By EDUARDO ALVAREZ – Squash Mad Correspondent
COVID-19 has given many of us an opportunity to pause and reflect on many things in our lives including squash.
For those of us involved directly in the sport as volunteers, coaches, professional players, club owners and association administrators, it truly is an important time to assess what is working and what is not.
As a club owner, former coach and player I have some concerns about our sport. These are my humble observations and musings.
For context, I am in my early 50s so my perspective spans through the late 1970s, 80s and 90s to the present day. As well, my context is perhaps limited to North America and more specifically my home country of Canada. I am based in Toronto but have lived in various parts of the country and grew up in Saskatchewan.
I don’t pretend to know much about the international scene, other countries, the PSA or WSF. Editor Alan Thatcher has provided some education on those fronts and I have some knowledge of the US market through friends.
My general observation is that the availability of affordable commercial courts for middle and lower-class families is dwindling.
As a reference, when I look at clubs, I make the distinction between “commercial” clubs and private clubs.
Private clubs are more exclusive and, well, private. These clubs are usually defined by high initiation fees, smaller membership volume, non-profit structure with member boards and application requirements. By contrast, commercial clubs are easy to join, high volume and generally affordable to most people and are built as a for-profit business. Having said that, one could argue that even commercial clubs are still too expensive and too much commitment to entry-level players or for people who just want to try the sport.
Private clubs are important for our sport and have stood the test of time. They offer great places to play and an anchor that preserves the history of our game. However, I would argue that they are not places of viral or explosive growth. This type of growth can only be found in more affordable high-volume commercial or public settings. It is these playing options that I am most concerned about.
In the US and Canada, we have seen stable growth and/or stability in private clubs, private schools and colleges. There has also been headway in the urban squash movement, often fuelled by donations from members of private clubs. However, this growth seems to be limited to the opposite ends of the economic spectrum, namely disadvantaged urban kids and wealthy private school students and private club members.
Understanding this is important to understand where growth could happen and what needs to be addressed. We need to keep an eye on the commercial clubs and gyms. Are the big chains adding courts to new locations? Are the local commercial clubs removing courts?
My next observation is that all of us tend to ignore the playing habits and volume achieved by “casual” participants. This thought stems from seeing the number of casual players versus the “keen” players at clubs I have been involved with. I have noticed that the casual players far outnumber the keen players (still limited, but a larger number).
As a squash player, I have noticed that we all tend to gravitate to and focus on keen players (myself included). I’m not sure if this is the nature or general culture of our game, but I have generally seen this over the years. These keen players include league players, tournament players and high-performance players.
When I look at content in squash-related media it is generally focused on this type of player. Images of top players in action, or awards for local A-grade players and high-performance juniors. Our approach to showcasing our sport seems to be top-down.
Instructional content is often geared towards advanced players, who often already have a local coach if needed. It all feels like an echo chamber. I’m hard-pressed to Google search squash and see options on how to get started. I might see clubs pop up with squash content buried on the website past the fitness content; “four international courts”, “instruction available” and so on.
There is no emotional call to action or trials. It does not speak to someone with a casual glimmer of interest in our sport. Generally, it speaks to the existing player looking for courts, and provides dry information. Compared to fitness marketing, which attempts to connect to the public with catchy slogans and emotional content about being a “better you” or “new year, new you”.
Most sports or trends achieve growth through casual participation by the masses. There are legions of casual yoga participants, for example. This type of growth has never been made more clear than by the explosive growth of pickleball in North America.
As a club owner, I have observed that most people participate in leisure or fitness activities on a casual basis. Casual players can often outnumber keen players at least 10 to one. These casual players often go unnoticed at clubs, paying their dues and supporting the game with large numbers. These players play once per week and have no interest in more organised play, like driving to a weekend tournament or to another club to play league matches.
However, these players pay the bills and offer the volume to justify courts. I believe we need more of these players, who will fund growth by sheer numbers. They will also do low commitment things like buying a new racquet on their lunch break or attending a pro event a few times per year. This all leads to more interest from sponsors and higher purses for our pros.
This is where pickleball works. It addresses the needs of casual players. It is a game that can be set up in any school gym, tennis court or parking lot. Because of the low cost to create a court, pickleball offers affordability for new players. An organiser can simply rent a gym and charge $5 per person for a night of pickleball. Add the fact that it is easy to play and you have a recipe for explosive growth. It is unapologetically casual, recreational and cheap.
Sure, we squash players will argue that other games are slow or boring and that squash is a more dynamic sport. But, that is exactly the point. The casual player is looking for a bit of exercise, affordability, fun and social connection. Pickleball ticks all of these boxes. Casual players are not looking for court sprints, hours of technical training or drills.
Pickleball will eventually see more dedicated players and professional play as a result of popularity but these keen players will be the exception, as in all sports. I predict pickleball-specific indoor clubs will explode and we are already seeing a solid pro tour develop as sponsors see the numbers of casual players.
As an example, my sisters started playing, only having time to play once or maybe twice per week. They have already upgraded their paddles once and shared links to websites with fun pickleball T-shirts, thus investing in the sport.
Tennis shares some of the attributes of pickleball in terms of casual play, but it is not as perfect, but close. It does, however, have an edge over squash. Tennis courts can be outdoors and be offered in a public setting. This allows for casual play and a local public showcase of the sport.
Tennis is quite technical, but you can get outside and bat the ball around for little to no cost. The game can be played at a base level, as the hitting surface is large, the ball is big and the concept is simple; hit it over the net. As a bonus, it is outside, so fresh air is a huge selling feature, especially now. Tennis also offers doubles on the same court, which is appealing to older players.
It is not lost on me that tennis is somewhat inefficient in terms of space and ceiling height requirements for indoor courts in colder climates, but it really works in warmer places. It does have many of the attributes needed to make it popular.
So, if we entertain this idea of casual players as it relates to growth, what does our sport have in place to attract these types of players? What marketing do we have? What affordable courts do we have available?
In terms of marketing and basic advertising, we often assume that local associations are promoting the sport. My observation has been that these associations are often cash-strapped and also have enough work managing and administrating the sport. These offices are often made up of a few part-time staff and some volunteers. Many rely on volunteers only.
They do very important work to sustain our game but this is not a Mad Men, Madison Avenue advertising machine, nor can it be. Advertising is an ongoing day-to-day dogfight and, in my opinion, our associations are not set up to take on this battle. They can only attempt it in fits and spurts.
We then turn to the club level and assume that club owners are advertising our sport. This is usually far from reality.
Firstly, private clubs do not generally “advertise” and commercial clubs are generally owned by people with fitness backgrounds. These commercial owners are passionate about fitness and also know that fitness revenue exceeds squash revenue at every turn, even in highly competitive local gym markets.
Squash inquiries are not common and customer acquisition is difficult. Ad budgets are devoted to fitness promotions. Despite this, squash players demand loyalty from gym owners, but gym owners are simply running their business as they see fit, selling a service they know and believe in.
We have all been witness to gym owners casually ripping out courts without a second thought. It is simply not the business they are in and often they bought a club with courts with no intention of building squash or interest in the sport. They essentially bought “our” defunct racquet club space to run a different business. Keeping courts is not part of their macro plan.
And, there are no market indicators, cultural relevance or lobby associations convincing them otherwise.
I’m often surprised that club owners are not the very first people encouraged and invited to attend squash association meetings. After all, they have the keys to the very courts required for our sport.
At the very least, it would be important to know what the temperature is with these owners regarding squash courts as part of their current and future business plans. Instead, we often see an announcement of courts being removed and a small group of members trying to make a case at the 11th hour, well after repurposing plans have already been made.
Our last hope is our friendly local squash teaching professional. Having been one, I have a sense of the trade although it has been a while. Squash teaching pros are the foot soldiers of the sport and the backbone of any great squash club or community. However, let’s not instantly assume that they are marketing the game outside the confines of their club.
Firstly, the job itself is very time-consuming and physically demanding. Teaching pros may spend 20 to 30 hours or more a week on the court, coaching adults and kids. This leaves 10 hours or less of a typical 40-hour working week to deal with internal league organisation, hitting with new members, staff meetings, pro shop management and internal public relations.
Public relations would include developing the club culture, meeting with high demand junior parents, attending junior tournaments, attending adult tournaments, hosting social nights and club tournaments. All of this leaves little time for external marketing of the sport. This is especially true when teaching pros have families of their own, which puts pressure on their schedule, especially at night and weekends.
Over the years, I have seen keen young pros venture to market the game outside the walls of their club. These efforts are noble but often limited in terms of reach, marketing knowledge and, of course, available time. It’s a tough ask to expect a pro to teach 30 hours per week, run programs, do PR and be a master of advertising and marketing. As well, owners may not release any type of marketing budget for these pros.
This now leaves our ongoing Olympic hopes and dreams to mull over. This is where I think we often fail to see just how hidden and small our sport is. We attend a lively night at the club or local event, filled with energy and good humour at the bar, and we see our sport as wildly popular. There is no reason to really dig down and analyse ongoing up-to-date participation numbers, court usage, court closures or demographics when things “feel” good.
Our sport exists in clubs, which give us a daily affirmation that all is right in the squash world. My concern is that perhaps we could be on the Titanic, sipping cocktails and listening to the band. I’m basically, “putting this out there” as a subjective idea and I understand that this could be the rantings of someone dealing with lockdown fatigue or not understanding the landscape, not being aware of the growth in new markets. I think an Olympic bid is about being a cultural force, being relevant and modern.
This all filters down to the obvious concerns brought on by COVID-19 and the social distancing issues with our sport. With COVID-19, I’m not so concerned about keen players coming back. But: Will it be an attractive option for new players, parents of kids or adults? Huffing and puffing in a small room with someone else?
Will our casual players drift to another sport? We know our keeners will stay, they always do, but what about our casual players? Will municipal governments be inclined to add squash courts to recreation facilities? Will the big chains fade away from building squash courts at new locations or repurpose courts at existing ones? What chains with courts are going to make it through COVID-19? Already, I have seen announcements of bankruptcy proceedings for a few chains with courts. Will cash-strapped colleges begin removing varsity squash as they attempt to make a budget?
As we come out of lockdown I am spending more time in outdoor public spaces, namely parks. Subjectively, I am particularly struck by the sheer number of kids at our local skatepark. I joked that there were perhaps more kids at the skatepark in our small suburb than all of the junior squash programs in the greater Toronto area. Skateboarding in the Olympics? OK, I can see it now. Down the path, I see six busy public tennis courts with people milling around the courts and walking by. Both these spaces are public, free and visible. My hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, had 35 pickleball players in 2017 and now has over 770 active players on 40 available courts. Two of my three sisters are now playing out of the blue.
To me, it is clear that we need a gateway squash offering that is public, visible and affordable. The outdoor public court in NYC is a big and important thing. It proves the concept of a public court in a public space. This idea can be refined and developed and to my mind is the most interesting thing I have seen in squash in a while. Not since Steve Polli’s Youtube video featuring a court he made in, I believe, his backyard.
The recent NYC outdoor steel squash court by designer Robert Gibralter also represents a glimmer of what could be. It’s a big deal in my opinion. My teaching pro mind starts to percolate with ways to “program” these outdoor spaces. A short video of a local NYC pro arriving by bike to a stylish steel courtside patio was in itself exciting, never mind seeing someone using the court.
My COVID-19 squash musings lead me and others to the idea of a movement to create more affordable public squash. A few people share this notion and emails are starting to fly around the world. Can we reimagine our sport? Can we pull it from outside the thick walls of private clubs and upscale commercial clubs to show it to the public? Is there a movement afoot? A revolution on the way?
I believe that until our sport has a viable public/affordable option it will remain a niche sport, which is perhaps OK as long as we understand the limitations that imposes.
But, if we want to grow our game, we need to offer squash in a new way. I think we have to figure out and keep an eye on the affordable commercial and public club model.
Other padel and racquet games are gaining market share so the time is now. We also need to start thinking bottom-up in terms of promoting our sport. Every single outreach should really be about attracting new players.
Perhaps this could be our finest hour as we dig down to promote our game.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Please comment below. Let’s discuss the agenda for squash clubs of the future
I’m almost in my 50s so have a similar landscape against which to read your very good and almost all-encompassing article. As such I can’t address (or agree) with all points here. What I would add is that education must play a part in increasing the awareness of squash in society.
In the 1980s squash became a game for the masses in the U.K.; a squash club was opened in a deserted church at the bottom of my street and I idly ventured in to see what it was all about. Until then I’d never heard of squash. At school, and in our family, you only spoke of football. That’s the working class way. Football gave you an identity and status.
Yet the squash club became a huge success.
It offered nothing other than squash to the members who didn’t pay a membership fee; they just turned up, paid, and played. The club started with two courts and soon added two more. And they were fully booked out every evening. No one was promoting squash at this time; it was just something that people came to because it was there. If squash can survive – and I think it can – then two things need to happen:
1 – More courts have to be built and their accessibility has to be guaranteed (cost should not be a barrier)
2 – School children have to be educated about the benefits of playing it just as they are about football, tennis, rugby, and cricket.
Every school in the country should be encouraged to have a court in their grounds. That’s about 22,000 courts in England. And every pupil should get the chance to have a go at playing squash. That’s about 8 million pupils (that’s roughly how many are in school on any one day in England). I don’t mention the rest of the U.K. as I don’t have the numbers to hand. But I know that squash is loved in the rest of the U.K.
The steel courts could be a great way to bring squash back to the masses.
Thank you, Craig for your comments. So TRUE!
Maybe it’s more about one or two beautiful courts at a time, outdoors, visible, accessible, in more varied settings to further enhance the playing experience, well-built strategically and creatively.
Courts and education are key.
Yes, a good way to grow again may be more about building culture bottom up than building larger multi-court commercial complexes that subsidize squash with other sports, fitness programs and f&b.
Thanks Robert. I agree with the idea of beautiful courts as well as having lots of specialist squash clubs available for those who have had their interest piqued. If the governing body are to continue existing then they need to have a sport to govern.
The business model for a standalone squash club isn’t the most attractive and square footage return will always be less favourable for squash than it would for, say, fitness equipment. Hence the sport needs governing body subsidy to build a momentum for revival.
If the sport survives or dies, so does the governing body.
Very timely & thought provoking article at a time of existential crisis for squash.
I totally agree with the school connection. A taste for sports is usually developed in school. This might be a case for the combined forces of squash associations, schools and governments as Craig eluded to. To me, this is an example of bottom up thinking, which is needed.
I think much of this is about mindset. I sense a fair bit of comfort in squash, not the grind mentallity of say, a tech start-up. I sense that it is something about the club life, which is very secure and comfortable. Perhaps people are pushing, but maybe focused on the top down approach.
As an example, my friend promotes and puts on running races. The moment his event is done, he has to start to promote. There is no club house to stop by at and reassure him that he will hit his numbers. He is always in grind mode, check registrations, running ads etc.
At some point this may have existed in squash. Even when I look at the small member run keyclub where I live; five or so people in the early 1970s’ made this club happen. Granted those were different times and real estate was cheaper, but some people went about making that happen.
In terms of promotion, I think we need to be more desperate: Sign up desks at every tournament, “play squash at a club near you” calls to action before every PSA Youtube clip, pop up events and all kinds of guerrilla marketing.
I think this type of thing does require a mindset. It is almost like any idea is a good one as long it is about targeting new players and there are analytics. How many people did we sign up? How many people tried our public court? Did we follow up. All ideas are good, a court in a public space-yes, sign up booths at tournaments-yes, lobbying schools to build courts-yes! This is the mindset of a start-up, trying, fighting and pushing for market share.
My other thought is that squash and fitness can coexist, to make a squash club viable. But, we squash people feel burned by fitness and always imagine it as squash getting ousted or being a second class citizen within the space. (Some muscle head running our courts) But clubs could be built with a squash culture and with fitness. Ironically, most squash players do off court fitness training, so the two things are very compatible.
But, the people starting clubs are generally fitness people, who often have a background in club management and sales. The fitness industry breeds these people like rabbits. These clubs are very,very finally tuned club operations and marketing systems. People learn the secret sauce (there is one) at commercial gyms and venture off to start their own club or chain. (That’s my story, as I learned the gym business as a squash pro at a large chain. My squash only club was taken over by a large chain)
The odd time someone starts a squash club, they usually make it a high concept squash only/training center concept, which is a tough business. As well, they often come from outside gym or commerical club management. Usually coaches or squash enthusiasts.
Even if it was squash only, it would still require an understanding of the sales processes, pricing pain points and other aspects of selling this type of service to the public.
Anyway, just glad there is a conversation.
Really enjoyable and thought-provoking debate developing here.
Ed and I have been digging deep for some months now and we have discussed creating low-budget outdoor courts to make the game more visible.
A friend in Australia said: “I want to build one so that ordinary, working-class people can play squash”.
We have also been examining the phenomenal growth of padel and pickleball, which are ripping a lot of market share away from squash.
Pickleball England have produced a superb, simple website AT NO COST (thanks to two talented volunteer officers with commercial, media and IT experience):
Compare that to …. you know where I’m heading!
I can imagine that Pickleball and Padel will attract some players from squash as well as the net-and-racket sports such as table tennis, badminton and tennis but I can’t see it is the main competitor of squash. Racketball is, I imagine, a much bigger “threat” but again I’m not sure what Racketball are doing in terms of growing their game other than offering an alternative to squash on the same court.
I agree with Eduardo that squash needs to be hungrier to bring in new – and to bring back ex – players. We all know of at least one club who has done a fantastic job of putting squash first whilst allowing other fitness activities to sit successfully in the background. What we do to keep these clubs successful (or at least viable) must involve collaboration rather than competition.
But can an existing club just sit by whilst it loses members to a new start-up? What happens when the existing club flexes its muscles to the detriment of the new club?
We can’t just cut the same cake into smaller pieces; we need a bigger cake.
By “Racketball” I assume you mean “Squash57” not “Racquetball” or “Australian Racketball/Racquetball” in which case why do we see Squash57 as a “threat” and not a “symbiotic partner”? If you have not done so already then take a look at what David Kerr has written below. Squash57 can help ‘clubs’ fill off-peak empty courts with grass roots players (both juniors and relatively ‘cash rich’ seniors). It can also extend the playing lives of squash players by decades, that’s people like me. I think there are great opportunities for squash including outside and air conditioning but those clubs that have already ‘adopted/promoted’ Squash57 have a significant revenue stream that other ‘clubs’ are avoiding potentially at their peril.
As a casual player (I now play in a D league in TO so don’t know if I am still casual but I was) I would argue from personal experience that squash has a huge advantage over tennis on that you can keep a game going longer and with less frustration at the lower skill levels because of the walls and size of the room. I have not played pickle ball yet so I have no context there.
In addition the proximity to your opponent is appealing to casual female players I think. A lot of social fun can be had that tennis does not offer you. Women at the lower levels often modify the game in different ways (like playing cooperatively, for example) so I agree with the article that there is good potential to develop the sport through casual players alone and that has a trickle down effect.
My challenge when I took it up casually was finding players first and cost second. My local community centre offers financial help for those in need but excludes squash. That means I could only afford to play very occasionally and because I had no idea how to find other people that played, only with my sister. But to pay more than it costs to see a movie for just 40 minutes to try a game you might not be good at – well naturally you might look at trying something else. I can find free tennis courts. Or a brick wall at a school.
Now that COVID is here, I really want to play but I am “at risk” for COVID and have to be careful about exposure. Even if the floors and walls were wiped down, and I’m playing with someone in my “bubble”, what about the air that has been breathed in by those before me? Outdoor courts would be so way better for my peace of mind. I would even consider traveling to an outdoor court to play.
COVID may not be a long term threat the way it is now but I think the visibility of an outdoor squash court could do a lot for squash. Seeing people play would definitely put the idea of squash into peoples heads. Lessons in advertising tell us we need to see something frequently to have it influence our decisions. Most courts I’ve seen in community centers are hidden away. A lot of young people aren’t really that sure of what the game even is.
Sorry for any typos – typing on my phone 🙂
One of the scenarios we are exploring is the group of mid-life (maybe 50-plus) newcomers who want some fun and fitness, with a social buzz afterwards a nice bonus.
These people are choosing pickleball over squash because it’s easier and cheaper to play.
In comparison, squash often presents too many barriers: we are perceived rightly or wrongly as expensive, private clubs with real or imagined expectations of fitness and skill.
Most of my local squash clubs are empty during the day, which is when many retired people would prefer to play. They often join the pickleball club as couples and soon form a nice little social group to play doubles, with no expectation or desire of reaching a high standard. The nearest thing we have to this in squash is with the daytime use of hardball doubles courts in North America.
Most importantly, the start-up costs for pickleball are vastly cheaper than for squash.
We need to be able to offer a similar package for casual players to buy into. Not easy to achieve when so many clubs are closed at the very time people in this age bracket want to play.
I’m not so concerned about existing keen players. They have drunk the Koolaid and love the game. I have some concern with maintaining players over 40 as many of them have joint issues and can only play doubles.
My concern is members of the public who have a general interest or fits the target profile of a potential casual racquet participant. This is a segment of the population, which now has a few options with pickleball being the cheapest and easiest. If they want something more, Padel will soon take some market share. And let’s not discount tennis, which has massive marketng behind it with the Grand Slams and Nadel, Fed, Williams and public courts. The key thing to me is not to get into the mud regarding, which is a better game, it is more about which game is more easily found and affordable. These sports all have good and bad points, but how easy is it to discover, how cheap is it to play or find courts? Tennis courts are visable at most public parks and their massive advertising during Wimbledon etc is a huge plus. Pickleball can use public tennis court or any gym or a parking lot for that matter.
Jackie’s comments points out some of the issues. Courts buried in the back of recreation complexes. Cost. Finding players. I find most players have accidental stories on how they discovered the sport.
The core issue is providing affordable squash. It is also getting to the point of saying, “finding available squash”, which is my concern. .
It is also important to note that the shrinking middle class demographic has had an impact on multipurpose mid-ranged clubs. The industry has moved to top market unaffordable luxury commerical/private and high-volume low cost gyms, which don’t provide courts. The demise of the mid-ranged multi-purpose gym/club is a huge factor. I think pickleball will attempt these types of clubs over the next few years. I hear rumblings.
Thanks for the thoughtful and spot on conversatin-starting article. I love squash for fitness, competition & friendship. At 73, health benefits for me are enormous. But, due to C-19, I’ve not played since March. Instead, I swim & cycle outdoors now. I look forward to when it’s safe for me to play squash. Looking ahead, for a lot of reasons, courts should number at least 4. They s/b indoors w/ A/C systems so we can play in out of the sun any season, weather, or time of day. Maybe rethink the air circulation vis-à-vis C-19 exposures. Engineered convertible courts w/ 1 or 2 movable walls are a possibility, allowing higher utilization of space. In Houston, key to growth was a great coach with entrepreneurial leanings. Another key is engaging schools or office complexes in the sport. Many apartments in Columbia have a court! Mission Squash in Houston converted space at Hogg Middle School for 4 courts. Lots of such space may be available given structural changes brought on by C-19.
Me, 67 years and playing as often as possible.
I’d love to to see a much simpler, softer and inviting approach taken by all squash associations and clubs.
Promote the game using simple publicity shots outside all squash courts and then them continuously being published (electronic and paper) by national associations and club websites to schools, colleges, gyms, local press etc showing players on court and views of the court. Show examples of all ages, genders, sizes, shapes rather than what seems to be to be the stereotypical fitness squash guru. Assuming the game needs more active players then use soft words, inviting words that attract rather than those that act as barriers.
On one website that popped up from a google of ‘Squash Game’ there is a brilliant piece detailing why ‘Squash is the ultimate sport’ with an extensive introduction to the game that essentially seems (to me) to be designed to turn potential people off ever trying it.
Quotes from the blog include ‘The sport of squash is hard. You need to be in tip-top athletic condition. It takes extreme hand-eye co-ordination’ and so on.
Another one purporting to be ‘Beginner’s guide to Squash’ starts with the line ‘Squash is a fast-moving game that requires skill, speed and supreme fitness’.
Of course there are others but most emphasise the fitness need above all else.
I doubt the effectiveness of this approach if the intent is to attract lots of new players. For instance – If I were pondering taking up a sport or similar would I need to be super fit before even trying.
Potential players must be assured that they will be playing others of equal ability.
Nige, excellent point about the implied fitness requirement.
Thanks for the thoughts on squash and I agree with your points on casual play, clubs and other racquet sports such as pickleball, the fastest growing racquet sport in the USA. I think much of what inhibits squash is the double yellow dot ball which makes the game difficult to learn and hard to keep playing at older ages.
Unless you are able to warm up the double yellow ball properly (which new players and older players cannot do), you’re not going to have extended rallies which are the essence of an enjoyable game. It’s too easy to hit drop shot winners and too hard to cover the court once you hit 40, 50, 60, 70 years of age.
A great alternative that I have been playing and promoting in the US is Squash 57 (formerly UK racketball), the fastest growing form of squash in the UK. The sport has many of the same elements of squash with rails, cross courts, boasts, drives, lobs and drops in play but with a 57mm squash ball that is the size of a racquetball but with a bounce between a squash ball and a racquetball. Due to the nature of the ball and racquet, it’s super easy to learn and play, and then keep playing throughout your career. The ball is more lively so play is more centred around the T with less diving to the corners for drop shots. Doubles is also possible which increases the social component.
The WSF is now promoting SQ57 and play is active in the UK, South Africa, USA and New Zealand. We have a Facebook page at Squash 57 USA and there is a Youtube channel dedicated to the sport. I’ve heard a school in Philadelphia picked it up for gym classes, which is a great option since it’s easy, offers physical education and is a lifetime sport.
Squash is an incredible game for its blend of racquet skill, agility, fitness and strategy. At my club I’ve been able to get players that retired from squash back playing S57 for these reasons. Pickleball has been a great example of the opportunity to attract new players to a sport and I think S57 offers a similar opportunity to attract those casual players and boost numbers.
Here’s a discussion on how S57 can help club membership and activity: https://www.uk-racketball.com/racketballs-advantage-to-your-club.html
I agree Nige. That is my sense too. Obviously advertising is an art and/or science. Showcasing squash in the right way is key. That has been my observation as well; it does come across as intimdiating. If you are overweight etc, really thin people zipping around a court makes you think, “well, I can’t do that”.
To me it is about capturing the culture and much of that is off court.
The irony is that the sport has a highly welcoming and social culture and people build last friendships through squash. It also can be played at any level.
I have learned that advertising is about creating an emotional connection, which can often be achieved with images. Regular looking people smiling and laughing courtside etc. We can also think about the sales cycle of converting someone to the sport. Discovery (ad), call to action, experience and finally an offer. The issue with squash is that the experience part is a longer process as it takes a while to buy in. That has to be taken into account with the process.
With the pro game, I’d like to see more behind-the-scenes footage before PSA clips. That would go a long way to increase emotional engagement. To a non-squash player, a pro clip might as well be to computer generated avatars.
But, if there was an emotional connection or nationality connection, it would go a long way. Watching the antics of a Conor McGregor in the MMA, creates a villain, a hero to some, national pride, humor and conflict.
The players on the squash tour are quite interesting people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. That alone is a marketing angle; driving through the streets of Egypt to the local club. Roadwork through the streets of Italy or NYC.
If a player is working part-time to pay for tournament expenses, that is a human interest story and a great angle. I think it would actually be interesting as many people are tired of overpaid athletes driving Ferraris to the stadium. Anyway, great comment!
We hope to build a more accessible and inclusive future.
Thanks for the advertising tips. Nevertheless, it’s more about what you do than what you say.
Squash is an amazing sport.
I couldn’t agree more with the idea of getting more courts out there and available to everyone… outdoor, free access courts in public places would be amazing and I am sure a huge success. We just need 4 walls (or maybe 3 would do) and can even have smaller size courts for kids.
Pickleball’s success in the US is rooted in the conversion of under-used public tennis courts (this is most of them).
You can squeeze 4 pickleball courts onto 1 tennis court. You use the existing tennis net as one back fence. The only expense is installing the 4 pickleball nets and repainting the lines.
We’re not thinking clearly if we’re trying to base re-growing squash on what’s happening with pickleball.
Hi Ted. I would be tempted to agree. I know nothing of Pickleball other than what I’ve seen on google but it doesn’t seem to mesh with a squash revival. Squash is a seemingly unique sport (aren’t they all, many would say) and rejuvenation of its fortunes through Pickleball seems like trying to reinvigorate a love of reading through pizza. (I’m not sure how much sense that makes but it probably made you think!).
Hi Craig and Ted, 🙂
For sure, we can’t really duplicate what Pickleball is doing or tennis for that matter. We have our own unique strengths and weaknesses as you have mentioned.
The example of pickleball or tennis is more to illustrate the availablity of affordable playing options. It also shows renewed interest in racquet sports. One could use any activity that has affordable participation options. Yoga, basketball…Most mass appeal activities (nor just racquet sports) have this gateway option. Scrub five-a-side soccer at a local park or pick-up basketball.
The issue for me is that I am noticing the disappearance of affordable squash courts, which was the theme of the article. Further, to show that mass appeal requires gateway experiences that are affordable and more in tune with a casual trial or discovery.
These affordable playing options were available through the 70’s and 80’s, but appear to be going. Without these venues, it is very difficult to grow the game or sustain it. I am worried about this.
It’s worth noting, that these affordable full-service clubs developed based on favorable demographics (younger baby-boomers) of the time, and a strong middle class. Tastes have changed obviously, and the mid-market gyms and clubs have been hit hard, replaced by pricey luxury boutique gyms or discount gyms, which have exploded. This development is often blamed on the shrinking middle class.
Squash has that particular problem of a specialized court, as per your outline regarding the ease of adding pickleball. It is also an expensive build and up until recently, needed to be in a building with the right ceiling height and column width. More $$.
But, this does not diminish the premise related to the need for affordable courts or clubs. It begs the question of how do we create affordable courts? That is the conversation that is gaining traction. Or, can we even do that? Do we even want to? Perhaps the sport can and should live in and succeed in private clubs.
A specialized court is a challenge when we look at the school setting. Obviously, most sports can be offered in a universal gym space or field. Squash requires a build out. To your point, pickleball could easily be added to anywhere or to a school’s recreation program. But, squash would require a school to invest in courts. This is often the case in private schools, but would be a tough sell in a public school environment.
A solution could mean a chain of affordable clubs with both fitness and squash, with fitness allowing revenue to help the business work. Could this by underwritten by an association? (Fitness how and why squash can exist at my club) Within that model, I’ve been testing squash only/specific advertising for a while to test reaction by the public. I did this to answer the question: what if you were to advertise squash to the general public instead of fitness or an overall gym ad? Would people be interested? What would be the conversion rate for people who tried the sport?
This club model requires owners and stakeholders, who are interested in squash, and can develop squash culture but also understand the fitness/club business. Unlike a fitness minded owner, who happens to have courts in an inherited space or puts them in as an afterthought. Most club projects and existing clubs are owned by people in the fitness space.
There are a few commercial, squash-specific clubs which have emerged, that I am aware of like Manhattan Community Squash, Squash on Fire in Washington and M-Squash in New York. I’m not sure of membership structure, but they look really exciting.
Anyway, love this conversation….
Thanks Eduardo. You say you are noticing the disappearance of affordable courts. Which ones are you referring to?
Hi Ted, My vantage point is North America. In Toronto for example, we have lost roughly 36 courts in the last few years. Alan can comment about the UK.
I remember affordable courts in NY and Toronto in the 1980’s, but those disappeared 35 years ago. Players could walk in off the street and pay for an hour of court time, no strings attached. There were freebies and off-peak deals and clinics and round robins and leagues, all inexpensive, relatively speaking, and with no memberships required. The public clubs encouraged pros and nationally-ranked players to play for free on the show courts, and that was a big drawing card. When an interested newbie wandered into one of the clubs they would typically right away see the sport being played at the highest level. The post-play social scenes at many of the public clubs were off the charts.
This model failed because dedicated squash courts were a poor use of space, and nothing has changed today.
A first step would be to add a universal tin element to outdoor public-park wall sports, as these guys are doing in San Diego. One of them is a squash pro.
I own a hybrid model, that combines fitness and squash. Somewhat of a beta test. I experiment with squash specific advertising to create volume.
My idea is to keep / run a proper fitness model, but still maintain squash culture. Squash adds a level of member retention and “club” social feel, which adds to the business. Basically to run a club, you really have to know the fitness game. As a former squash pro, I stumbled into learn the gym business.
Back in the day, we had a perfect storm of younger large baby boomer demographic in the squash sweet spot, with club life being more fashionable. Going to clubs was the cross-fit of the era. I remember lining up to get into club social events.
Apparently, millennials and Gen Z like pay per use options, experiential activities like tough mudder, nature and less commitment. You pay to do the thing and move on. Obviously lots of study on this huge demographic.
There is also a big chunk of them engaged in online gaming. Anecdote: I was speaking with a 27-year old member and asked him where all is friends from the office were and that they should come by the club. The response was that they all rush home to play online until two in the morning.
The gym/squash combinations are usually run by people in the gym business, who have no real loyalty to the game. We need to create our gyms with courts and control the narrative.
Squash centric clubs with no viable fitness model are a tough go unless there is huge general demand for the particular sport. Revenue in fitness is generated in fitness personal training, so that needs to be part of the model.
There were several affordable squash options in Toronto up until a few years ago. For example, a major gym chain announced they will no longer support squash operations in 8 (I believe) of their clubs with squash. This is a first step to possible repurposing courts. That, along with several other independent closures and downsizing of number of courts. I believe NY Sports clubs were/are somewhat affordable commercial. I was reading an article about Australia and believe they are down to half the courts. I believe the article said they had 1300 courts 20-years ago and are now down to 580.
Perhaps there is growth in other countries and the squash hotbeds are in a down cycle.
I’ll check out the video link. Thanks! Not sure if you have seen this court built in 1999 and still used to today. (In a public park)
Wow! You really have to work the ball on that court! Plus overhitting means you’re out of court really soon.
How many Fitbits or Garmin record that you’ve played squash? If it’s not easy to record then it won’t be readily played.
Really great conversations on here. 👍🏼
Why is it that Squash57, aka Racketball in the UK, is often seen as a threat to squash? Why is it seen as only an exit sport for squash players? Yes, it is played on a squash court and largely by squash masters/seniors but they are the only people who will ever have heard of the game Squash57. Squash57 is extending their on court playing careers by decades, is this not a good thing for both player and ‘club’?
Grass Roots: if you took 100 people of any age who had never been on a squash court then how many of them ‘this week’ could/would have fun playing squash and how many could/would have fun playing Squash57?
At the 4 court ‘facility’ that I play at, 30% of social squash court bookings are made by Squash57 players who would not pay squash. This is a real and readily tapped into revenue stream.
If we want to not only protect what we have but to also build upon it (grass roots up) then should we not focus more time and effort on Squash57 rather than treating the game as a threat?
The feedback I’ve gotten during Covid is that one-wall outdoor squash works for rec play if the ball is adjusted — typically to one of the Dunlop kids’ balls.
Another simple way to make squash accessible is to add backboards to existing public tennis courts. Show up with the right equipment and you can get a great workout.
A really great and important discussion is taking place here as I think Squash is at a very important and serious crossroads at this moment in time. Covid has definitely focused the minds as Squash has not been able to be played so players have turned to other ways to exercise be it walking, cycling or swimming.
Now it seems that a lot of countries are allowing Squash to be played again but in a lot of territories not the full game so it seems quite a few players have chosen not to return which is evident in the UK but I am not sure if this also applies to other locations.
This means that we need to seriously have a cold hard look at our sport and look at innovative ways to help it to possible redefine its place in the world.
I would say the days of the standalone Squash Club with just a bar and nothing else are gone and a better model of a multi use facility centred on a variety and mix of racket sports is the way forward. Whether its a mix of Pickleball/Squash/Padel and Racketball or any other combination thats fits does not matter. What matters is the centres need to be community centres that also offer other uses that mean the general community need to attend there for other activities therefore making it a hub both for sport based activities as well as things that bring the community into the centre.
I know this sounds like a leisure centre but I do not see a large Swimming Pool and large indoor sports halls as part of the offer or also gigantic gyms which rows upon rows of fitness equipment. These items cost lots of money to initially install and maintain.
The community centres I envisage are available to access for all the local community at reasonable costs that everyone should be able to afford, nobody at all should not be able to walk in to the centre and access some form of activity.
The local councils should see these as ways to take the burden off their health budgets as you will hope to engage the local community in healthy lifestyles which has a knock on effect in helping to keep people from having to access healthcare prematurely by having a more varied and healthy lifestyle.
I have seen Leisure Centres in the UK systematically take out Squash Courts over the last twenty years as they do not see them as money making parts of their business. This is because of a lot of local councils have handed the running of these centres over to commercial operators whose sole purpose is to make money from these sites. They look at the dead space of their Squash Courts during the day and see no revenue so they make the decision to persuade the council to take out these and replace them with things like Spinning or Yoga or anything that increases revenue per sq ft.
I hear you say how are we going to be able to afford to build these new centres. Well here is the difficult bit as the governing bodies of these sports around the World do not have vast pots of capital funding lying around so no good asking them for handouts or grants.
Perhaps we need to persuade the councils/local government/ national governments/health authorities and if lucky some altruistic investors to invest in the health of their communities.
Getting people into a centre like that with good footfall would not be that difficult as there would a great variety of different activities to bring in all sections of the community. Local schools both Primary and Secondary need daytime access which will fill the courts up and be vital to start to grow your player base up again. This is investing for the future as you hope to keep these people playing some form of sport for life.
Also daytime usage with the retirement generation who like to keep active and socialise in a friendly non intimidating environment. People who now have changed for good their working arrangements will be able to access more often as they will spend less time commuting.
All of the above I know sounds like a pipe dream but I think it is the way we need to proceed to give Squash some sort of hope of halting the decline and repositioning for the future to allow it to flourish for a new generation of player.
Maybe to encourage use of facilities and even
build new courts, the simplest would be for all
Squash Courts to be renamed so that inclusivity of
Racketball, Pickleball and Squash becomes more
Getting the various associations to support that idea
a little tougher, I guess, though potentially new members
and participants for each game.
Ideas for a new name please for such courts. Of course
a string of the sports’ names would probably be best and
will do the trick however has anyone a more exotic or
I also think this is a great discussion and agree Covid is forcing some hard decisions. Unfortunately, while plans like more promotion, better advertising or creating less expensive facilities or outdoor public courts can help, they are cosmetic answers to a fundamental challenge to growing the sport exponentially which is that the pro ball makes it too hard for new players to learn and for older players to keep playing. No one is going to walk up to an outdoor court not having played and be able to get any sort of rally going with the pro ball unless it’s 90 degrees outside. People are busy with many options on how to exercise (think a Pelaton in a bedroom at home) and (especially the younger generation) want easy and convenient. Without a more lively ball, it is too hard to create an extended rally for a new player or an older player and there hasn’t been enough effort promoting other ball options. People can denounce pickle ball but the sport is getting non-racquets people to pick up a racquet which is the goal. We as a sport need to entice new casual players and also keep older players playing. And we need to do it immediately because if the tide really turns and we start losing courts at a faster rate, it will be impossible to get them back.
Personally, I think Squash 57 is the answer and it is working and growing in the UK and the World Squash Federation is now supporting this version as a supplement version of squash. Some players believe Squash 57 is too different, too much like US racquetball, and not real squash which is unfortunate because after 40 years of playing squash, I’ve been playing and think it’s great. For competitive players, it demands all the elements that I love about squash such as racquet skill, agility, fitness and strategy without killing myself in a match with the double yellow ball. And due to the much more lively ball, it’s also super easy to pick up and start to play. And you can play doubles which is more social. At our club, I’ve had friends (former squash players in their 50’s and 60’s who quit) buy equipment so they could play with their non-squash playing spouses which is awesome. I’ve heard of schools buying equipment to offer the sport for gym class which is another fantastic application. There is no reason squash play has to be restricted to the 40mm pro ball. Other varieties can supplement the sport and make better use of existing facilities and I urge pros and their clubs to promote these other options to help save squash.
The ball is too slow and the court is too big for most current and prospective players.
Agreed that Squash 57 is our lifeline, but we need a dynamic new name that doesn’t include the words squash or racketball — and US clubs and colleges need to stock the balls and racquets.
I can understand that finding Squash57 balls in the US may be challenging, though I do know of people in the US and elsewhere who have overcome this hurdle, but a Squash57 racket (racquet) is the same as a Racquetball racquet and in my mind the US is the home of (American) Racquetball.
Right, a player can go to a sporting goods store and find a racquetball racquet, but in my view club squash pros need to have the equipment on hand, both to sell and to lend out.
I think David’s point is a such a key part of the conversation. The game changes once you lose mobility or the ability to bend low and pop back up.
I think the action in the front of the court adds a layer to the game, that makes it interesting tactically. Once that is removed with age/injury, the game loses some appeal. It is kind of not the same game they fell in love with.
Subjectively, I have noticed that Open, A and B players, often lose their interest in the game when they can no longer engage the front court resulting in potentially losing to lower level players. It would be interesting to study how many Open, A and B players keep playing over 40. Most of the guys I grew up playing with no longer play. Casual players may not be impacted by this as there is not as steep a drop-off in the playing experience.
Personally, I was never that quick to the front, but still liked that part of the game. Jumping on a loose drop etc. Now when I drop, it is either tin, winner or a redrop that I cannot cover. If my opponent drops, I am saying “nice shot” as the ball leaves his racquet. All three situations end up with the rally ending and limited tactics that for me are not as much fun. Length games don’t hold my attention.
In Toronto the hardball doubles scene is filled with former national level softball players. It’s a great game.
Softball doubles is the other option, of course.
The problem is, that you require a special court for softball or hardball doubles. This is tricky if we are talking about an existing club.
To David’s point, both Squash57 and the progressive ball are easy solutions, which do not require changes to your building.
The cold hard question, all things being equal, which is better: a modified version of traditional squash with no front court play either as a set gentleman’s agreement, or some kind of new version of Squash57, a game that allows for front court play, less bending and slower changes of direction?
Having played Squash57, I liked that I could actually play all areas of the court, including waddling up to the front to cover a boast or drop. It felt like I was playing the full version of a sport. Subjective: I thought it was great! It’s a proper sport I didn’t feel like I was playing with special rules. (That makes me feel old) or the last kid picked for basketball. (“Don’t worry, just have fun and try your best”)
In terms of beginners, the progressive ball seems a must or starting with Squash57. I think many coaches use it, but I’m not sure how widely promoted it is. I remember seeing posters a while back. Was that done by associations or Dunlop?
To me this is a marketing problem. Market the progressive ball, squash57 and make it clear what the pathway is for squash.
I think the ball is part of a deep analysis of the process of selling the game, advertise-discovery-trial period-conversion/sale to membership/purchase/commitment.
It is in the trial period that the experience has to be just right and the ball is a big part of it. As well, let’s see some data on conversion rates on trials. I think most teaching pros can sell the game, but the process should really be thought through. The approach of making it as easy as possible and fun.
Pickleball seems to do a drop-in concept. They host nights and a program is set up on the spot. They whisk away beginners and give them free lessons and program the better players. I was taught a similar thing by a squash coaching mentor and it seemed to work. I applied this at the clubs I worked at.
That format allows zero commitment like signing up for a clinic, membership or league. Basically, you just ease into it. The loose format also allows for people to have friends tag along to watch or jump in. It also allows for an easy casual or last-minute invite, “Hey, swing by on Friday night for the round robin! They’ll show you how to play… Beers after!”
What is the general process for squash now:
Discovery by accident through a friend (no ads)
Hit with friend a couple of times, friend hooks up guest passes.
Friend sells game, experience good
Buy membership-$ commitment
Buy 5 pack of lessons and equipment
This seems a bit like getting struck by lightning. The process requires a friend who plays and is willing to or has the time to invite you out and…who can show the game in a proper light. (not end up in a fist fight after a triple bagel or showing off)…
Obviously for squash this could be a problem if we circle back to the ball and first time ease of play/experience. EG-if it is too frustrating we may not see return “customers”. I do think there is enough enjoyment that can be carved out on and off court to have repeat business.
I also think there is a little bit of hardcore or type A in a sport by the very nature of it. I’ve noticed that beginner lessons are often very technical etc. (I know I tended to do that when I coached) So instead of letting the person rally, have a run and muck around, I would sort out their forehand with technical tips. Maybe that was just me.
In terms of modifying the game, I would still like to see proper advertising before changes were made. Question:
Are people not playing because the game is flawed or because we don’t have marketing and an affordable gateway process to get people on court? As a coach I found that people liked it and there was a high conversion rate for people who tried it. But, that is data we need, which will tell us if people actually like the “product”.
Full disclosure, I have been testing this process at my club pre COVID. I’m really trying to understand the straight up process: advertise the game, try and buy.
My observations in our market:
Conversion rate on ads very low compared to same spend on fitness
Those who try it, have no perceived value. They don’t think it should be expensive, because they never heard of it. Upfront costs are often a nonstarter. I often to get the sense that they feel, “you need me more than I need you”. That speaks to momentum and being “cool” or relevant in the culture. People have no problem paying $30 per cross-fit or yoga workout, as it is deemed by popular culture as important or relevant.
New people who come in with real interest expect to do it once or twice per week.
Anyway, great comment regarding the ball and Squash57.
In the USA, Squashgear.com has a separate section for S57 equipment including balls as does Squashgalaxy.com. Dunlop, Karakal and Price are the primary ball manufacturers. I agree the name is a bit cumbersome and boy do I wish that Heinz didn’t sell 57 varieties. At one point Squash+ was suggested which I think was another good option. It is what it is though and over time name concerns will recede as familiarity grows.
I think that Racketball does have a very important role in getting people to get onto a Squash court when they may have never ventured onto one before. I think the name of Squash 57 maybe something that might put off people investigating playing as they might associate the game with the traditional Squash game. We all agree it seems that people who have never played Squash see it a difficult to pick up quickly so trying to get people on court using the name Squash in the title might be a barrier. So let’s remove the barrier and use either the original name Racketball or for the sake of clarification UK Racketball. I do think having played and coached Racketball since the 1990’s that once you get someone hitting they pick it up quickly.
Also having Padel and Pickleball in the same venue really could help Squash in the long run as people can switch disciplines without travelling so keeps them in-house and stops them getting bored so quickly.
I really like Squash+. I’m no advertising expert, but my two cents:
Squash+ says: You are still playing your old sport, but a modified version. It plays down any differences. I am walking through a mall proudly wearing my “squash” t-shirt.
Easier to say. “What match is going on this court next? I think it is a Squash+ second round” or “a plus match”
It plays down any differences, and implies that it is the same people, sport, culture and physical space.
Any shirts etc, would have the word squash with a subtle “+” for those, who came from the sport and still want to be attached to it. The more differences, the more they feel like they are leaving their first love.
Focusing on the word Squash and the subtle ‘+’ is easier for a non player to grasp. They are brought into the same “squash” ecosystem/club and then can learn the difference. We don’t need to be confusion for new people.
“Welcome to squash! We are going to start you off with squash+ which is a little easier for beginners. Many people just stick with plus, but you can move to squash anytime or play both!
(I also think the rules should be as close to the same as possible, to allow easy transition or for people to watch a PSA match and get it right away)
At first glance it is “Squash” with the ‘+’ not begging for more questions or confusion.
57 seems to create more confusion than answers. People ask: “What does the 57 mean?” The Heinz thing is worth noting.
Anyway, I am sure there are reasons in favour of 57, which I have not thought of.
Lots of good points and questions that I don’t have time to contemplate in full right now but I will make 3 points.
1) I also think Squash+ is good name option. They rebranded in 2016 so whether the WSF would consider another change, I’m not sure. I’ll give Paul Whitaker credit for Squash+ since I saw his mention of the name first in 2016. I only started playing last year. There are pros and cons to linking it to squash and 57 is definitely cumbersome. Whenever I mention the sport to someone new I have to explain what 57 means. Personally I think having squash in the name is good as it frames the sport as an indoor racquet sport and provides a connection for existing players. I don’t worry too much about people thinking it’s too hard to try because it’s a form of squash and you can quickly explain the benefits. Having racquetball or racketball in the name is a big issue in the US since we already have a sport called racquetball which would lead to great confusion. When I explain SQ57 to someone, they often say it sounds like racquetball which it isn’t, and having the same or similar name would make that conversation much more difficult. I think that was one of the primary reasons for the change from UK racketball.
2) I’m dismayed at players that would consider Squash 57 as competition to squash and not symbiotic as Patrick suggested. I play softball singles, hardball doubles, SQ57, tennis and platform tennis, often all in the same week. I love them all for different reasons. Squash 57 is an opportunity to get more people playing and make better use of courts and help clubs succeed. The sport is under increasing pressure from external forces and this discussion is exactly right to consider ways to help clubs and save the sport.
3) I view the path introducing one or the other and learning as somewhat but not entirely parallel. If someone is brand new to racquet sports, will only ever be a casual player, is 30 or 40+, or less athletic due to age or whatever reason, then I would introduce S57. If someone has some racquet skills or eye-hand, wants to develop, is athletic or younger such as a junior, then squash starting with the Progress ball would be the way to go. Ultimately the goal is to have fun and get exercise and both offer a path to that goal. We can all live under the same tent like so many other sports that have variations.
The original purpose of this discussion is to brainstorm ways to increase participation in our sport. I’d love to hear of the experience of any pros or club owners that have experimented with any of the ideas mentioned here, from special advertising, promotion, events, programming, hours, ball variants or whatever and what was the result.
I have never worked in marketing/advertising but a good brand name, logo and strapline has to be worth something.
Being based in the UK and having worked closely with UK-Racketball for many years it was Racketball to me as it was as for everyone else on our Island, there was no Racquetball, there was no confusion … but
In Australia they play both Racquetball and Australian Racquetball/Racketball (American Racquetball rules on a squash court), they do not play Squash57 (aka UK-Racketball). When I’ve been in contact with Ireland Squash about Racketball they have pointed me at the Ireland Racquetball organisation. The IRF Seniors have started running a Squash57 completion alongside their World Seniors Racquetball Championships in NM but when they called it Racketball there was confusion (‘bad’ entries, refunds etc) and so they rebranded to Squash57. There are many examples.
If Squash57 were to be rebranded it would in my mind cause further confusion and are we really targeting people who know and have been possibly put off in the past by ‘squash’? Are we viewing this challenge through blinkers, aren’t we the generation that remembers Heinz 57 and Orange Squash.
If Squash57 was to become Squash+ then that to me sounds like a triple yellow dot game. I appreciate that there’s still pain from the 2016 rebranding but I feel it’s time to move on, to focus our energies on how we are going to grow the sport of Squash57.
Squash57 is “A Lifetime Sport” that is “easy to start, hard to stop” so let us help others to enjoy it like we do.
If we’re trying to attract new players, the best name in the US in my opinion is Short Court Racquetball.
Few Americans percentage-wise know what squash is. This way we’d be tapping into the existing racquetball market with a better version (“Short-Court”).
I see your points regarding the name. I see there are many aspects to this and I am no expert and have not gone through the process of developing Squash57. I’m coming in with 2-minutes left in the game.
I think some of this, is many of us in squash including me, resorting to thinking about tweaks and changes over addressing the sheer lack of advertising.
This was one of the core points I was trying to raise in my article. LOL-I have to keep reminding myself of this problem, which I think about and forget two days later.
My thought is this:
Tweaking the product, assumes we have advertised the “product” (squash or squash57) sufficiently and it has been rejected by the public” “I tried Squash57 but hate the name” or “this sport is terrible”.
If we advertise the product and people complain about the name or don’t buy the product because of the name; that is a problem. I don’t think we are there yet.
The issue to me is that there is no advertising of the sports, regardless of the name, scoring, version, court, etc. The courts are hidden and there is no specific entity paying for ads. American Racquetball has the same issue but benefited from the commercial 70’s 80’s boom, giving it some lasting name/brand recognition. To this point, people often see a squash court or squash racquet and refer to it as racquetball.
Other sports are visible in more public spaces so they have some organic advertising through visibilty. Tennis also has advertising through their TV presence.
Our products are squash and squash57, so how are they advertised to the general public? (let’s assume for now that they are great products not in need fo change. I think they are)
Has it been advertised? If it has been advertised locally, nationally or globally, what are the stats? 100 people responded, 50 converted to trying and 2 took the sport up. Are the stats bad? EG-people have tried, but don’t like it?
We have some organic advertising through Youtube clips of PSA matches, which I imagine get shared by squash fans to their non-playing friends. (sometimes)
But, my guess is that there is not any advertising happening. But again, my perspective is limited to my own background and country. (Canada and maybe some knowledge of the US market)
I think we players had hoped that the re-branding in 2016 would have been immediately followed by mass marketing/promotion of Squash57 but the perception was that the reverse happened. Apart from a general lack of interest from the world of squash (including ES) I suspect that limited dollars and time were, and still are, also major factors.
Specific to Canada, Canada squash has said that they have under 100 Squash57 players. Dan Wolfenden as the Squash Canadian contact (https://www.worldsquash.org/wsf-information/member-nations-2-2/) and I emailed him last year to ask for a Squash57 contact and got no response. I do though have a good club level contact in Canada (Pete Goodings) and will put you in touch with him.
This squash communication ‘breakdown’ example is far from unique. I have had similar experiences from clubs (in many countries/regions) and squash playing Nationals (Canada is just 1 example). If we compare this to Pickleball, I started contacting the Pickleball world late last year (see here: https://squashmad.com/breaking-news/squash-has-lessons-to-learn-as-pickleball-picks-up-big-numbers/) and the communication levels were significantly better.
BTW if you have not done so recently then check out Mark Fuller’s UK-Racketball site because he has been using his down time to load it up with useful Squash57 material: https://www.uk-racketball.com/
If we are to engage new people into our sport then we need to look at bringing the game into the 21st century. We still have plenty of work to do to spread the word what Squash actually is. It is still too niche and a lot of the public do not know what it actually is or where it is played. The same applies to Racketball (this is still the name that most players still call it in the UK). A lot of the general public have no clue what it is or that it also played on a Squash court.
Marketing of the sport has been generally woeful over a long period of time. It is no good preaching to the converted; it is more important to engage new people who you have targeted would possibly take up either Squash or Racketball.
The challenge is difficult and I do not have a magic wand to wave at It.
Certainly I know the work we have done on Primary Schools, introducing Squash to over 2,000 children a year, has helped to get more youngsters to take up the sport more seriously.
I think we have a real task to rebrand the sport but not lose its historical identity. We must try though, otherwise we will be on a spiral of decline.
Hi Patrick and Paul,
I’m still hung up on the advertising part of this puzzle.
I do agree that if a branding expert were to review our products they may have suggestions regarding name etc. All points worth considering, history, the name not saying what it is, confusion.
I’m not sure we are at the point where we have done mass marketing (or any marketing) to discover our product is lacking or our brand is wrong. There are many quirky things that have gone viral. I’m not sure we have enough data. I’m struck by the Paul’s word “woeful” which could sum it up the amount of advertising in our sport.
Side note, I don’t blame anyone as stakeholders have their mandate and things they need to do. My point id trying to look closely at our marketing. I suppose budgets could be reallocated out of player development, high performance, but not sure how that all works. (EG: Associations need to focus on those things to get funding etc)
Our sport has no organic “ads” due to the lack of courts in public view. This is the narrative when we compare ourselves to tennis or pickleball. This is why we almost have no choice but to advertise.
There are some guerilla marketing programs done by keen local squash coaches and the like, which thankfully keep the sport going. Getting 2000 school kids exposed to squash is incredible. As well, advertising should not replace this type of marketing.
But, I’m wondering about straight up advertising at a universal level.
The advent of social media allows for highly effective pay-for ads, as opposed to posts to an existing audience. As well, “influencers” can be paid to post things to large audiences in specific demographics.
Press releases can be sent to various media outlets as well, but the main thing for me is advertising. Is anyone sending out press releases?
This was the beta test at my club, straight up ads for squash. I’m running one right now during the pandemic to see what happens.
I suspect that no ads are being run by any entity. Of course, I could be wrong. Just a gut feeling.
Repeating myself but, independent and chain commerical gym with courts would likely not run squash specific ads, associations may not have the funds and small squash specifc clubs may also not have the budget.
So if we did a massive ad campaign and the target audience said, “Not interested”, then we have a big, big problem. The product would be terrible in the eyes of the public, and rejected. (I don’t think it is, but I have a personal bias)
Many of my conversations in the past, have revolved around me assuming the sport had been offered to the public and rejected. I have always have this subtle assumption that people know about it, because I am around squash players, even when I tell myself that is not the case. I’m questioning this narrative, and trying to stay on track with this, not getting distracted by my bias.
I think that, in the 70’s and 80’s full-service “clubs” were in style, so squash got swept up in that culture, as people flocked to commerical “clubs” (not gyms) with bars and workout options. They discovered squash thorugh the broader culture of in style club life.
So “ads” were not really as important to squash, as clubs were a thing to do. Tastes changed, boomers moved into a new phase of their lives, and the market adapted. Hanging around the club, squash or no squash became less fashionable. Drinking in the club bar became less popular. Demand dropped off.
Fitness became efficient and an “in and out” concept as people became busier with families and career. The boom-bust of squash sort of matches the evolution of the huge baby-boomer population. Now our massive boomer population is playing pickleball.
Meanwhile millinnials and Gen Z are online and don’t do the “club” thing. (from what marketing experts are saying) As well, these two generations are online socializing and gaming. A case could be made for running ads in video games.
This is were squash might be lacking in modern look and feel. Clubs are often dated in decor and our marketing is not in the channels where these generations live.
Oddly, squash has a ton of attributes that would be interesting to this generation. The pros/stars of the game are “authentic” (marketing buzz word regarding M and Z), the sport is diverse, exotic (travel, top interest of these generations), highly social and can be hardcore (cross-fit).
Point being that I think there are some things to work with/use regarding marketing squash. To this end, I would market the PSA in an entirely different way to attract non-players, but that is a whole other thing. 🙂
Ed, a reader brought up an excellent point, which is: what about marketing hardball to players who might find Squash 57 too big a bridge?
Admittedly Power and Elias made a case for hardball in their recent exhibitions.
That series of matches was interesting and fun to watch. It was also a reminder of how fast hardball is. Love watching JP play.
The idea I am wrestling with is the actual advertising of the sport. I almost think there could be a world where all versions are popular, but until we actually advertise we won’t know what the customers want.
With advertising, we will have data and feedback from our “customers”. “We prefer the hardball” etc.
My thought is that we are not even there yet. I’m not sure who exactly is advertising the sport. That piece of the “sales funnel” is missing. It could end up that people even prefer the hardball.
Thanks Ed, In my view hardball has its problems as well, the main one being the current racquets are too powerful for the game. But clearly doubles hardball is very popular (among those few players who have access to doubles courts) so the potential of singles hardball shouldn’t be overlooked.
As a squash player in Newmarket in my 4th decade of playing, first I agree that marketing has been basically non existent. No famous person as an advocate exists. We typically haven’t been approaching schools. Someone touched on the ball, and till now I haven’t heard of squash 57, isn’t it a shortened version of racketball, which has fizzled in most of the world? One solution would be to use the blue dot ball for beginners…I still practice with it. The game is a lot easier, until one can graduate to the yellow dot. As a leader at a club in Newmarket where we members have now taken over the club, I plan to have drop in Friday nights, free clinics, and for new members give free lessons. (I’m retired and don’t need the money, I just need another 15 members so we can survive). I am about to plaster Newmarket businesses with flyers (which will cost me about 5 bucks to make) and see how local advertising works. The product is incredible…it’s excellent and awesome, I don’t agree with changing it. It’s not for every one. And it’s a lot cheaper than tennis, and many of us started with tennis but fell in love with squash…often in university.
Thank you,David. Good luck with your campaign. Do let us know how it goes.
David, it will be interesting to see how you do with cheap flyers, you won’t need a lot of success to prove that they were worth the investment. From a study that we did, in addition to maildrops and approaching schools you may have success with other community outreach methods such as posters, ‘open days’, ‘stall at a village/town event’ and approaching ‘U3A’ groups. In addition to the usual social media apps you may find that ‘Nextdoor’ is worth considering. I would also recommend informing (working with) local community influencers such as doctors, physios and osteopaths.
With regards to Squash57, aka UK-Racketball, I would say that it’s much closer to being an aerobic (long rallies) game of squash than a cousin of the (short rallies) American Racquetball game. Check out the Squash57 YouTube Channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi8EFdKTS_i6WGUDp770-Og and compare that action to a American Racquetball highlights video such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMaOmY8VbOU