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