Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How Open Squash is igniting New Yorkers’ passion for the sport

The key to turning a non-squash player into a passionate participant is to treat every potential new member of your club as “both a person and a number.” 

That is just one of many pearls of wisdom Squash Mad gleaned from Cleve Miller, the executive director of the New York-based non-profit Open Squash. The organisation is opening up squash to a broader audience in the Big Apple by making it more accessible and affordable. 

Open Squash’s first venue, a five-court club on the fifth floor of a high-rise office building in Bryant Park, Midtown Manhattan, opened in January 2020.

A second eight-court club is due to open on Pearl Street in NYC’s financial district later this year, with a third venue – a renovation of the pre-existing Eastern Athletic Club in Brooklyn – set to open in late 2024 with 10 courts. 

Squash Mad gets insight from Open Squash ambassadors Ali Farag and Victor Crouin

From the moment a member of the public first engages with Open Squash – by clicking on a social post, enrolling in a coaching session, booking a court, or emerging from the elevator to step into the venue (and, equally, if they’re an established member playing there for the 500th time) Open Squash’s ethos is to ensure every player, old or new, is greeted, logged, understood and appreciated. 

“When it comes to growing the game, you have to approach it as a science,” says Miller. “You’ve got to measure every single step on their journey, from their first engagement, to coming in to give it a try, to their second visit, how quickly they become a member, their connection to other members and so on.” 

To record this data, Open Squash use sophisticated tech connected to Club Locker, the software platform used throughout US squash. By knowing who each member plays, at what time of day, what tournaments and coaching programmes they engage with, their level of play and more, the club can categorise its members and engage them differently, wherever they are on their squash journey. 

“One reason that pickleball is so successful is it’s easy to play for anyone within 10 minutes of going on court. Squash isn’t like that. There is a steeper learning curve,” explains Miller. 

“I’ve got to find 800 members to fill up the eight courts at our new club in the financial district. Most of those new members will not have played squash before – so we have got to own the beginner trajectory. Our internal codename for it is ‘the science of beginners.’ It’s our approach to introducing as many people as possible to the glorious game that is squash.” 

Open Squash ambassador Gina Kennedy holds a coaching session

But players are certainly not treated as mere data. Like any business, the warmth of the welcome, the personal touch and ambiance of the club are all vital.  

“Do we put numbers on everyone? Yep. But the primary thing is, when they come off the elevator on the fifth floor, we’re thrilled to see them and hopefully they’re thrilled to be there,” says Miller. 

“We are obsessed with those beginners at a human level just as much as we are by their numbers. We want to know their name and get to know them as a person. That’s what makes a community.” 

Open Squash began in 2011 when a group of players were left hugely dispirited by the sale of the flourishing Printing House club to a fitness chain who promptly closed its squash courts. Led by current Open Squash board chairman David Ellen, they decided to build their own club instead, and committed to making it a mission-driven non-profit. 

It took nine years, but when Open Squash’s first facility at Bryant Park opened, its mission was simply ‘squash for all.’ After a stuttering start due to the pandemic, the mission has undeniably been achieved. 

There are 500 members at Bryant Park, 25% of whom benefit from a discount, which range from full scholarships for juniors to sliding-scale income-based reductions on membership fees. 

There are group, individual and social coaching sessions, camps, practices and tournaments for every standard of player. The choice of activities for children and adults is vast.

The coaching programmes for juniors and adults are led by Wales’ former world No.50 Peter Creed, the director of squash, and the Egyptian Amr Khalifa, former World Junior Open champion and US college individial champ. Jana Shiha, the current world no.34 from Egypt, is one of a multicultural team of coaches and mentors which will total 25 once the Financial District and Brooklyn Heights venues open in 18 months’ time. 

“Everything is going great and it scares me to death!” chuckles Miller. “I’m a start-up guy and, until this project, I have never been part of a business where we exceeded our best-case model within three years. The law of averages tells me we’re sure to have some challenges coming up. 

Awards night for Open Squash’s junior programme

“That’s why we have to keep pushing as hard as we can. We are not going to be that typical sleepy non-profit cliché. Culturally, we run with a level of urgency to reach our goals, get more beginners on court and grow the sport.” 

Open Squash is part of what many perceive as a gradual shift in the squash-playing demographic in the States, also driven by the long-established Squash and Education Alliance and several other forward-thinking clubs. 

“We are leading a transition from an elite-institution monopoly on squash,” claims Miller. “No-one is to blame for that, it’s just historically how things have evolved. The people running the Ivy League colleges or expensive venues are all wonderful people, but up until recently that has been the only game in town. 

“But now things are opening up. There are more public clubs opening and Open Squash is working 24/7 to play our part in democratising the sport. I feel there is some really positive momentum in the United States right now – and we’re proud to be part of it.”

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