Monday, May 20, 2024

UK squash clubs’ battle for COVID-19 survival – Part Two

‘Beacon of Hope’ County will regain momentum
By JAMES ROBERTS – Squash Mad Correspondent

Following the article published a couple of weeks ago about how squash clubs are facing up to the financial and business challenges of COVID-19, which focussed on clubs in the West Midlands, in this next article I am focussing on a single county and another area I know so well – Northamptonshire.

I moved to Northamptonshire from my native Staffordshire around 3 years ago, although I play most of my squash just over the border at Market Harborough in Leicestershire. However, my club participates in the Northamptonshire county leagues as well as in Leicestershire and I captain one of the club’s Northants teams, so I have got to know the club scene across the county pretty well.

In a previous Squash Mad article of mine, it was highlighted that although the squash scene had suffered a huge decline, with clubs and courts closing and participating waning, there were at last beacons of hope in Northamptonshire. This was largely down to a revitalised County Committee, led by a determined group of volunteers and with a motivational, can-do Chairman at the helm, pursuing a well-planned strategy to build grass roots participation and in particular through junior squash development. You can read the full article about the revitalisation of squash in Northants here.

Mike Broadbent (left) in action with clubmate Ray Chessum during Lings Squash Club’s trip to Nantes last year

I have therefore gone back to Mike Broadbent for a review of how the County as a whole is coping with all normal squash activities being completely suspended for the time being. Mike is also Chairman at his local club, Lings in Northampton, an active club based within a public leisure centre run by a leisure trust, so it was also interesting to hear about how this type of club is managing the crisis.

By virtue of his County leadership, Mike is also heavily involved in the running of one of the main dedicated squash clubs in the County, Daventry, which often hosts county competitions and events due to its glass back show court. He has therefore been able to update us regarding this club as well.

Finally, Brackley Squash Club based in the extreme South of the County close to the Oxfordshire border, is one club that has really made a name for itself over recent years, being named England Squash ‘Club of the Year’ in 2017. Ed Dowdall, PR and Communications club Committee member has therefore provided us with an update on the situation there too.

In terms of the county wide perspective, County Chairman Mike starts by striking a fairly optimistic tone. Although the threat of further court closures has hung constantly over the heads of clubs even while the courts were open, in Mike’s estimation most of them are probably still going to survive the crisis. The main reasons for this optimism are that the courts spread across the county are for the most part either located in public leisure centres or within multi-sport clubs that are in a strong enough position financially to weather several months of closure.

That is not to say that some courts could still come under threat – there are in particular a couple of private members clubs where courts have already been heavily sacrificed for additional gym space in an attempt to keep up with the cheap gyms, or where the financial position is not quite so strong. We wait with bated breath to see if these clubs will survive this crisis.

Turning now to the position for specific clubs in which Mike is directly involved, we start with Lings Squash Club in Northampton:

Lings Squash Club’s annual Christmas Doubles Competition, which always attracts a large number of entries from all over Northamptonshire

Club Name: Lings Squash Club
Location: Weston Favell, Northampton
Number of members: 90 regular players (plus at least as many casual players) out of 6,000 regular users of the facilities overall
Number of courts: 4
Other sports facilities: sports hall, pool, gym, spinning bikes, classes, badminton, five-a-side, swimming, volleyball, basketball, martial arts, table tennis
Club Official: Mike Broadbent, Club Chairman

Lings Leisure Centre sits as part of the Weston Favell commercial development, which includes a large indoor shopping centre, on the North Western side of Northampton as you approach from Kettering. It was formerly run by the local authority but was transferred to Trilogy Leisure Trust a few years ago, with a short-term lease initially which has since been renegotiated to provide longer term security and borrowing capabilities.

Mike was unsure about the status for business rates, or the grants available for leisure businesses, although he thought that the Trust’s charity status probably meant that a large chunk of business rates liability was removed by charitable relief. I would imagine that the rateable value is too large to allow the centre to obtain the £25k grant, although given the size of the centre, this would not represent a significant cash benefit relatively speaking. If there are any business rates liabilities remaining, those will be reduced to zero by virtue of the business rates holidays now offered to all leisure businesses regardless of premises size.

The Leisure Trust operates a membership scheme, which is still collecting fees, although they are accepting individual requests to freeze them without issue. Lings Squash Club collects its membership fees independently of the Leisure Trust, at just £20 per year (as players then have to pay court fees on a pay per play basis). The club has decided to suspend its membership fees and will pick these back up once restrictions are lifted. This will mean, however, that the Club will not be able to pay its England Squash affiliation fees when these become due on 1st June.

The Trust employs a lot of people, most of whom have been furloughed due to the total closure of all facilities. The Squash Club’s coaches are all voluntary, which includes Mike and he jokes that his disposable income has in fact risen due to the closure thanks to fuel savings alone!

In terms of tax payments for the Trust, when the centre was under council control, VAT on input costs could not be claimed, but under the charitable status of a trust, VAT can now be recovered. As there is of course the VAT on income, the trust will consider the ability to defer the next VAT payment, although given this will just push the liability further down the road, it may just pay it if able to.

The Trust is currently in talks with its bank about a potential Business Interruption Loan under the government backed scheme. They have a very close and mutually beneficial relationship with Northampton Borough Council so they will be supportive, although money has not been discussed yet.

There is no word on whether the Trust will be applying to the Sport England Community Emergency Fund but given that the Trust Chair is a Director of Northamptonshire Sport, all such avenues will most certainly be explored. The Squash Club will definitely be planning a huge re-launch event once restrictions are finally lifted, which they hope will be supported by an England Squash Bounceback Grant. This event will be used to kickstart and reinvigorate a couple of campaigns that were really beginning to bear fruit just as the pandemic struck.

Moving on next to Daventry Squash Club, located in the market town of around 25,000 people to the West of Northampton, close to the border with Warwickshire.

Daventry plays host to a variety of junior squash programmes and events throughout the Northants squash calendar

Club Name: Daventry Squash Club
Location: Daventry
Number of members: 60
Number of courts: 5
Other sports facilities: None directly associated to squash, but the club sits as part of Daventry and District Sports Club (DDSC), with separate rugby, bowls and table tennis clubs
Club Official: Mike Broadbent, Committee Member

Despite only having a relatively small membership for a 5-court facility, Mike is not unduly concerned about the future of the club, especially with it being part of DDSC and benefitting from a relatively low operating cost base. The club has continued to collect membership fees but will accept any request to stop payment. Mike was unsure at the time of writing how many such requests had been received.

The club is also home to the only glass back ‘show court’ with extensive banked seating in the county, meaning that the club often hosts county-wide events and competitions, as was the case with the County Closed this year. The club has also hosted many of the county junior Grand Prix events, county coaching and school festivals, which have proved huge contributors to the revival of the county squash scene. The club will undoubtedly continue to play a pivotal role in delivering the county’s squash development plans once the restrictions are relaxed.

In terms of the premises, DDSC operates on a tenancy from Daventry District Council with a peppercorn rent of £1 per year, so there are no mortgage or rent issues. Each club that makes up DDSC pays a monthly levy which covers all overheads, with the squash club paying about £1000 a month.

The squash club itself is not eligible for any of the grants available via the local authority through business rates as it does not pay rates directly itself. The Board of Trustees is probably investigating reliefs and grants for DDSC as a whole and, as with Lings, will be eligible for 100% relief from rates as a leisure business and may qualify for a £25k grant if the rateable value of the site as a whole is less than £51k.

The club does not have much in the way of staff costs as it only uses casual bar staff, so has not needed to access the Job Retention Scheme. The club only has a single coach, but as he also has a full-time day job, he will not be eligible for, or indeed need, the Self Employment Income Protection Scheme.

The squash club isn’t VAT registered, but an incorporated version of the Trust which manages the business is. Their discussions about how to deal with this are ongoing, but it is anticipated that they will try to defer VAT payments if necessary.

The Squash Club is currently investigating the Sport England Community Emergency Fund and may make an application. It is also likely that the club will host a relaunch event and therefore apply to England Squash for a Bounceback Grant. In fact, Mike is keen for all clubs within the County to do this in a coordinated fashion.

Finally, we travel to the Southern extremity of the County down to Brackley, a small market town close to the county borders with Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Brackley’s teams celebrating the 1st team’s success winning the 2018 Oxfordshire Division 1 Title

Club Name: Brackley Squash Club
Location: Brackley
Number of members: 265
Number of courts: 2
Other sports facilities: Table tennis and Pilates classes
Club Official: Ed Dowdall, Communications and PR Committee Member

Ed Dowdall of Brackley Squash Club demonstrating that he is a proud ‘Squashaholic’

Brackley truly have achieved special things with such limited resources, although what they lack in facilities they make up for in determination and resourcefulness. This success was recognised by England Squash, with the club winning Club of the Year back in 2017.

The club benefits from thriving internal leagues and 3 teams competing in the Oxfordshire County Leagues. Last year, the 1st team won the county championship and looked set to successfully defend their title when the Coronavirus forced the suspension of the leagues. The 2nd and 3rd teams were looking good to win their respective divisions too.

Having just 2 courts housed within Winchester House School, the club boasts a membership that clubs with more than double the number of courts would be proud of, with a waiting list currently in operation. Membership fees are just £9 a month and the vast majority of members have maintained their monthly payments during the closure to assist the club.

One of the club members is a Level 2 coach, but as with Daventry, he earns the majority of his income elsewhere so will not require to access the Self-employment Income Protection Scheme. A renowned Level 4 coach also visits the club regularly but Brackley is just one of a number of clubs where he offers his services.

With the courts being owned by the school, the club is subject to minimal admin requirements (apart from managing the bookings) and costs, so the loss of court fee income will not affect club finances. This also means that the club is not liable for any business rates but will also not be eligible for any of the local authority grants via the rates system.

With such a low cost base and simple structures, alongside the support of its members, the club does not anticipate the need to access any of the other government schemes, such as business interruption loans.

The club had started a fundraising campaign to contribute towards an expansion to 4 courts, which the club sees as vital due to the booming demand for squash that they have successfully generated locally. This will inevitably now be subject to a further delay of a few months, which is seen as the main frustration generated by the Coronavirus crisis. In the meantime, the club is keen to continue to support the health and well-being of its large membership so that they are ready to step back on court once restrictions are lifted, through the provision of a weekly coaching newsletter providing general health and fitness advice.

The suspension of squash has undoubtedly dented the fantastic momentum built up across the county by the enthusiasm and dedication of both the Northants Squash Rackets Association and its clubs. However, knowing the people involved, I remain utterly convinced that this momentum will be regained and that the development of squash will continue to accelerate once things get back to some form of normality.

I would like to thank Mike and Ed for their honest and open contributions in detailing the challenges their clubs face. We at Squash Mad wish them well over the remainder of these uncertain times and for when they can once again open the doors to their clubs.

We are currently in touch with other clubs up and down the country and will be publishing further articles on this subject in due course.

Pictures courtesy of  NSRA, Mike Broadbent, Brackley Squash Club and James Roberts


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