Sunday, May 26, 2024

Like global warming, squash federations facing collapse need to act before it’s too late

COMMENT by ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)

The decline of squash is just like global warming. The evidence is staring us in the face, but our national and international leaders all prevaricate, ignore the warnings and hide behind a wall of delusion pretending that they have everything under control.

The reality in squash could not be further from that position. I make no apology, in my final editorial on Squash Mad, for outlining my fears for the future of a sport I have loved for almost 50 years.

During that time I have witnessed a phenomenal surge in popularity in squash followed by a catastrophic collapse in playing numbers around the world.

Federations hate me using language like that. They hate being confronted with the truth. And they hate being reminded that they are failing to come up with any solutions to halt the demise of this brilliant but poorly-managed sport.

Squash is now a game of huge contrasts. While the PSA has made huge advances in promoting the professional game, squash at grassroots level has been steadily stagnating since most of the commercial club owners disappeared 30 years ago.

Apart from in Egypt.

Egypt is leading the way, not only in the PSA rankings but also in the provision of high-quality squash facilities in luxury sports clubs being built in and around Cairo.

In North America, the opposite is happening. 

Across that vast continent, pickleball leaders have announced plans to grow playing numbers from five million to 40 million by 2030. And padel investors are fighting for vacant sites to launch new clubs across the USA and Canada as real estate sales teams circulate details of more than 100 tennis clubs that are up for sale.

Affordable squash for ordinary Americans and Canadians on more modest incomes has all but disappeared from the landscape over there as fitness club operators have jettisoned the sport. It now exists mainly on college campuses and in luxury private clubs from which the general public are excluded.

Squash needs to learn lessons from pickleball, which had more than 5,000 spectators at the recent U.S. National Championships and is aiming at growing the playing base to 40 million by 2030

Worryingly, American entrepreneurs who have tried to add squash to new clubs alongside padel and pickleball report that investors regard our game as “toxic”.

Part of that response is due to a “national center” launched in Toronto. It had a glass court for hardball doubles and it was fronted by Jonathon Power and Gary Waite. There were no social facilities. No bar; not even a coffee machine. Parents would drop their kids off and wait in their cars. Outside the club. In the rain and snow.

Clearly, there was no business plan. And those investors are still angry at parting with their cash for a project that went tins-up inside six months.

I wish every success to a small bunch of enthusiasts who are trying to repair the damage in New York, and hopefully they will produce a business model that can be rolled out far and wide.

However, it’s difficult to hold conversations about these issues with folk on squash committees in the UK because most of them have never heard of pickleball. Or padel. Or hardball doubles. Or Jonathon Power.

Most squash committee types don’t read squash websites, don’t look at social media, and have never heard of Interactive Squash. Or Mostafa Asal. Or plans for outdoor courts.

Worryingly, most squash committee folk in the UK would struggle to name any players in the world top 10, male or female.

Conversations in squash clubs reveal some worrying truths.

Most squash committee folk in the UK have zero interest in the pro game. They are part of a small social circle (usually three or four friends who play each other) and most have only a vague idea of the rules. And most of them (and this applies all over the world) are using the wrong ball.

Here’s an astonishing example of this ignorance. I once encountered a county chairman in the UK who asked me how he could buy a copy of the Squash Mad website at his local newsagent. He was clearly struggling to grasp the concept of the worldwide web.

He was a quick learner, because a couple of years ago he showed great interest in Rod Bannister’s article suggesting that squash clubs could learn a lesson from the warm welcome he received at a pickleball group in New Zealand.

A few weeks later it came to my notice that this county chairman had copied Rod’s article almost word for word, pretending it was his experience, and sent it round to his contacts as if he was some kind of trailblazing leader, like a latter-day Sir Walter Raleigh bringing potatoes back from America.

Not only that, I then received an email from that county’s development officer asking if I would like to publish the chairman’s “article” on Squash Mad.

“I think you’ll find we already have,” was my polite reply.

That kind of rubbish is bad enough, but the final straw for me was learning that a national federation official who had lost his job after some “financial mismanagement” issues came to light had been elected to a senior role in an international squash organisation.

I have witnessed first-hand the dishonesty of committee people at club and county level, and again on the national and international scene.

However, the wrongdoers all get away with it because the attitude of looking the other way and ignoring the truth is prevalent in most federations.

They simply fail to understand that their prime responsibility is to repopulate the grassroots of the game before it’s too late.

National federations who produce “vision documents” focusing solely on talent pathways and elite competition are clearly ignoring the big elephant in the room.

When I was chairman of Kent, England Squash used to send a regional officer (before they were made redundant) to our meetings. He told us he had been ordered by head office not to discuss club closures.

Against a backdrop of clubs and courts disappearing throughout the world of squash, survival has to be at the top of every country’s agenda right now.

But, just like global warming, the dishonesty and delusion of petty people playing politics always gets in the way. And the real issues are ignored.

I look forward to someone else taking up the cudgel.

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