Wednesday, June 12, 2024

UK squash clubs’ battle for COVID-19 survival: Part One

Introducing new players at Lichfield Squash Club in Staffordshire on World Squash Day

“The very future of squash in the UK” is in play …
By JAMES ROBERTS – Squash Mad Reporter

It has now been just over two weeks since Boris Johnson announced ‘lockdown’ style social distancing measures in the UK to fight the spread of COVID-19, which of course meant that squash clubs up and down the country were immediately forced to close their doors for the foreseeable future.

Now the Prime Minister is in an Intensive Care ward in a London hospital. And many squash clubs are also fighting to stay alive.

While this first and foremost represents a challenge to the squash community in terms of no longer having their squash ‘fix’ and having to find alternative ways of staying fit and active, it is squash clubs themselves that right now are having to face the ultimate challenge – that of actual survival and future sustainability in the face of a severe financial shock.

It goes without saying that the very future of squash in the UK will depend on this battle for the ultimate survival of squash clubs and venues, as we need to protect the playing assets that we have left, which as we know have been massively eroded over the years. In short, for the sport to survive, we need squash courts to return to once the restrictions are removed!

Ultimately, squash clubs are businesses like any other, so funding and finance represent their lifeblood. In this regard, fortunately the government has brought in a huge raft of interventionist measures to support businesses and enable them to emerge from this crisis.

These schemes are wide-ranging, including grants through business rates, business rates holidays, business interruption loans on favourable terms, deferred tax and VAT payments, a self-employment income protection scheme and a staff retention scheme, the latter of which has added the word ‘furlough’ to everyday parlance. A complete list of government support schemes for businesses is available here.

In addition to these direct government support schemes for business, Sport England last week announced a £20m ‘Community Emergency Fund’ to be specifically targeted at sports clubs and organisations ‘most in need’ or at risk of ceasing operations altogether due to the ongoing crisis. Details of this fund are available here.

England Squash has also announced a new ‘Bounceback’ grant of £200 to help with relaunch events once restrictions are lifted. They also offer other advice and support for clubs available on their Coronavirus Support for Clubs webpage.

So how are squash clubs doing in terms of facing this challenge and what measures have they undertaken, both in terms of accessing support schemes and their own internal actions? An important point to note in this regard is that squash clubs come in all shapes, sizes and follow different business models, so the above support schemes will apply to some clubs but not others. In addition, the diversity of squash clubs means that they are also using their own initiatives in lots of different ways to keep the financial lifeblood flowing within their clubs.

To demonstrate this diversity of approach, I have over the past few days spoken to club officials and managers from a wide range of clubs in different circumstances and facing a variety of challenges. I have also spoken to a couple of County Associations to gauge what actions and plans have been put in place to support the clubs in their areas. I hope that their stories will hopefully provide some hope and inspiration to all clubs up and down the country, whatever their particular circumstances.

In the first of a series of fairly detailed articles (at least these days we all have a bit more time for reading!), I will first concentrate on clubs based in an area I know so well, the West Midlands. A further article will follow which will focus on the East and South East of England and I will then attempt to draw things together across a range of themes and produce a list of recommendations for clubs to follow.

Onto my review of the West Midlands, starting in the second city:

Aerial view of the impressive Edgbaston Priory Club

Club Name: Edgbaston Priory Club (EPC)
Location: Birmingham
Number of members: 2,800 total
Number of courts: 10
Other sports facilities: Fitness studio, gym, tennis (outdoors and indoors), outdoor swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi, steam
Club Official: Mike Edwards, Head of Squash and Racketball

Edgbaston Priory’s Head of Squash and Racketball, Mike Edwards

EPC must be one of the largest and most prestigious squash and multi-sport clubs in the UK, with a fantastic set up in terms of facilities, coaching, teams and elite players basing themselves there. They have hosted the European Team Championships and also compete and do very well in the British and European Club Championships.

In terms of the government financial support schemes for businesses, the CEO, Finance Manager and Board are currently investigating them to see which they can apply for and which are most appropriate.

The club being quite large has a good number of direct employees and has already acted by furloughing 80% of them, with the situation being reviewed week by week. The club is also a business location for a wide variety of self-employed people, such as coaches, so this also represents a loss of revenue to the club. The club is also supporting these individuals as best they can. At least the government acted last week to bring in an income support scheme specifically for the self-employed, providing 80% of the average of their last 3 years’ declared annual profits up to £2,500 per month.

The club does not have alternative means of generating income but is currently looking at a wide variety of ways to save costs and inject cashflow into the business. It is VAT registered so will defer the next quarter’s VAT payments and is also actively investigating the potential for accessing the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS).

That said, some income continues to flow into the club through members being asked to continue to pay their membership fees, with further rewards for such loyalty being considered as the business investigates its financial models looking forward.

In terms of the Sport England scheme, the Board is also looking at this possibility, should they be unable to secure government assistance via the business rates grants. My view is this could very well be the case as their rateable value will probably exceed the £51,000 threshold for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors grant, although as a leisure business they should now qualify for a 12-month business rates holiday. The club will also almost certainly host a major squash relaunch event once the current restrictions are lifted and will discuss this with England Squash.

The overall impression from EPC is of a well-run, profitable club which benefits from a good level of internal resource and expertise, enabling it to face up to the financial challenge of COVID-19 by accessing the support available and by counting on the continued support of its large membership.

Chairman of Staffordshire Squash’s new Committee, Chris Dawson

Next, let’s travel a bit further North but staying in the West Midlands Region, to Staffordshire, known as ‘the Creative County’ and where currently a group of committed individuals is trying to breathe new life into the squash scene with the establishment of a County Committee for the first time in a few decades. Setting the scene in Staffordshire is new County Chair Chris Dawson, who is a full-time Level 3 coach based at Tettenhall School in Wolverhampton.

Beginners’ session at Lichfield Squash Club in Staffordshire

Chris states: “Staffordshire Squash has been working behind the scenes so that squash and racketball can once again thrive at clubs across the county. The recent Coronavirus situation hasn’t stopped a passionate Committee come up with ideas and initiatives. This has helped them appreciate the infrastructure that needs to be put in place.

“Further work is under way so that when the lockdown is lifted, we will be in a good position to undertake a major countywide launch. Funding will be available imminently for England Squash affiliated clubs in the county, ultimately targeted at encouraging more juniors and adults to play. It promises to be an exciting time for the county.

“If you play squash or racketball and would like to give something back, we’re always looking for volunteers. Keep in touch via our Facebook and Twitter pages and please spread the word.”

In terms of club squash in Staffordshire, I spoke to one of the most established clubs in the county based in the County town:

Entrance to Burton Manor Sports Association in Stafford

Club Name: Burton Manor Sports Association (BMSA)
Location: Stafford
Number of members: 300 total, of which 96 play squash
Number of courts: 2
Other sports facilities: Sports hall offering judo, karate, bowls, badminton and table tennis
Club Officials: Shaun Watkin, Squash Section Representative and Nick Fudger, Junior Squash Coordinator

Shaun Watkin (far left) and Nick Fudger (second left) introducing two female beginners to squash

Nick and Shaun commented “BMSA is a private members sports club in Stafford with Judo, Karate, Bowls, badminton, table tennis and the main supporting section being Squash.

“In recent years, the membership and profits have suffered a slow decline to the point that in mid-2019 the club was financially on the brink of collapse. All the members were given the ultimatum: “use it or lose it”!

“In the true spirit of a private club, the members chose to use it. BMSA has since seen its finances go back into the black and start its journey back to financial security.

“The squash membership has increased along with other sections and the new Junior squash coaching sessions have been growing from strength to strength.

“We were even named club of the month by England Squash for our efforts during World Squash Day, attracting over 90 new people to play squash throughout the day.

“The increased use of the sports hall facilities for private functions, live bands and entertainment has all made a huge difference to the continued viability of our club.

“The going was good, we had momentum and engagement, we were on the up, with a full diary of bookings, with court usage rising and a thriving members’ community committed to enjoying the facilities once again.

“However, the Coronavirus crisis then struck and in the space of a few days since the restrictions were imposed, all sporting facilities and the bar were closed, with all bookings for events cancelled until further notice.

“Again, BMSA is in a state of the unknown, and with no income and continuing financial commitments, it could just be a matter of time before BMSA will have to close for good, just like thousands of other small businesses all over the country.

“And, even if the restrictions are lifted in time, to get that momentum and engagement back will take a lot of effort and we will be relying on our dedicated members to help us get back on track.

“We hope everyone is staying safe and look forward to welcoming all our members, new and old, young and young at heart, back to BMSA as soon as we can.”

In terms of accessing the financial support schemes available, the club is currently investigating their eligibility for the government schemes. It is hoped in particular that the club will qualify for one of the Retail, Leisure and Hospitality grants available via their local authority. If so, they could be in line to receive a grant of £25,000, which could prove a vital financial lifeline.

Moving back further South now and over the Staffordshire border into the ‘Black Country’, we head towards another fine multi-sport club with a proud history:

The newest of Wolverhampton’s three glass backed courts

Club Name: Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash Club (WLTSC)
Location: Wolverhampton
Number of members: 1,000 total
Number of courts: 6
Other sports facilities: 2 gyms, a studio, 3 indoor tennis courts and 12 outdoor tennis courts, changing rooms, saunas, bar and restaurant
Club Official: Marc Hughes, Sports Manager

Marc Hughes, front and centre, recently won the Club Racketball Championship

Nestled in the leafy suburb of Tettenhall just to the North West of the city centre and fronted by a rather fine Victorian building, Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash Club boasts some very impressive facilities. The club has a highly active squash and racketball section, catering for all levels of ability, from beginners through to elite players. They have even pioneered ‘walking racketball’ for those less mobile or recovering from injury.

Marc Hughes is the Sports Manager there and explains that before the Coronavirus crisis hit, the club had some ambitious plans to undertake a clubhouse extension project, with funds having been reserved for this purpose. However, these funds will now first and foremost be diverted to enable the club to stay in business, since it is estimated that a three-month closure would cost the club around £100,000.

The club, which recently changed from a non-incorporated not for profit structure to a Company Limited by Guarantee, is highly focussed right now on ensuring its sustainability, with all financial support options under investigation by the Treasurer. The club is particularly looking at the grants available to leisure businesses (£25,000), eligibility for which will depend on the rateable value of its premises, which it owns outright.

The government has however recently extended the 12-month business rates holidays to all leisure businesses, which will be most welcome as the club is currently liable for full business rates. It is also looking at the options available to defer VAT and other tax payments, although this can only be a cashflow benefit, these payments eventually having to be found. The Club will also consider a government backed Business Interruption Loan should a further cash injection be required.

The club has acted immediately to cut its costs, in particular by furloughing all its staff under the government Staff Retention Scheme, bar two members of the accounts team. This at least means that its staff will receive 80% of their pay up to £2,500 a month for the next three months and avoids any redundancies, while removing the costs from the club books.

All of the coaches based at WLTSC are self-employed so will have to rely on the government’s Self-employed Income Protection Scheme, which will pay 80% of the last three years’ average declared profits, again up to £2,500 per month. WLTSC has also waived any monthly rental payments due to enable the coaches to cut their costs, although the fear remains that some of the coaches may not return to the profession once the crisis is over.

If it turns out that the club is unable to secure any direct grant assistance from the government schemes or elsewhere, then it may apply to the Sport England Community Emergency Fund, which could offer a grant of up to £10,000.

Marc rounds off by stating that ‘Team WLTSC’ as he refers to the club community is strong and they have been delivering virtual online fitness classes free for members and non-members to try to keep everyone fit and active in readiness for reopening. The club committees and staff also call three members a day to keep in touch, especially those on their own or vulnerable.

I am very grateful to Mike, Chris, Shaun, Nick and Marc for their openness in outlining the challenges they each face in sustaining their clubs’ futures. One thing they all share is a sense of determination and we at Squash Mad wish them well in these uncertain times. In the next article, we will turn our attention to clubs in the East and South East of England.

Pictures courtesy of: Lichfield Squash Club, Edgbaston Priory Club, Chris Dawson, Burton Manor Sports Association and Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis and Squash Club


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