squash. The allocated funds go to paying for the courts and the local pro for a few hours as he/she organises fun events while the company representative chats with those outside the court to gather feedback. No cost to the visitors, just a fun experience.
Personally, I have sponsored pro players. Nevertheless, like most things, it’s a question of balance. The priority now is to donate to programs that encourage new players, be that through squash and education, or simply sponsor events.
We need experts, not necessarily expert coaches
Running events for the recreational players could include social events, round robins, fundraisers, tournaments, and prize-winning competitions. These are simple ideas to build a fun experience and build a community within a club.
I’m a strong believer in the six-week cycle: Light promotion in advance, then heavy promotion of the event for two weeks, the event takes place, you produce a report on the event and gain feedback from the players. Then you start the cycle again, and promote the next event.
The obvious location for the coordinator is the reception desk. (I understand that smaller clubs may not have one). In bigger clubs, everyone coming and going must pass by and this allows for a perfect opportunity to provide new information or collect feedback. The coordinator will look at squash with a fresh pair of eyes, something we could really do with.
To be very clear, we need good educators around the courts. It’s just that too many coaches are asked to do too much: manage the financials, run events, teams, and coordinate general club projects without any prior experience.
Just look at most golf clubs, where there’s a teaching pro, a shop manager, and a program coordinator. Too often squash pros are asked to do it all and spend at least four hours a day teaching. Hardly the most efficient way to run a business and promote squash.
Squash Associations and Clubs
Squash is a great way to connect, build relationships and provide lasting friendships. We meet people and create community through squash at our local club, school, college, or community centre, or perhaps playing for our county or national team.
The squash associations and clubs must provide oversight, new updates, education, set standards and rules, organise tournaments, and promote equal access, and equal opportunity for all.
As you can see, this mosaic of activities can be quite overwhelming. However, just like creating a mosaic, you need to stand back and understand if the mosaic is the vision of your original expectation. All too often routine takes over, we keep repeating the same things over and over again, with little time to question our reasons for doing things.
To be fair, associations are historically underfunded and understaffed. Volunteering is required in many situations. Therefore, it is imperative we strike a balance in helping ALL squash players.
Now ask the question, what does your club or association currently focus on? It’s nearly always performance squash. From experience, we know that performance squash will generally take care of itself and only be a small fraction of the total number of players in a club. Good players will find good players and have the discipline to get on the court on a regular basis.
The approach needs to be from the bottom up. Introduce players to squash, show them what an amazing game we have and all the benefits that come with it. Understand which elements of the game need assistance and remember, that this can change year by year.
Innovation has to start somewhere. For me, lockdown gave me the opportunity to look at the wider racket sports landscape and to learn lessons from the growth of padel and pickleball.
With squash courts the first to be shut down and the last to be reopened, I began to look at the opportunities for outdoor courts and the obvious technical challenges that would result from various weather patterns in different parts of the world.
Most federations are mandated only to deal with one sport, but I am delighted to be holding more frequent conversations about creating successful, sustainable, multi-sport environments.
The other day I wrote about our prototype squash court at a padel and tennis club in Caceres, Spain.
I am pleased to report that having a new squash court that is visible and easily accessible has piqued the interest of the padel and tennis players.
So much so that the club manager called me to report that the floor needed cleaning because so many people wanted to play on it!
That was a nice challenge to deal with.
Tomorrow: How to run clubs as a successful business.
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Pictures courtesy of Lee Witham