‘We need a fresh approach in a post-Covid world and that begins with understanding costs and how to make squash more visible’
By LEE WITHAM (Squash Mad Special Correspondent)
I am excited by reimagining how the game of squash can operate successfully in the future. Technology is at the heart of everything we do to make clubs smarter and more sustainable. Deciding how we build and locate a club is essential.
Most racket sports require a large space and a high ceiling. This limits the number of clubs in city centres and indicates that the most viable solution is the city outskirts, suburbia, or smaller towns.
However, the city outskirts could mean utilising former warehouses in less desirable areas where a car is required to get there. Now, I’m not sure about you, but playing in a warehouse is hardly the most desirable place to spend my leisure time. These places are very often poorly lit with inadequate ventilation.
Operating within a major city is not an easy option. Escalating rents and costs are driving out racket sports, and only the clubs that own the building have a chance of succeeding.
The realisation is that most racket sports (including squash) require 2,000+ square feet of space on two floors. This generally means being demoted to the basement and out of the view of potential customers.
Now that we have this established, the chances of finding a two-storey building with ample floor space increase once leaving the city. Now we must consider which racket sports make the most sense within the space.
Initial set-ups and financial entry for pickleball, padel, badminton and table tennis are very reasonable. Squash and racquetball on the other hand require a permanent structure and this makes it cost-prohibitive unless there’s a good base of squash players. This is quite a financial commitment for a sports club.
Tennis suffers somewhat, too. The amount of space required is not an option for many clubs.
To provide some perspective, squash and racquetball can fit 5-6 courts (10-12 players) into the same space as a tennis court, padel three courts, badminton four, and pickleball four courts with 12-16 players able to play within the dimensions of a tennis court. For business owners, there’s a lot to consider. Which sport is trendy? How much can I charge per person? Can I disassemble at a low cost and resell?
One of the hurdles for many racket clubs is being visible to the public. Encasing your sport within a warehouse or brick building is reliant on signage. When given the option, I see the solution for suburbia and beyond is building sustainable, modular, covered spaces that can be constructed in less than four weeks, disassembled and relocated if need be.
With an introduction of modular structures, it allows for shorter-term leases and resales if required. I believe this opens opportunities for local schools and recreational centres to introduce racket sports. I also see this as a viable option for rackets professionals to start their own business with costs that are greatly reduced compared to a bricks-and-mortar building.
Simply placing sports completely out in the open and exposed to the elements makes it a very difficult business proposition. Many tennis pros will confirm that there are too many days a year when outdoor lessons will not work due to variable weather conditions.
When sustainably building we must learn lessons from the past. The orientation of the building is important, to welcome and protect from the sun, and to use a natural breeze to pass through to provide cooling.
As a society, we are used to flicking a switch to provide light, heat, and cooling from a mechanical set-up with cheap energy. However, the days of cheap energy are fading quickly. The negative health issues have been underscored during the pandemic, with tight and confined spaces being closed as people gravitated to the outdoors with no choice.
There’s plenty of evidence that people are not flooding back to gyms and indoor facilities after experiencing the benefits of the outdoor life. I believe the future will be the ability to enjoy fresh air, and sunlight, but take away the negatives of UV rays and bad weather with modern, covered, modular buildings.
Implementing advanced materials
Using polycarbonate as a roofing example, not only does it provide great cover, it’s 250 times stronger than glass, transmits visible, natural sunlight and diffuses direct sun, absorbs the entire spectrum of UV rays to protect the skin and eyes, and dramatically increases vitamin D intake from sunlight to fight viruses and provides many other health benefits.
Polycarbonate can be recycled after its useful life of 25-plus years.
Compared to the inside, there’s something very special when you feel the connection to the outdoors. Simple things like feeling the difference in light and temperature as a cloud passes above are very satisfying.
Clubs have listened to the people and taken the covered outdoor life seriously, but without any in-depth thinking to what this actually means. The alternative for some clubs is a textile cover. This for me is a non-starter and misses the point altogether.
All the above points are moot as minimal light enters the space and lighting is required most of the day. Other issues include the fact that once a textile is stretched it cannot be reused without looking stressed. This is a general problem where clubs look for inexpensive half solutions.
They soon find out that if you buy cheap, you buy twice. The joke is on them, as low-quality product providers tell them that even at the lower price it will provide premium results.
When we look at current buildings, a bricks-and-mortar structure covering a space comes with many overheads. These include taxes, heating, air conditioning, lighting, plumbing, ventilation, and general maintenance. All of these expenses can curtail the life of a club if not considered in the business plan.
Very often owners do not budget the costs correctly or costs increase dramatically (electricity for example) and make the business impossible to run. Very often we see clubs that are poorly maintained, not purely down to a lack of interest but very often down to the fact that funds are not available.
Times have changed and so have building materials. Take a closer look at what your options are in building and controlling utility costs.
• If squash is to survive and prosper, we need to take a very different approach from the past.
• A focus on wellbeing, and supporting the recreational player, is paramount at this point in time. This does not mean ignoring performance squash, it means offering the same support to all squash players no matter the level of play or interest.
• People are willing to listen when you offer a way to enhance their health and lifestyle. It is very clear that squash has an important role but is not the solution to everything. Providing good advice on how squash fits alongside the other important elements will provide a balanced, healthy life.
• Squash associations, clubs, coaches, and parents need to instil values that encourage a good community and culture.
• Providing a location that’s accessible, visible, with low running costs, and being sustainable is the obvious solution.
• Interact with other racket sports; we have plenty in common. I’m a firm believer that this is the main hurdle in not being an Olympic sport. Aquatics, track and field, and gymnastics all exist as organisations. Having a Rackets Sports Organisation would surely help with inclusion.
• Build centres that inspire people to try multiple racket sports. Tennis, Squash, Badminton, Padel, Pickleball, Badminton and Table Tennis in the same location sounds like a dream come true!
Pictures courtesy of Lee Witham