By MIKE DALE
Padel’s extraordinary boom reminds many of us old enough to remember a similar explosion in another rebound racket sport in the 1970s and 80s.
Squash was all the rage then, with a clamour to join trendy new members’ clubs where the whipcrack of balls hitting walls echoed across the car park, bars were packed, and business deals were done over a post-match pint of beer and a few drags on a John Player Special.
Now it’s padel courts which can barely be built quick enough to meet demand. Lattés and smoothies are the more typical drink of choice and the malodorous, male-dominated squash environment of yesteryear contrasts with padel’s more upmarket, fun, laid-back, sociable vibe.
Squash was already shrinking before the pandemic: Sport England’s Active Lives survey showed an alarming 30% decline in people playing regularly (twice in 28 days or more) between 2016 and 2019.
Covid-19 has accelerated that decline. While a handful of clubs have seen a growth in membership since the removal of lockdown lockouts, many have reported a reduction of around 25% in squash membership renewal and court usage in the months after restrictions were relaxed a year ago. I’m sure every squash player reading this will be able to name at least a handful of players at their club who just never came back.
There are still pockets of strength across the UK. Many larger squash clubs have actually gained members as smaller clubs nearby have folded and their players have migrated. Those who have been proactive and innovative have survived and even thrived, but others have suffered.
Simultaneously (as evidenced at venues like Edinburgh Sports Club) padel has exploded. It is more Covid-friendly, easier to pick up, less technical, less fitness-dependent, more sociable and great fun.
Crucially, it has received backing from the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), who annexed padel in May 2019, labelling it a ‘discipline of tennis’ and installing itself as the sport’s UK governing body.
The LTA offer interest-free loans of up to £250,000 for existing tennis venues to add padel courts. Chapel Allerton in Leeds is one of the latest examples of clubs taking up the offer.
There are now approaching 200 padel courts in the UK with more opening every month. Some are backed by the might of foreign investment with venues such as the huge Surge Padel in Harrogate funded by hefty Middle Eastern capital.
One crumb of comfort for squash is that the addition of padel is making clubs who already offered tennis and squash more vibrant and financially viable.
That’s certainly been the case at East Glos Club in Cheltenham who installed three padel courts in April 2021. They changed their membership model to a ‘rackets membership’ enabling people to play tennis, padel, squash and racketball for one flat monthly fee.
Manager Darren Morris said: “Padel has really brought the club together whereas previously there was a bit of a divide. We’ve seen tennis and squash players play padel together and equally tennis players have started playing racketball on days when it’s tipping it down.
“It has helped increase our membership numbers and has added a new dimension to the club. It has brought new demographics – both younger ones and more mature players.”
Padel’s march into squash’s territory is most starkly illustrated by the announcement that it will host a tournament in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Giza – one of the seven wonders of the world – from October 24-30.
Squash has an illustrious historical association with the Pyramids, starting with the Al-Ahram International in 1996. Stunning open-air pro squash tournaments have been held in front of the iconic backdrop of the Pyramids regularly ever since, including the 2006 World Championships and last month’s CIB Egyptian Open.
For padel to encroach into this sacred territory is bad enough for squash, but news that the NEWGIZA Premier Padel P1 tournament will be shown in over 180 countries, dwarfing squash’s online and TV reach, is even more demoralising.
Yet more worrying news for squash is that there has been something of a talent drain between the sports in recent years.
Dax Mellor, who did such a brilliant job developing junior squash in Wiltshire, saw his sterling efforts to build a six-court squash and fitness centre in Swindon ended by Covid-19. With several squash clubs closing in the town, he was left without the infrastructure to keep his school-to-club programme going.
He accepted a job offer from Padel4all and led the development of their three-court padel centre in Swindon before working on new sites in Southend and Bristol.
“I used to get so embarrassed when I took guests to squash clubs where owners didn’t recognise its value. I took it really personally,” says Mellor.
“Compare those dusty venues to the blue turf, LED floodlights under the canopy, impeccably clean glass cage and astroturf which you can slide on and makes the ball skid – it’s like going to a Mercedes car dealership as opposed to a second-hand salesman round the corner!”
Chris Herridge, the World Squash Federation’s former Courts and Technical Commission chairman, left the role in 2018 to found the Padel Court Company. Nick Thompson from Melior Sports is another to diversify his squash court construction and maintenance operation into padel.
Few can blame them for following the money. The squash industry has work to do to make sure it isn’t left trailing in padel’s wake.
Squash Mad has been at the forefront of reporting on the emergence of rival racket sports in recent years and a similar talent drain is taking place right now in North America.
As squash courts close, coaches are pivoting to the booming sport of pickleball. This easy-to-play, mini version of tennis has so far attracted five million players, non-stop celebrity endorsements, and ever-increasing commercial investment.
Major racket brands are also moving into the pickleball arena as they smell the dollars that are no longer being delivered by squash.
Here’s what Squash Mad editor Alan Thatcher wrote in May, as the LifeTime chain announced that it was planning to build between 600 and 700 new pickleball courts after downgrading their squash activities across the group:
The Padel Paper
Our sister title The Padel Paper offered live coverage of the World Padel Championship European Qualifiers from Derby over the weekend of September 30 to October 2, in association with The Padel Shack and We Are Padel.
Head to thepadelpaper.com to check it out.