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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Padel and pickleball boom leaves squash standing still

Alan Thatcher
Alan Thatcherhttps://squashmad.com
Founder of World Squash Day, Squash Mad, the Kent Open and co-promoter of the Canary Wharf Classic. Launched the Squash 200 Partnership to build clubs of the future. Talks a bit.

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Having downgraded squash, LifeTime aims to build 600-700 pickleball courts across USA
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor

As Covid regulations are being relaxed in many parts of the world, it’s time to assess the future of squash and the impact of lockdown.

While padel and pickleball continue to expand at a phenomenal rate in various parts of the world, squash appears to be continuing to decline with signs of growth reported in very few territories.

The UK padel market is like the wild west, with numerous companies in a desperate race to build courts.

I am currently talking to padel companies from Spain and Sweden about building a new style of rackets club that will include squash.

I appear to be one of very few individuals holding such conversations and fighting squash’s corner.

I firmly believe that squash can thrive in a well-managed, commercial setting, and I will continue to fight to keep our sport alive despite depressing news of falling playing numbers across the world.

We have already seen the David Lloyd chain repurpose more than 100 squash courts into Blaze fitness studios across the UK.

In America, the LifeTime Fitness chain has just announced a massive investment project to add hundreds of new pickleball courts to their venues across the country.

Two years ago, LifeTime founder and CEO Bahram Akradi began the process of removing squash from numerous facilities across the States.

Around the same time, he fell in love with pickleball. A recent report by the CNBC website reports that since October the company has added 84 permanent pickleball courts at 30 clubs. Last month alone the chain reported that 7,000 new players picked up the sport at LifeTime venues.

Akradi says he plays pickleball every day and has lost 10 to 15 pounds in the process. His passion for the sport, coupled with the promise of long-term financial benefits, has led to pickleball spearheading a major refreshment of the company brand he launched nearly 30 years ago.

He revealed: “I love the sport because it’s the first sport I see bringing all of America together. It is accessible to everybody and easy to learn.

“By the end of next year, our plan is to deliver 600 to 700 dedicated pickleball courts across the country. So a LifeTime member can participate in events even if they’re traveling.”

He confirmed that LifeTime will invest $50 million to $75 million to add those courts before the end of this year.

It’s impossible not to contrast that level of investment for a nationwide pickleball expansion with the $40m raised by US Squash to build just one venue, albeit a spectacular one, the Arlen Specter National Center in Philadelphia.

The Arlen Specter US National Squash Center in Philadelphia

Research conducted by Eduardo Alvarez, Toronto club owner and Squash Mad correspondent, reveals that more than 400 fitness facilities across North America have dropped squash during the past decade.

This makes it virtually impossible to find affordable squash facilities anywhere in the USA. In Canada, too, the figures are similarly alarming as squash fades away and new pickleball clubs open every month.

Several squash coaches in the mid-West are reportedly turning their back on the game due to falling numbers and switching instead to pickleball and padel.

Akradi told CNBC: “In my 40-plus years doing sports fitness, I’ve seen all kinds of stuff come and go — get the momentum and then lose it. This sport (pickleball), I don’t see that (happening). It’s just easier to play and it brings people together.”

As pickleball playing figures approach five million in the USA (compared to an estimated 200,000 playing squash), the Selkirk pickleball brand claims to be on track to sell more than a million paddles by the end of 2023.

In squash, many equipment companies are still struggling to renew stock levels after several Chinese racket manufacturers ceased trading during lockdown.

The growth of pickleball in America has seen an extraordinary commercial uptake, with chains like Chicken N Pickle and Smash Park creating franchises with restaurants, bars and family play areas. Many other businesses are following their lead and copying the format.

We are not seeing any such projects in squash, although the Open Squash club in New York is planning two new community facilities in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights, close to the successful Heights Casino club.

Finding reliable data concerning the effects of Covid on participation numbers in squash is a tough challenge.

Finding investment partners to develop squash is even harder.

Many investors looking at the fitness market regard the squash brand as “toxic” following decades of decline. Some have been stung by their involvement in the game and have vowed not to repeat the experience.

Against this background, squash has some serious lessons to learn if the sport is to recover.

However, most voices I hear in squash sneer at the emergence of these so-called “inferior” sports and fail to understand why they have left our game standing still.

To paraphrase LifeTime founder Akradi, squash needs to be affordable, visible and accessible.

UPDATE: A few days after this article appeared, US squash No.1 Amanda Sobhy posted on social media that she had enjoyed a game of pickleball with her brother and could instantly see why the game was so popular.

This led to a Twitter exchange where I invited Amanda to read this article.

Here’s how she responded:

 

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10 Comments

  1. Thanks for the reporting, perhaps this will be a wake-up call to the sport we love. Squash is a niche sport, it’s wonderful but very specialized and demanding, and the sport needs to broaden its base. Unfortunately the double yellow ball makes that a challenge and not enough effort has been done to promote other balls or forms that will keep people playing after age 30 or 40 and make it easy for new adult players to try and play.

    My understanding is that Life Time has also been experimenting with Squash 57/UK racketball in select facilities for some of the same reasons the CEO mentioned, that “it is accessible to everybody and easy to learn”. With a short handled racquet and a lively ball, Squash 57 is another terrific option to accomplish this and I’d love to see squash leadership including associations, clubs, pros, manufacturers and retailers get on board. World Squash has seen the light and Squash Canada is also now promoting Squash 57 as a life sport that is easy to learn, fun to play and a great way to get some exercise. The exact attributes that are driving pickle ball’s success. I’ve played and promoted squash my entire life and am sorry to see the adult game wither. The rise of pickle ball and perhaps padel will only accelerate that trend.

  2. The post-Covid decline of squash in England is obvious to anyone involved in their local club. Investors have been voting with their wallets. People have been voting with their feet. Courts are increasingly empty despite a migration to racketball, ‘Squash57’.

    The pro game of squash thrives, but it needs constant replenishment with top ability youngsters. Perhaps this will continue in some parts of the world. But will young people in the UK want to take up squash in an environment full of the novel Visa/Mastercard-friendly 21st century sports that are making it into the Olympics? Girls and boys from elite schools will continue to enter the game, thus ironically taking it back to its 19th century roots, but the less fortunate won’t be able to find the facilities to play. Evidence suggests that Padel tennis and Pickleball will be enthusiastically adopted as they become more widely available, just as squash was fifty years ago.

    I’ve recently returned to playing squash after a two year break. I started with an enjoyable few weeks of racketball. Then the move to squash. Straight away the game’s outstanding USP was revealed: IT IS SO INTENSE. I don’t believe that other racquet sports, with the possible exception of badminton, come close to the sheer physicality of squash. This quality both rules it out as the preferred choice for legions of recreational players, but emphatically rules it in for genuine alpha-female, alpha-male ATHLETES with good hand-eye coordination and an intense competitive spirit.

    If the UK squash authorities had the wit to rebrand the game as the top of the racquet-sports pyramid, squash would rightly achieve the cachet of being ‘the special one’, the game to aspire to, the one real athletes should play. ‘Mere’ recreation would be admirably served by Squash57, Pickleball, Lawn Tennis and Padel Tennis. But for sheer competition, the almost boxing-like intensity of squash would make it stand out as the place for the gifted.

  3. The word is ‘choice’. In the 70’s squash was the pre-eminent indoor racket sport, no-one had heard of pickleball, let alone an outdoor alternative (to tennis), Padel. Whilst agreeing with David Kerr’s comments on ball selection and Aubrey Waddy’s analysis, the fact remains that in all cases squash becomes more and more elitist and suited to the accomplished technician in the skill and art. Generally, if anyone is inclined to move away from the rigours of the treadmill and other gym machines, and maintain physically activity, with bat-n’-ball, then racketball, pickleball and Padel are obvious choices – they encourage participation at levels to suit all players and combine competitive endeavour with social interaction.

  4. It’s all about Doubles.

    Squash singles is too grim for most people.

    Pickleball and Spec Tennis have a singles option, but 90 percent of those players only want doubles.

  5. I’ve said since I started playing doubles squash (when singles moved to softball…so a long time ago!) that hardball doubles was the best game, for the reasons our comrades have made above. It’s fun, social, technically demanding, with great opportunities for gasp-provoking shots, just much more fun to watch, and to play, than singles.

    I can’t speak to padel, as it hasn’t invaded the northeast yet, but I play pickle all the time, and it’s social, and really fun. I liken it to playing ping pong while standing on the table, complete with paddles, 3 other players, and a light, maneuverable ball. And it’s real social fun. Squash doubles is the grown up version of pickle, with much harder shots, greater intricacy and brilliant shotmaking, and a much tougher workout. And it’s really fun to watch.

    But here again, there are so few courts, and no momentum for more to be built. Pickle is really fun, but I wonder if its ease of play is a hindrance to its longevity, like racquetball was in North America in the ‘70’s. The upside, it seems, to pickle is that people of all ages are playing it, inside, outside, and in limited space.

    Pickle actually has all the hallmarks of a potentially massive sport, but none of the grit of padel or doubles squash. North of the Mason Dixon line, pickle will have to go inside in the winter, but even there, you can get 4 pickle courts on one tennis court, which makes it very interesting for the club owners, as long as they can fill them. I won’t give up my squash, though, for anything.

  6. The bottom line is that no one is building commercial courts and our existing courts are closing. Can we build courts faster than they close to offset the erosion? Seems unlikely.
    It also seems that there is a lack of awareness regarding just how much the sport is in decline.

  7. Squash, yes – pickleball, yes – Padel, yes, table tennis, yes – the list goes on and that underlines the player/consumer’s demand, to chose whichever suits them. If you can’t beat them, join them and build multi racket sport facilities that cater for all (establishes inclusivity) and provides options for players of all ages and level of ability.

  8. Sports like Pickleball use the same infrastructure as a badminton, volleyball or basketball court. This makes it more accessible to more people. In Canada, many facilities are building multiple-purpose gymnasiums for that exact reason, to be able to utilize the same space for multiple activities. The sport is easier on the body and easy to learn.

    Squash although being our sport of choice is in a rough spot. On the professional scene Squash can be displayed at more diverse and iconic settings than Pickleball or Padel. However, at the recreational and lower competitive levels Squash has a hard time keeping up. Still struggles to capture a wide awareness and most still have no idea about the game. There has been a decline in participation in past years and the arrival of Covid-19 has led to more facilities rethinking the purpose and use of the existing courts.

    I will still promote Squash to the masses as it provides a much higher level of adrenaline rush than other racquet sports. Many of the ageing population that play Squash ultimately switch to hardball doubles and now to Pickleball. But, for those facilities that do not have Pickleball yet or willing to make the investment in building Hardball Doubles Squash, using the existing Squash courts in other ways is key. Such as, introducing Squash57 or playing length games.

    Hoping that one day there will be a link and rethinking of how players develop. Little kids could learn fundamental skills in an open setting of Pickleball, then refine those skills on the squash court.

    • I have enjoyed reading all of these well crafted and carefully thought out responses, just as I hope you all enjoy reading the posts that help to shine a light on critical issues that would otherwise go unreported.

  9. Squash as a sport isn’t the same as a steam engine that to be replaced by diesel or new technologies. Gym companies removing squash courts isn’t a positive progress like Industrial Revolution, completely opposite however, it’s destroying the tracks and foundations rather than upgrading engine technologies. Totally backwards and evil. Shame on them!

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