One of the world’s healthiest sports is at risk of dying out as clubs struggle to recover from the impact of Covid-19.
While professional squash is thriving and features iconic venues such as Grand Central Terminal in New York and in front of the Pyramids in Egypt, the grassroots side of the game is floundering.
Hundreds of clubs across the globe have already been forced out of business after having to close their doors for up to eight months during the height of the pandemic.
Four failed bids to get into the Olympics has also kept the game in the shadows in recent years as other activities such as climbing, padel and pickleball have grown in popularity.
Tournament promoter Alan Thatcher says the situation is becoming critical.
“We are already seeing the game collapse in several countries,” he told Overtime.
“Several major clubs have gone to the wall and at least two major fitness chains operating in the USA and Canada have filed for bankruptcy. This could lead to the loss of 200 squash courts alone.
“I also understand that squash clubs sited in many city centres around the world are not reopening due to the fact that so many people are working from home.
“Because of the erratic nature of the infection rates, with second and third waves affecting many countries, many of those clubs may never open again.
“The Covid pandemic is resulting in major changes to many aspects of society as a whole, and our lifestyles.
“The medical experts are saying that the disease will be with us for many years to come.
“The sports and the businesses that survive will be the ones that respond quickly and dynamically to the problems they face.”
Thatcher, who founded the Squash Mad website and hosts the annual Canary Wharf Classic squash tournament in London, said the warning signs were there long before Covid-19 arrived.
“With a few notable exceptions, squash federations need to stop treating the management of the sport as a hobby, act in a more professional, business-like manner, and understand the need for data-driven planning,” he said.
“Even before the lockdown, squash clubs were struggling to adapt to changing social habits as rival sports like padel and pickleball moved in to take up their market share.”
Thatcher says some of the sport’s problems date back to when squash was first played at London’s Harrow School in the early 1800s.Embed from Getty Images
“The game of squash was invented in a private school. As others took up the game, those pupils grew older and demanded courts inside private gentlemen’s clubs.
“More private courts were built for officers in the armed forces and in British embassy compounds across the world.
“That’s how squash first imprinted its footsteps across the world.
“This tradition of constructing courts inside private buildings has continued… expensive courts inside expensive buildings, with expensive joining fees (often $30k in USA and Canada) and expensive membership fees to follow.
“All of these elements create barriers to attracting players from working-class and various ethnic backgrounds.”
World Squash Day – taking place tomorrow – hopes to revive the grassroots game by encouraging clubs to showcase the dynamism and health benefits of what was once described as “the world’s healthiest sport” by the World Health Organisation.Embed from Getty Images
Thatcher, who founded the event, is also spearheading efforts to save the game by designing a new style of squash club aiming to be more affordable, visible and accessible through his Squash 200 Consultancy firm.
“Our ethos is to reduce building costs, make projects affordable, partner with other sports to provide a range of facilities on offer, and make the venue a social destination for the whole community,” he said.
“Since the lockdown, it has become obvious that we need to build courts that are more Covid-compliant: in short, open-air courts.
“At a stroke this move goes some way to solving Covid issues and also make the game more visible to the wider public.”
At the top level, squash can boast:
- Glass courts set up in iconic locations such as in front of the Pyramids in Egypt, Grand Central Terminal in New York and at Canary Wharf in London
- Live streaming of every major tournament on PSA World Tour’s SquashTV Channel
- Sell-out crowds in London and New York
- The top professionals are brilliant athletes who act as wonderful ambassadors for the game
- Equal prize money for men and women
- The first million dollar tournament in 2019 (for the men’s and women’s World Championships in Chicago)
Thatcher added: “These are amazing achievements by the PSA World Tour.
“The professional game is our shop window and we need to work harder to use the available TV footage to promote the game in a more structured, global campaign (such as World Squash Day) to encourage growth in participation.
“The PSA has to be part of the process. Without spectators, the pros will have no paying customers and nor will the brands and sponsors supporting the Tour.”