Tuesday, February 7, 2023

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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  1. Padel and pickleball are new games using existing sports to lever them up at a time that the existing sports are successful professionally but at grass roots level struggle to the point that even the national bodies seek to offer them free. That seems to be part of the problem when it seems they are competing with new sports that are charging their new recruits.
    So we have existing sports struggling but then helping promote the new sports by offering the hard earned structure to the new games that will inevitably be seen as an attractive alternative.
    It probably is a combination of poor sports club management as well as poor direction from governing bodies that is threatening a potential disaster for the great games of squash and tennis.
    Having tasted the new games my view is that the alternatives being offered now are very poor options as sports. There may be some short term financial winners but the experience from squash clubs and many indoor tennis centres should not be forgotten.

  2. From one of the international leaders whom you accuse of “prevaricating . . . and hiding behind a wall of delusion that they have everything under control”, here is my brief response.

    I have a philosophy of first seek to understand before making judgements. I appreciate we can all be guilty of viewing the world through the lense of our own often limited experience, culture and locality. But beating up those who are going to extraordinary lengths to grow our sport and raise its profile really doesn’t help anyone, least of all the sport itself. Can we be just a little more tolerant about what others are contributing before we judge ?

    From the perspective of the International Federation, a review of the first 12 months’ progress of WSF’s 4-year strategy suggests a great deal has been achieved, and remarkably with just 3 full-time paid staff, all of whom have been in post for 2 years or less (so maybe not entirely responsible for your global demise of squash), supported by a passionate and committed group of volunteers. The outcomes so far from the strategy have been achieved in the most challenging of circumstances in the last 2 years, having to lead the sport through a global pandemic and the major impacts of a war to name just two of the curve-balls. It’s not easy. Much of the time it’s incredibly challenging; and we need all the help we can get.

    Whilst we do closely monitor the constant developments across the global sporting landscape, padel and pickleball are just 2 examples of the increasing diversification of sport (not just racket sports) in an already competitive global sporting market. But rather than getting stressed about what other sports such as padel and pickelball might be doing, we must focus our efforts and limited resources on growing squash, and on influencing the right people to achieve our objectives.

    It is also very easy to find examples to reinforce our position, whether your glass is half full or half empty. In my role I witness some amazing achievements in different parts of the world, which we should be celebrating and sharing (see WSF’s web-site). Maybe SquashMad could help us do that ? We could probably feed you a good news story almost every day of the year. . . and that’s the basis of the growing profile we see of some new sports such as teqball. We never see them beating themselves up from within the sport. Instead, they squeeze every positive bit of profile they can from even a small achievement in a much smaller sport than squash. Maybe we can learn something from them.

    Finally, back to the opening quote, we don’t “have everything under control”, and neither would we be so brash as to think we could or should. WSF is about collaboration, sharing and enabling. We need to do things WITH partners. We need to join the dots. We need to recognise when others are doing great things in and for our sport. So let us know when SquashMad would like to talk about some of the great things happening in squash in different parts of the world. And how we might work together to create a better, more collaborative and more tolerant world.

  3. The Anglo-Saxon focus is understandable, but as for “grassroots level has been steadily stagnating… apart from in Egypt” – one could add “and apart from in a number of Eastern European countries such as Poland, Ukraine & (wait for it) Russia”. (Of course, a number of Ukrainian sports clubs continue to tumble under Russian bombs, which does dampen the growth in court numbers somewhat, though enthusiasts continue to train even in the absence of electricity/lights)

  4. Great article Alan and addresses what a great deal of people involved in the sport have been eluding to for a long time. We as a Squash community working day in and day out in at all levels from Grassroots to World Class level have seen a serious decline in our sport. I just hope it is not too late to do something about it and that we have not reached that tipping point you mentioned.

  5. Excellent parting article and entirely true! I’ve said for years the majority(95%) of amateur committees are clueless and only interested in keeping things the way they’ve always been! Often trying to tell actual professionals how to run things, even though not 1 of them has any experience in the industry! They’ve slowly killed clubs and continue to do so!
    The ball comment is spot on! The egomaniacs who insist on playing with a “pro ball” and passing this on to all newcomers has been a disaster! You have beginners who can’t keep a double yellow ball warm! Yet even they refuse to use a red dot!
    I, like yourself, couldn’t believe it when I saw the national official who was removed for “creative accounting” gain a senior position in an international federation! That the person not only had the nerve to apply and that the organization obviously didn’t look into the background is mind blowing!
    Unfortunately the “creative accounting” at many committee run private clubs is, I feel, also an issue!
    After 45yrs in the sport i also fear for it’s survival, nevermind growth!
    I thankyou for your services to the sport for decades and hope your retirement will bring you health and happiness:)

  6. Alan Thatcher has dedicated a large portion of his life to our sport. It would be difficult to find many others, who have given so much and had as much of an impact. Specifically, actual tangible things, not just volunteering on a committee, but actual action-led items. (nothing against sitting on a committee). This includes running a professional squash news outlet, with timely and original content. This site has been the hotbed of ideas and information for years. Additionally, founding World Squash Day, a global event to celebrate our sport. Even more, jointly running one of the premier pro squash events on the globe in Canary Wharf. Along with this, he has volunteered at the local level and even coached a national junior champion. He is a key figure in our sport.

    With that in mind, this piece is a warning from one of our C-suite executives in the business of squash. In any other company, this type of news and comment would be met with emergency meetings, reflection and discussion. “One of our key people stepping down and has penned a frustrated note, outlining some serious problems.” This is not a troll at the end of the club bar muttering about the ills of the game. On this note, I can say that there are other key stakeholders sounding the alarm in private email exchanges. Some “quietly quitting” or quitting the sport they love out of frustration.

    The message in this piece is that there are two factions in our sport: (Like climate change)
    1. Those who believe that the appropriate action is being taken and that there are positive signs of growth and the sport will be fine.
    2. Those who believe that the right actions are NOT being taken and the sport is in deep crisis. And, that numbers and where the sport is are overstated and the true crisis is not being addressed or fully understood.

    Alan and many have reached out to various associations to voice these concerns. Many others have as well, and there is a sense of dismissal. Articles have been published and emails have been sent. The responses have been dismissive, trite or none at all. Again, this is not some troll at the end of the bar. When someone this heavily involved in squash sounds an alarm, call a meeting and pick up the phone. In the name of collaboration, inclusion, tolerance and “team”, listen to your key people and listen well. Even when they are negative, pointed or say things you do not want to hear. Alan has a love for the sport shown simply by what he has done for the sport. Listen and listen closely.

    This is a selfless key stakeholder expressing emotion, frustration and perhaps anger. To anyone on a board, association or federation, “This ain’t about you” or saving face. This is about listening to a key stakeholder, who is frustrated and might have some key insight. Further, if you take on these roles at the local, national or world level, be prepared to take the heat from your key people. Listening to these people and making them feel heard is leadership.

    Often, when challenged by key stakeholders the response is one of three:
    (Not much we can do) Well, we are only a small ragtag staff and a few volunteers
    (Using a far off success story to deflect the specific issue) The mention of some new court being built in some far off country. “Well, there have been great strides in Farfelu.”
    (Ignore until it goes away) No response.

    These responses or lack of, come off as dismissive and well, smug. A key C-suite executive is outlining serious issues and we are telling this person that we ordered new furniture for the lobby. Further, both responses do not provide answers to the questions raised. Is this smug dismissal? Is this delusion thinking that the specific items raised are not an issue?

    With this, there are specific items, which have been circulating in quiet corners online and with key stakeholders in the sport. Stakeholders, who work in the sport as a way of life, not as a side job. These are front line teaching pros, club owners and promoters. Nothing against playing pros and volunteers with other day jobs, but these are the people on the pulse.

    The items at hand:

    Playing Numbers
    Firstly, there is the point of playing numbers. Up until recently, stakeholders in squash claimed 20 million players globally. (I believe the latest global number released is 5 million) In the US, the numbers are suggested to be 1.4 million. There are two camps, those who believe these numbers are accurate and those who believe these numbers are wildly inaccurate. With careful analysis, (yes, someone has done this) there are likely 1 million globally and perhaps 200,000 in the US. This statement is where the “1” and “2” camps above agree to part ways.

    The true figure is important. Not knowing the figure is a problem, fudging the number is a problem. In business, not knowing your numbers is catastrophic.
    Have our number decreased? If so, by how much?
    Have clubs closed? If so, how many? How many against new clubs opening?
    What are the big chains doing with courts? Are we in touch?

    Often, when these numbers are challenged, the person making the claim is positioned as a heretic or “negative”. In fact, any solution starts with good data so perhaps these negative people are actually part of the solution.

    Closures against Squash Victories and Good News Stories
    When the idea of free-fall decline or mass club and court closures is raised, it is often countered with an anecdote about a court opening or a “win”, often in an unrelated part of the world. Let’s celebrate! “We must be positive, look at the junior program in Farfelu”…. These “wins” are great, of course, but they should not distract regarding the real data. Positive stories can be misleading and drive people to focus on the wrong things.

    If you own a business and a top salesperson announces closing a big new account, BUT fails to mention the loss of 10 longtime key accounts, there is a problem. To celebrate the new account and ignore the lost ones, means that likely, attention will not be given to why we lost these clients. So too in squash, if we are not addressing why courts and clubs are closing at an alarming rate, we risk not addressing the problem. It distracts from the urgency and specific focus that is required.

    Comparing ourselves to sports, which are not relevant, as a defence or to copy:
    Teqball is a business in growth mode, and an offshoot of a global giant (football). It draws from a massive existing sport and can easily scale due to the simplicity of the playing field/surface.

    Squash is a sport in decline/freefall from previously greater heights. Most other sports are not relevant, considering the 800 pound gorillas in pickleball and padel. Let’s set Teqball aside, while we deal with these two racquet specific monsters who are gunning directly for our players. Simply put and again, if squash is losing players year-over-year and a high-concept pickleball and padel club opens near an existing old squash club, what will happen to squash playing numbers? Would a new teq-ball club if that is even a thing, take racquet sport market share?

    How did pickleball and padel grow with no pro tour, talent pathways or junior infrastructure?

    This is not a question of glass is half full or half empty, which is a suitable quick response to the guy at the end of the bar. This is a question of dealing with data, key information, listening to key people, which leads to conclusions, which leads to action. The emotion in this piece echoes feelings from very angry stakeholders. The concerns:
    Squash in free-fall
    New racquet sports taking market share
    Clubs are closing left and right
    COVID has crushed playing numbers
    Major gym chains moving away from squash

    WHY? What can we do to change this?

    In truth, there are many “Alans” across the globe, who are entrenched (working full-time in squash, not volunteering outside of their day job) in the sport and sounding the alarm in private email exchanges. If our front line pros, entrepreneurs and club owners don’t have a voice then who does? If we are truly collaborative and working as a team, perhaps our biggest boots on the ground stakeholders should be listened to. To not listen to them, is to imply you know more or that their concerns are not valid.

    “Collaboration, sharing and enabling” and “a more tolerant world”
    It feels like collaboration is only considered if it is positive or affirming?
    If we are inclusive, it would seem that all voices should be heard, especially those who have chosen a career in squash and are dedicated to the sport from a business vantage point. No offence to playing pros, but teaching pros, promoters and club owners are on the front line in this regard.

    In this piece, Alan is “sharing”; it is challenging and hard to hear for many. Writing this probably caused Alan a few sleepless nights to put pen to paper, and to step down from his baby, Squash Mad.

    Someone who built a voice for our sport, a solid publication, is stepping down with grave concern for squash: this is a key moment in our sport.

    A time for questioning, self-reflection, empathy, “job well done”. Along these lines and behind closed doors, many major contributors are frustrated and “quiet quitting”, leaving the sport for good.

    Pickleball and Padel
    The point of this comparison is that these sports are doing something that people are responding to. They are in our subset of “racquet sports”. To dismiss this with a macro outlook on sport in general or anything else is simply missing the point. We have two racquet-based leisure sports exploding in popularity with private equity firms lining up to invest in actual clubs next to ours. Perhaps this requires careful study to see what our sport can do to gain market share. Clubs will open across the street from our most-prized squash venues and literally take what is left of our players.
    Anyone on the front line knows this; some have already experienced it. The growth of these sports tells a story, but squash stakeholders are quick with a sound-byte to dismiss or sometimes even criticize these two games. Instead, we should be figuring out why the hamburger shop down the road is stealing our hamburger business.

    Why these sports matter:
    There is very little suitably zoned recreational space available and very few investors who are in the recreation space. These leisure racquet sports are and will take all the space, literally. They will take players and investment. Racquet companies will move dollars from squash to pickleball for example. Municipal recreation departments will funnel funds to meet demand. This is happening now and pickleball and padel are just getting started. I am on the front lines of the commercial health club industry and frankly, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

    This is a serious problem and requires serious thought. To that end, tennis is trying to partner with both sports to offset the potential competition. Where is the white board and dry eraser markers in squash circles?? The USTA has partnered with US Padel.

    Further, what these sports have done is “proven concept”. They basically showed us that the masses are looking for: an easy to play game, social interaction and drop-in play. We just found out what “customers” like. Our response from federations? PSA reposts, tournament announcements, rules clinics, junior talent pathways, coaching platforms and on and on. We too can be this easy-to-play sport, but we choose to focus on top-down growth and same old strategies. A world games event that will enthrall the masses, causing them to rush to a local club. Top down, never works. Anyone on the front line knows this.

    What we should be doing? Promoting a more suitable ball, copying the programming structure of pickleball and focusing on beginner squash. How much should we devote to this? Well, to those in group 2 the answer is every single $, person, volunteer, board member, staff member and player; we are in crisis mode!

    The answer from those in group 1?
    Well, a sound-byte: “apart of an overall strategy of…we are looking into… we are seeing some signs of growth….we have limited resources. We have other programs we need to focus on.”

    “Smug Delusion”
    Harsh, yes. But, the smugness comes from the dismissive tone taken and sound-byte answers are given to serious concerns about our sport. “Poland is growing”, “There is in an outdoor court in country x…” or “our nationals were lively” …

    A key stakeholder has just sounded an alarm with laser-specific concerns and the responses come across as smug, even if they are not meant in that way. “We lost all of our US clients!!!” Response? “We bought new furniture for the lobby”. The response does not match the seriousness of the situation. The furniture is great, but, ah, we have a bigger problem at hand.

    Responses don’t come from a “I hear your frustration” but rather, “You’re the problem, your negativity is the problem”.

    The word “delusion” is tied to this, but also the complete and seemingly lack of awareness of playing numbers and other data. This includes wildly overstated numbers, no awareness of closures etc. The conclusion is: A-the numbers are not actually known. B-the numbers are exaggerated on purpose
    Both are a problem.
    Further, a lack of relationships with key club chains who have OUR courts: David Lloyd, LifeTime, LA Fitness. Do we have the CEO on speed dial? Do we know the CEO’s name?

    What was done during and after COVID?
    A massive return to the courts campaign?
    A phone blitz?
    An emotional call to action?
    Besides PSA reposts, what social media content (from local federations) compelled people to return to squash?

    Reaction to Criticism:
    “Let me know how Squash Mad can talk about some of the great things…”
    This sounds like dismissal. It may not be meant that way in spirit, but this cuts to the core issue with our culture. A key stakeholder steps down, sounds an alarm and the response is, “perhaps you could write about something more positive”… Sorry, peace, love, tolerance. There is love expressed; Alan’s love of the sport. You can only be truly angry with the ones you love.

    The Broad Concern
    The broad concern with many in our sport, is:
    The sport is too heavily focused on high-performance and competitive squash
    The sport has limited staff resources and budget, but is using these for pet projects more suitable for a larger organization.
    Playing numbers and related data are unknown, or widely misrepresented.
    There is not a deep understanding of the global collapse of our sport.
    Stakeholders are all hanging on to PSA as the promotional tool for the sport instead of developing their own solutions
    Those in charge believe that a top down approach will grow the game (1980s thinking).

    In conclusion, to smugly simplify: to my mind, you are in group 1 or 2 and time will prove everything out.

    Finally, Alan is a loyal servant of our sport and has done more than most people can even imagine. Harsh criticism, comes from a place of love and squash fellowship not easily translated in text. Alan, I understand the importance of this article and moment and thanks for your dedication to our sport. To those, who might be offended by my comments, these are not personal attacks, only a plea and call for solutions, and to listen to key voices. Sometimes a culture is broken and it takes an outside/new voice or a step back to see the truth.

  7. So many threads here. At my club I see what Alan Thatcher sees. It’s a private squash and tennis club in middle England. The squash membership is increasingly elderly, and migrating to racketball. Through energetic coaching, the juniors are thriving, but they disappear when they leave home. The ultraconservative club committee has neither the wit nor the energy to drag the club out of the Edwardian era. The incoming squash tide of the 1970s and 1980s is flowing back out, but there’s no prospect of it returning.

    The ball issue in squash is surprisingly important, certainly. Forceful leadership is needed from the squash authorities on this. Where ARE you, for heaven’s sake? The sport is supposed to be fun, we ‘play’ it. There’s little fun if you can’t warm up a double yellow ball. This applies to a large proportion of the playing population.

    Zena Wooldridge rightly refers to the increasing diversification of racquet sports. Keen squash players like me in the UK will have little knowledge of the energy the WSF is obviously investing all over the world, with limited resources. As a keen player I follow the astonishing pro game, even if the dismal choice of angle for the main camera in televised tournaments sometimes means that it is only squash players who have the understanding to appreciate the action (shame on everyone responsible!) In the UK, I tend to see what Alan writes so passionately about, the shrivelling of a fantastic sport. It’s depressing.

    Since we can’t wind the clock back, we have to adapt to the different situation. A clue for me recently on a possible route forward was returning to the court after a major operation. For a couple of months I did this gingerly with a lovely bouncy racketball. Easy stuff. As soon as I moved on, with a (single yellow!) squash ball, even just knocking up by myself, I was struck by the sheer intensity of it. The intensity of the game is the key. I suggest that squash develops itself, alongside the excellent padel tennis and pickleball and table tennis and hardball doubles, and indeed lawn tennis, as the elite physical game to choose, not for everyone but for athletically ‘big girls’ and ‘big boys’, the pinnacle game, something to try when you’re young and then to take up more seriously to if you have the ability. Squash should be marketed as the crack cocaine of racquet sports. The pro game would be a lure, not necessarily for everyone to aspire to, but illustrating that squash is physically the ‘special one’. The squash scoring system should be changed, to give more highlights and more excitement for non-experts – the recent Nations Cup in Tauranga showed the way, with shorter games but more of them.

    This would mean a shift in attitude not just for squash but for all the games I’ve mentioned. Racquet sports should work together, fit alongside each other and support each other in competing for people’s leisure time in the 21st century. There IS an opportunity. I hope my grandson will be able to watch squash, maybe even compete geriatrically like me, at the turn of the next century.

  8. Most recreational racquet-sports players prefer doubles.

    Hard to see squash reversing momentum without a viable doubles option.

  9. Dear Zena, I have tried to be kind and remain silent despite you introducing, as England Squash chair in 2009 an absurd ‘Code of Conduct’ for our board meetings. Of course you used this as a stick with which to beat me with yards of emails (available on request) the day after our board meetings in which you further crushed the efforts of me and others to promote squash outside of the community of existing squash players, and to save threatened facilities. You presided over a silver ES award to Southgate Squash Club who were at that exact time supportive of charity trustees trying to demolish their 6 court facility.

    But much worse, you showed zero enthusiasm for the campaign I led to have the CAS review and almost certainly rule that squash is an Olympic Sport and was validly voted into the London 2012 Olympics. You simply engineered a phone call to me from the 2014 Commonwealth Games supremo suggesting that I did not understand the process of Olympic accession. You sat unenthusiastically in the room 17/9/2008 when I pitched the case to 4 of the 5 then WSF committee. Any proper WSF review would bring the same CAS case even now. Just file the case and BAM, squash will be in the next Olympics. Your failure to do so fails the WSF and the sport.

    Your response, dear Zena, is exactly the delusional drivel which Alan so eloquently exposes in his valedictory address.

    You have manoeuvred yourself into senior admin positions for almost 20 years and presided over the massive shrinking of our beloved sport.

    For the love of God please now step aside.

  10. Zena, when you say: ‘We could probably feed Squash Mad with a good news story every day of the year’, it beggars the question: Why haven’t you done so?
    The WSF is anonymous, you are anonymous, the sport is becoming anymous. If you can’t even promote yourself or your own organisation, is it any wonder no-one is following you!
    You may be wounded by Alan’s words, but you’ll just have to live with them. It’s pretty clear you are not interested in the views of others. So we all wish you well and ask of you just one thing. When you bury the corpse, please don’t blame everyone else for the death.

  11. Well, it’s certainly a huge thank you from me, Alan, and I think from everyone who has been involved with squash, at all levels of the game, for your relentless devotion to the sport, enthusiasm, tournaments, promotion, ventures, articles, books; for simply caring about a great and hugely underappreciated game and for making constant efforts to bring the squash community together.

    It has always surprised me that you were not among those making the decisions about the future of the game and the above comments reflect what has been clear for many years. It is a curious thing, this ‘English disease’ where a large proportion of the top decision makers in many spheres of influence are some of the least capable of doing the job. When it comes to committees, the more people that sit on them, the less competent they tend to be and not vice versa. I mean this not as a criticism of Zena who is clearly intelligent, but as a criticism of social and professional structures – I would think, as in many English organisations, that the only way Zena rose through the ranks and was able to do anything was to avoid rocking the boat. This is the very essence of intolerance and it derives from an instinct to pander to the lowest common denominator. How we manage to be so successful as a nation is beyond me, but perhaps there are better approaches now that have less to do with the old ways of doing things.

    Other commentators here are right in saying that if we are to prevent the demise of squash, we need to look at the models of other sports as well as addressing shortfall in our own. The question for me though is how we put the sensible people (of which there are many in squash), not just those who fit an obvious mould such as ex-pro or coach, but the ones who are capable of driving the sport, in charge of the decision making. Conversely, in England Squash, we have, I believe, a governing body composed mainly of non players. What we need is a mixture of something in between, across the whole sport. In other words, the best way to select is on merit.

    I would say that people like Alan are rare though, in fact – good people generally require good remuneration. Hopefully we’ll be seeing the first million-dollar squash bestseller hitting shelves soon. But we cannot expect the performance of tennis referees from volunteers. We could, however, close the gap a little between a sport like tennis that is awash money but has the same stuffiness and hierarchical structures that are stiffling squash.

  12. Wishing you a happy retirement although I sense your frustration!

    I remember you and I playing at Cannons all those years ago and travelling all over London playing in various leagues. It is very sad that squash has had such a demise from when I was playing up to around 2005.

    The issue with squash at the time was that it was virtually impossible to watch properly on tv although it is very much better now. But given how popular it was at the time why has it struggled to get into the Olympics for example. Who are responsible for promoting the sport and are they accountable?

    From a business point of view we paid around £5 for a 40 minutes session but of course aerobics came along and you could fit at least 20 people into a court that would obviously give a far better return.

    Sadly so many of the clubs that I played at in Essex have gone. In the late 80s i had 7 squash clubs within a 15 mile radius of where I lived including Kingswood which had 19 courts which was the largest squash club in Europe at the time. Sadly most have gone or reduced their number of courts considerably.

    I do wonder how a sport that was so popular, didn’t take up a large amount of time such as golf and kept you fit has fallen so far. Where else could you play in a team where your number one was someone who had been ranked in the top 10 in the world? I look back with so many good memories, a few broken rackets and friends who I still see now.

    I wish you all the best going forward in whatever you may do.

    Best wishes

    Ian Holdsworth

  13. This response from Zena just speaks for itself doesn’t it? It shows the problem exactly as it is: that those in charge of our game are living in a state of complete denial.
    The arrogance is astonishing. Does she really think that the squash mad community, to which she is talking, are going to take kindly to her dismissive attitude to Alan, when WE all know he’s bang on the money. She should be thanking him – for his passion, his insight and his contribution.

    We have too many people too concerned about their own reputation and positions. Too many top-down initiatives that are simply box-ticking exercises to falsely-inflate figures. You know the sort, funding offered but you only get it, after you’ve run a programme at a loss, IF you get say 20 unique users. Doesn’t matter that they only came once and too bad if you only managed 19, even though six of them were still playing a year later. Not enough of people in organisational positions ASKING people on the front line what kind of help they could use.
    Seen a situation where two coaches built up a programme, over covid, to 50+ juniors playing an average of three hours a week each. Funding got pulled and all but a handful of those kids were lost when coaches took data protection seriously and wouldn’t pass on personal info.
    Where I am, it couldn’t be clearer that those running pickleball are doing everything right and those running squash are doing the opposite. As a coach I’ve been marginalised and excluded by the squash set up; immediately embraced, included and appreciated by pickleball.
    As Ed says, squash needs to listen to its key stakeholders, the full-timers and front-liners. They have the questions and are where to start looking for the answers.
    A few years ago I lobbied management at Chichester RAFC to build a padel court (to add to squash, table-tennis and various forms of tennis). They built two and haven’t looked back. Squash needs to get on board with padel and pickleball, or risk becoming the next real tennis – difficult to play, impossible to understand and played by a tiny number of die-hard enthusiasts at a vanishingly small number of facilities.
    A couple of exciting things I’ve seen in the last year have both come from Vicki Cardwell, one of the hardest-working coaches in the game. One was a round-robin event for parents and other beginners, which she ran on a single court, alongside a junior tournament, using the Karakal bigball. There was such a great buzz about it and so much noise and laughter.
    The other was a situation where she cleaned up at the State’s schools’ event, with her pupils taking three of the four individual titles, and then scooping the overall award on ‘per player participation points’ through sheer weight of numbers, with nearly three dozen players turning up for a great day of squash some two-hours from their school.
    There is more that can be done, for sure, but whether we are already past the tipping point remains to be seen.
    Thank you Alan for caring and for helping us to care x

  14. Zena ,

    The fact in the UK over the last 30+ years we have had the leading players associated with Sport Retail be it JJB Sports JD Sports DW Fitness and the biggest of them all Sports Direct !

    Some of the wealthiest Billionaires in the Country that either have enthusiasm for Squash (Dave Whelan) or ex Pros/ Coaches Mike Ashley.

    Mike Ashley / John Treharne and co are happy to go around country putting up cheap GYM only sites.

    Maybe you have tried communicating with these people , but I’m sure if you can provide the right business plan to include squash with their endless money supply they could do something 🤣 otherwise in the UK David Lloyd have a virtually a free rein in this market.
    We know they don’t take too kind to Squash!

  15. Dear Zoe, these words are amazing and bang ‘ on the money’ to quote you. I am seriously impressed. Thank you for posting. Warm regards Gordon Kerr

  16. Yes indeed, thanks, Zoe. The activities you describe there certainly remind me of my experience as a junior in London – club afternoon, round robin, hours of 3/4 court. Just straightforward good fun on a squash court. And I have no doubt I owe much of my good health and seemingly enduring fitness, even despite not playing for some time, to those early years. The contribution of coaches is not just valuable but can be life-changing.

    I also remember playing what was basically a version of pickleball with a friend in my back garden with an old badminton net, some swingball bats and a tennis ball. The simplest game, yet we spent every possible minute of our free time playing it. We did it because it was great fun (swingball was redundant after about ten minutes). I think that is what is missing from squash now – the bit of imagination and organisation it takes to get people enjoying playing, making friends and feeling rewarded and healthy for having done so. All the bureaucracy doesn’t help either. But the fun and social elements are what help grow participation numbers.

    I missed out on most junior events because my club (Southbank) had a rift with England Squash who wanted them to pay a squash membership for each of their 2000 odd gym members. Understandably, Southbank declined. When I played in graded tournaments, much later, I have to say that a lot of the fun was missing. Players were often overly competitive, exhausted, even morose (though some good times were had after matches were finished). Competition can have that affect on people, but maybe it’s because they hadn’t experienced the same relaxed and fun elements of the game through childhood as I had. I experienced the same thing playing club team squash when I had always enjoyed team squash at school. But it certainly wasn’t the same atmosphere everywhere. It was the way it was organised, the people and the general approach at the various clubs.

    What’s that business maxim? Provide a solution, solve a problem, filfil a need? People need fun. Squash has the added advantage of being more complex and more fun than pickle or padel. People flock to them because they are well-organised, easily accessible and provide something they need and want. If these sports are overtaking squash so effortlessly, it’s because there is something wrong with basic lines of communication and approach. If federations want to serve the sport and rekindle its appeal, it could be as simple as addressing that issue and putting the fun back into it.

  17. “a review of the first 12 months’ progress of WSF’s 4-year strategy suggests a great deal has been achieved” …would be great to see that list of achievements over the last 4 years.

  18. Great comments. It is true about front line. Nothing against playing pros, but their perspective of the game is not that of teaching pros, club managers and owners. There is space for elite players, but this is the tail end of it.

    We need business people actually in the health club space. People who understand customer acquisition, advertising and sales cycles.

    To your point, I am stunned that squash and North American racquetball are not simply studying and copying the Pickleball model. HMMM? A racquet sport has come along and blown up, let’s take a closer look. Instead, there is a dismissive tone about it all. Lumping it in with the general sports climate.

    When you ignore the celeb Pickleball players, pro this and pro that, they do one thing, they focus on low barrier to entry ways to play. They use drop-in round robins. That is it, end of list. They find places to play and invite people to try it out. No “pros” or “leagues” just casual fun and exercise.

    To no surprise from this relentless format, things emerge like: keen tournament players, equipment sales, sponsors, pro leagues, ticket sales etc.

    This is a template for bottom up growth. Of course squash people will say, well they can use a school gym to play etc. Well, squash still has some public venues and clubs that could pull this off. The problem I have landed on: culture.

    We have people who see the sport through competition, high performance, academies, major games etc. Room for all this stuff, nothing wrong with it, don’t get upset, BUT this does NOT grow the sport.

    No one in squash cares about the once-a-week hacker, playing a drop-in round robin. No one celebrates a teaching pro, who builds a club through recreational play. Instead, we applaud academies. The recreational teaching pros and club owners should be at the table. They know the needs of the masses.

    Pickleball is booming without:
    Major games
    Junior academies
    Development pathways

    One thing I am confused about, it seems that WSF and the national associations are underfunded and have few staff. For perspective LTA and Tennis Canada have over 250 staff each. I believe LTA receives $39mm from Wimbledon alone.

    So, how are we thinking that we can launch a new sport (Squash 57) move into E-sports, along with 60+ other initiatives? Are we a small sport pretending to be tennis? I am wondering how any of this is possible given the financial and staffing limitations?

  19. I agree, Ed – it all needs to be simplified. And there needs to be accountability, not anonymity. It’s a ‘three-people-in-a-broom-cupboard’ trying to look like a larger organisation approach. People aren’t stupid and it doesn’t work. Let’s just be honest – we are a small sport and not many people are interested in us. We need to find a way to generate that interest. Pickle and padel have made it easy for us by providing an effective model to use to find a way forward.

    Ted, I think people are attracted to doubles in the other sports because it is an accessible and fun way to engage in them. I agree doubles isn’t really workable in squash but there are fun ways to play it that also take less toll on the body. And that makes it more accessible to more people. There does have to be a popular format to gather pace. Whatever the best format is, at club level it needs to focus on letting people in and keeping them coming back.

    So many clubs in the UK fall at the first fence because they have no monthly membership fees, no day passes. Mostly, they are set up as ‘private members clubs’ and are hard pushed to provide an annual open day, let alone advertise it effectively. Most do have club nights and allow guests to play, but with the intention of converting annual paying members. Not a great place to start if you want to build player numbers for your club or the sport which, as Alan said, really doesn’t feature much in this set up. The trouble is what they want is precisely the opposite: to be exclusive. Imagine if gyms had operated on this basis, how successful they would be as businesses.

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