As squash looks beyond lockdown, now is the time to let the world know the game still exists
By EDUARDO ALVAREZ – Squash Mad Correspondent
Who is advertising squash these days?
We all know the conversations in the pub related to growing the sport:
“We need to get into the Olympics and then the sport will explode”
“We need to change the scoring” (or some other aspect of the game)”
“We need to get more kids playing and go to the local schools”
“We need to have more tournaments”
“We need to be on TV”
As we come out of COVID-19 (hopefully) I am digging down to take a hard look at advertising as it relates to our sport. And when I say advertising, I am thinking about paid-for ads, which could include online ads, direct mail, radio, TV and print. This is not to be confused with social media posts, blogs, websites, newsletters or events that mostly or only target existing players.
So let’s put ourselves in a dispassionate mindset and call squash a “product”. Our product has some great selling features; fun, fitness, a great social outlet, efficient, convenient and in some cases affordable. The sport also has great structural elements like cosy local clubs, accessible professional stars and lots of playing opportunities through events and programs spearheaded by associations. So let’s assume the “product” is fantastic.
We also have to realise that our sport has one disadvantage in that it is not visible in public spaces like schools and parks, which is in itself a form of advertising. All of these public spaces are visual reminders of a sport, almost like signage. In this regard, pickleball has exploded with visible courts everywhere. To further this point, my research shows 500 visible, public tennis courts in NYC and roughly the same in Toronto.
Further, I think we have to think about the idea that our sport does not have any perceived value. In other words, there is no external force in popular culture creating or expanding demand, like John Travolta doing country and western dancing.
The odd time when I find out an A-list celeb plays squash, I wish we could leverage their reach. It is a bigger deal than we realise. Trends happen when celebrities or “influencers” endorse something.
That is probably why companies clamour to offer samples in gift bags at the Oscars or send bags of freebies to these key people. A star’s casual endorsement raises the value.
We know Hugh Jackman and Olly Murs play squash. And it would be electric for the sport to have an endorsement from The Greatest Showman saying: “Everyone in Hollywood is playing this game called squash.”
So, considering our product is hidden from public view, my first idea is to look at each stakeholder and determine if they would likely be advertising the sport. This is not to point fingers, as each stakeholder has its mandate or focus for a variety of reasons. In other words, this is not to say they SHOULD be, but rather, are they or aren’t they? As well, this is a general idea of what might be likely, as I am not directly involved in their operations. I’m using some vague knowledge mixed with speculation from my experiences in the sport.
Here are the stakeholders as I see them and what is most likely the case as it relates to advertising the sport of squash:
These are historic clubs, which are usually driven by direct outreach, word-of-mouth and very strict joining requirements. These requirements might be large initiation fees and current member letters of endorsement. Generally speaking, these clubs do not do mass advertising and any marketing would be for the club in general and not specifically squash.
Commercial gyms with courts
This category would include both chains and independent local gyms with squash courts. These gyms advertise aggressively, but it would be unusual for them to run a squash-specific ad or feature images of squash. They are owned by fitness pros and squash is a very small part of their business.
I would guess that there are only a few of these still around (here in North America) and these are either run by volunteers and with limited advertising budgets. There would most likely not be a seasoned advertising department within these small clubs.
Community recreation or leisure centers
These places often do not do any robust advertising and if they did, it would most likely be for the facility in general.
Associations (local, national and international)
In my experience, associations administer the sport and do not advertise. They will relay information to existing players through newsletters, social media posts and the like. They will also help run events, deal with high-performance players, rules and bylaws and events.
Coaches, well they coach. Some will venture out into the community for some guerilla marketing (not ads) to local schools etc, but I do not think they are placing ads as this directive would come from the marketing manager (if there is one).
The PSA does post fantastic videos and hosts events in public places, but I am guessing they do not take out ads like, “learn to play squash”. There is some beautiful signage in and around venues, some superb work on social media aimed at their followers in the squash market, but I’m not sure if they have ads at the actual events aimed at selling the game to new players .
So, as I look at this list of stakeholders I don’t really see any specific one likely to be advertising our sport to the general public. I don’t know this for sure but I have never seen an ad on my social media feed or online. So obviously, if no one is advertising, we may have a problem which we need to solve.
Before we go there, let’s go down memory lane! There was a time when we didn’t need to advertise squash. In 1977 squash made the cover of the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times ran articles reporting that the game was enjoying mass appeal.
Even before then, squash was on the cover of the New Yorker magazine way back in 1936, and Sports Illustrated in 1958. Dig a little deeper and you realise those images celebrated the hardball game, which has given way in North America to the international version.
More recently, Sports Illustrated wrote about the multi-cultural Trinity College squash team and their non-stop success making them the “winningest” team in the history of American sport.
Many of us can remember the boom years of commercial “clubs” (not gyms), with squash being swept up in that club scene.
That old 80s racquet club in your town? That was once a hot spot, with some boomer you know popping his collar and partying until 3am on a weekly basis (most likely your dad).
People would get up early to call the club, getting a busy signal in the hopes of advance booking a court. Club socials had line-ups in a nightclub atmosphere. Impromptu hot tub parties? Check. 500 entries at a local community tournament? Of course.
Tennis court areas would be used for parties as the club lounge was just not big enough. People would join multiple clubs. People dated and met their first and second spouse at “the club”.
Sometimes I think younger players don’t really have a sense of just how popular and relevant the sport was.
Let’s now take a moment to allow older readers to reminisce about the above era before the doom and gloom sets in again…
The party stopped. Boomers aged and became busier with families and developing careers. Hanging out at the club bar was replaced by quick-stop health and fitness. Drinking habits changed, especially related to driving.
Being fit, healthy and toned was in style and club owners ran with and advertised that trend. Of note, when I bought my first club in Toronto, there was a smoking area outside the main show court. Let that sink in; a smoking area.
Squash and clubs were accustomed to people just pouring in and suddenly the sport had to fight with every other fitness trend to gain market share. Local independent club owners never had to advertise aggressively to fill courts and suddenly squash was not on-trend.
Meanwhile, every magazine, movie and cultural force was selling fitness. Many club owners jumped on this trend and some squash owners “kind of” adapted, as squash members faded away. Squash players almost grew resentful of this new fitness trend despite fitness being a huge aspect of squash.
Take a moment to process that response. Ours is one of the toughest fitness sports in the world, and we kind of hated the fitness people.
Often people say, “well, you can get more people on a fitness class….”. Yes this is true, but I think it is more about a demographic and cultural shift. Squash clubs did make money and then they didn’t. It was less about space usage and more about tastes and demographics changing. Smoking and drinking beer at the club and wearing collared shirts was suddenly dated. You needed to replace all of that with biking shorts and a dayglo muscle shirt.
Then the fitness chains moved in and took over markets, crushing independent gyms and squash clubs in their wake. Some chains built squash courts, but only as a side offering and not part of their core business model.
Gym operators discovered the lucrative revenue stream of one-on-one personal training. Sell a low membership fee at volume and upsell a high-margin personal training package.
The fitness business became more and more sophisticated as smart operators fine-tuned business models including marketing, design and new types of offerings.
Things like micro-gyms emerged and cross-fit/HIIT gym models with small, low-rent spaces with no showers, packed groups of people in for hardcore workouts. Even the fitness tastes evolve and some models are now suffering the same fate as squash.
What was left of the squash market? A few commercial clubs, some squash-only clubs with older diehard players icing their knees with a pint and wondering what happened. By the way, back in the day, that old guy icing his knees in the corner could beat you in 10 minutes (with hand-in, hand-out scoring) while drinking a beer between games on no sleep (after a hot tub party the night before).
Meanwhile and thankfully, squash survived within the walls of old, historic clubs and the private school eco-system. But, the sport became more and more hidden and less and less culturally relevant. Arguably it is flourishing or at least steady in the private club sector today.
So, after that trip down memory lane, we go back to the question: Who is advertising our sport?
Who is taking out ads on a weekly basis? Who is looking at key performance indicators? Who is tracking the leads, attrition and closing rates? Who is checking ad statistics and engagement? Click-throughs? Impressions? What is the strategic sales funnel from discovery for new prospects?
Knowing what I know about the fitness industry as it relates to aggressive and relentless advertising, I do admit some frustration when discussions start about how to grow squash.
I sometimes feel we cannot even discuss any of this until we actually advertise our product. I do know that at one point a wide range of people from all walks of life loved playing squash, so the game of squash is a proven product, with a brief track record of commercial success.
I’m sure across the world, some squash ads are running (my club does squash specific ads in our local catchment area), but could it be that no one is straight-up advertising our fantastic product at a national level?
If no one is, should this be the central focus of our efforts as we come out of COVID-19, or in general?
Suffice to say, advertising works. And advertising is needed to sell anything, even our seemingly always-a-bridesmaid sport.
We may not get back to the days of impromptu hot tub parties at 3am, but advertising might get us close. We’ll just have to wear masks when it happens.
I have included an article from the New York Times circa 1977, which might illustrate just how “in” squash was at the time.
Pictures from Pinterest
Ed your links–the 2 New Yorkers, SI and the NY Times–all hardball, and all on 18.5 foot courts. There’s a message there . . .
Advertising is a drop shot, a lob, a strategic tool, once there is a sound business model, a good strategy, a sustainable strategy for the future of squash.
Many strategies derived from various squash business and organizational models have not proven easily sustainable, without benefactors.