Monday, May 21, 2012

Please Don't Tell Me How Thriving New York Area Squash Is...


Having just heard that New York Sports at Columbus Circle in Manhattan is closing its two international courts to convert them to studios -- anyone who continues to foster the illusion squash is thriving in New York, I would likely want to throttle you. Having just seen this weekend nearly 30% of the Hyder Cup 3.5 draw coming from the club I coach at, a draw under 18 (which in years past was twice sometimes three times that size), I can only state the New York Squash scene is in trouble. The future of this game is not in the hordes of juniors and junior development programs...it is in the adults who have played for their lifetime and who pass along the game to younger players or to eager new players of any age.

Of course if the venues keep shrinking, where will adults play? Will the remaining clubs build new courts, expand? Doubtful. I played for years at Columbus Circle, and can remember vividly when they finally converted the narrow courts into international courts. I taught my son to play there when he was 10 years old, it was one of the best places on earth. Having been out in the suburbs for quite a while, I was preparing to start playing in the city, which I missed and was so looking forward to going back to Columbus Circle. This is a huge disappointment.

The people who coach juniors at exorbitant lesson rates are not the future of squash in this City or for that matter anywhere else. They are cashing in on a disturbing trend. They are catering to a very elite group who can afford those high prices. Those who cannot afford it have to rely on playing experienced players who will teach them the game. I am writing this because I am mostly scared that this game will eventually die out and become nothing more than a game you play at the junior level, maybe it helps you in your college application, but then beyond that how many will play well into their adult lives. And if the future of squash is and remains that elite few who can afford 100 to 200 dollars a lesson, then this game will never grow and sustain itself.

You can throw whatever membership numbers you want out there, it simply gives an illusion of a thriving squash community, which there isn't. When parents finally catch on that squash for college isn't really a viable route, that only the best junior players (who happened to be coached by the most expensive coaches) really only make the squash teams in college, the remaining ones, to me have been sold a bag of goods. For those who end up playing and loving this game and fit it into busy schedules whether at college or when they are embarking on careers -- they are the future of squash, they are the ones who will sustain and encourage juniors to develop and play their whole lives, they are the ones who will bring new courts to the City.

..And with that they will again bring a great diversity to the game, they will come from all walks of life and play at clubs where you never know who will be on court with you: a welder, a doctor, a stock broker, a student, even a poet. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I do have lots of questions and when I hear of another court converted over to a studio I start looking for answers as to why?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is very concerning indeed. Did you know a group of guys is looking to build a big new complex that will cater to the public, not only the elite? There is an article about it at www.brettssquashblog.com from last month.

Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding article. The success of elite juniors from the US is awesome. However, such an intense focus on elite juniors is causing a "gymnastification" of squash where playing careers wind down after college. Besides junior play, so many other metrics for the measurement of squash growth are going south. The participation in adult regional and national events is way down. League participation is down. I am a squash lifer in my early 50's. I am now preparing myself for "life after squash" as my opportunities to play and compete is dwindling. Very sad indeed.

Squash from Delphi said...

brettsuqashblog -- I did read that and stand up and applaud your effort and intentions -- how are things progressing? Enquiring minds would like to know! I will no doubt be a regular

Anonymous said...

When the switch to softball was pushed through 20 years ago many people pointed out that squash had crested and was slipping away in many other countries, but had enjoyed steadier growth in the U.S. It was noted that adults tended to drop the game in most countries, but not in the U.S. Junior squash in the U.S., as you correctly point out, is a big revenue generating business. The irony is, of course, that U.S. juniors are little better at softball, if at all, than they were 20 years ago, with a few exceptions. There is not enough genuine love of the game among the clinic and lesson ridden crowd. Too often you can visit a club and see kids sitting behind an empty court, waiting for the organized session to begin. This is not the case in the U.K., for example, where kids will grab any empty court and get as many points in as they can, and where kids spend far more time playing eachother than in lessons. It is not merely squash that suffers from over-teaching in the U.S. Soccer has the same problem. More stars come out of Cameroun or Brazil where the kids kick the ball all day than out of the hyper-organized U.S. junior leagues. This kind of over-structured junior sport I believe contributes as much as the change of ball to the decline in singles squash among adults in the U.S., but the ball is undoubtedly a contributor. The beauty of the hardball was that, like tennis and golf, an already accomplished adult could continue to improve in spite of waning physical strength. I would also argue, though with less evidence, that harder balls are in general more addictive to strike- the golf ball is by far the most addictive. Also I would argue the harder to learn, the harder to quit. The beauty of the softball is that it allows the beginner to play adequately much sooner. It travels more slowly and more predictably and stays on the racket longer, making it far easier to hit to all four corners and to retrieve. Unfortunately, it does not have the addictive quality that some other individual sports do. The adults who stay fascinated with it tend to be those who like the incremental nature of the learning curve, which allows a more methodical approach and rewards repetition, rather than those who thrill at a great shot. This first group can be quite fanatic, but they are scarce. I mean them no disrespect when I recall Derrick Niederman's memorable phrase regarding the switch in balls "The Revenge of the Nerds." It was believed two decades ago that the ball switch would lead to more inexpensive commercial clubs, and a broadening of the game, but so far this has not proved to be the case. The cultural roots of U.S. squash may be a more restrictive barrier than we had all hoped, but there are probably other equally important factors.

Squash from Delphi said...

Very thoughtful and well presented about the ball. I think that softball caught on because the game was physically more demanding, hardball on the narrow court with the new racquet technology meant you whacked the ball around and really didn't have to move much. As an more experienced player, I would disagreen that softball preempts improving your squash because of the demands of the game, the best thing about this is no matter what age, you can set your realistic goals and with hardwork improve no matter how old you are. But my biggest concern is when parents realize that squash doesn't really do anything in terms of getting their kids into better colleges, unless of course, they have an elite junior, then who is the next generation of players coming out -- those that no doubt will stop playing because the hordes of them only played because their parents bought this bill of college squash goods? We aren't creating a next generation of players who in time will become adult players for the future of this game....great observation about those kids that wait for their organized sessions, how often do you see a junior on court solo hitting? Thanks for all your insights.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the problem cited is less about squash players in NYC than it is about the club owners and their interest/commitment to the game. Chains like NYSC are not deeply committed, hence killing the courts at Lincoln, and when Printing House got taken over by a chain the courts disappeared. Don't know how to solve that problem but in regards to adult players the level of participation in the leagues seems to be very healthy. On that point I will have to disagree with another poster here. My evidence is that there were 95 league teams this year and 81 last year, at least by my count. This indicates that play is up, not down. But how to sustain that with fewer courts is clearly a problem.

As for regional and national level tournament participation I don't have any numbers. However as national skill levels are now limited via qualifying regional tournaments the level of participation is bound to be lower, probably by quite a bit. In regards to local tournaments let's take a look at the recent turnouts.
Hyder Mens 3.5
2012 18
2011 18
2010 16
2009 32
So one can conclude that the numbers are recently consistent but down from 2009. However the 3.5 draw often has many juniors so may not represent the state of adult squash in the area. So let's look at the Grand and Hyder 4.5 Mens draws:

Grand
2012 32
2011 32
2010 32

Hyder (no numbers available for 2012 yet)
2011 26
2010 16
2009 32

So these numbers suggest a pretty healthy adult squash scene and the Grand, as a regional tournament, also suggests good particpation at that level. But it only happens because people dedicate themselves to running a league, captaining a team, and all the other ways we keep people playing.

Squash from Delphi said...

Not sure how log you have been playing but some of around will note, first leagues were 5 deep with alternates, secondly national and regional types would in the heyday have two draws for C or B because of so many partcipants...you are right about the chain clubs, but it is a business...they cannot really be faulted, the root cause rests on those responsible for growing and promoting the game outside of the grass roots...stop promoting the game as a means to an end that is what is killing it because you don't foster longevity in the game, does tennis promote itslef as a way to get into college? No, they don't even promote it as a possible career, they do promote it for the love of the game, as a great sport, the build upon both junior, adults, seniors all for one one for all it is after all a game nothing more nothing less except what you make it, but just promote it as the great game it is.

Anonymous said...

Delphi
I am not so much disagreeing with you as trying to put some factual meat on the argument. One fact is that I have been playing for 50 years, 25 or so in the NY area.

In current leagues you had better have 4 or 5 alternates otherwise you are almost surely going to default some individual matches somewhere along the way. So that does not seem to have changed. And what we do know is that we have more teams this year than last. The logical question then would be why the increase? Was something done to make that happen? If so let's do more.

On a more subjective note, during those years I have seen many players move through the leagues and tournaments. To me this indicates that the MSRA is creating an opportunity and many are taking advantage of it. Of those who no longer play in the league it is impossible to say whether they have moved or do not play competitively any more. It would of course be helpful to know but I don't know how to gain that information.

I honestly do not recall double flights in any tournaments I have played in over these many years. However I will direct you to my earlier note that National tournament participation is now limited by USSquash so we really can't make meaningful comparisons to any earlier time. If we want to measure the health of adult squash by participation in the National tournament then this would clearly be a misguided policy.

There is little doubt that marketing the game to juniors hogs the limelight. But I think there remains good evidence that the adult squash scene is healthy and that someone, perhaps even someone who might be "they", is working to make it so.

Squashy said...

Just to qualify myself to render an opinion on this topic, I got the T-shirt: I've sacrificed my time, talent, money and body parts to teaching, developing, organizing and competing in squash since the early 1980s (first played at Phillips Andover in 1974). Currently I manage 275 squash players in a commercial club in Washington, DC. I was active in promoting and managing league and tournaments when narrow hardball courts were converted to international ones.
Our sport will survive in private clubs with money to pay organizers, clubs which have paid their mortgages and offer the game as an amenity as opposed to a self-sustaining commercial enterprise. With perhaps one type of exception found in a megaclub such as the one that Nat Grainger is heading in CT, to succeed in the business of squash you need dedicated organizers who are ruthless about growing and protecting the adult game, and club owners who are squash addicts. Unfortunately in urban areas if you don't have either of these assets to work with then the metrics of cost per square foot grow like an invasive vine while cash flow must be need to paid to satisfy the lenders and partners who are in the business to make money.
One key asset that private clubs enjoy that is sorely lacking in most commercial clubs is Member Squash Committees which determine programming in cooperation with management. Because of this, often managing pros are stretched in opposite directions by members and management. They are answerable to both when they should be free of the tension to do what they do best: teach and organize. Naturally commercial club members think that paying dues is enough of a commitment, while management's emphasis on revenue creation means members free court time is compromised. It is a daunting game of poker. Thus the need for squash addict owners, dedicated managers and member committees to tirelessly promote and protect the game in every way possible while attempting to satisfy the demands of club lenders, investment partners and the majority of club members.

Squash from Delphi said...

Squashy - Excellent information and vision...first and foremost, you would have to be absolutely insane to go into any squash business to make money whther it be toruing pro, club owner, coach etc. but there's nothing wrong with that, do you go into teaching to make money? do you become a writer to make money no because as an "addict" it doesn't matter as long as you get that squash fix and anyone else around you gets it too....why else would anyone play this game which is so damned hard, unless you were addicted...and for god's sake do away with the court fees, clubs don't charge a court fee for spinning, basketball or aerobic all of which is meant to bolster membership, so too squash should be a way to boster membership, get people playing, get players good and new players will join, take up the game and want to learn more...thanks for the comment.