Following football and tennis, do you know what the most played sport in the UK is? Not cricket, rugby or hockey, but squash. According to Sport England, around 70,000 more people a week take to the squash court than don their whites, while the figure stands at an astounding 105,000 more than those who play rugby.
Then why is it that while the nation becomes gripped by the exploits of our cricket heroes in an Ashes series, or stay up till ungodly hours to cheer on our rugby stars at World Cups in faraway lands, squash - with its enormous following and participant numbers - continues to slide under the radar?
For one thing media interest has always been lacking compared to Britain’s other mainstream sports for the plain fact that squash is difficult to enjoy as a spectator if you’re not an active participant. Trying to track a white ball on a court just 32ft long by 21 ft wide being hit in excess of 100mph makes for difficult viewing.
The development in television technology, namely high definition, is making a big difference, says women’s number one and all-time squash great Nicol David.
“HD TV is really helping attract new audiences,” Nicol explained when we met at the recent ATCO World Series Finals at Queen’s Club in London. “People can follow the game a lot better than they could before on television. It’s definitely a key factor and squash is now getting circulated around the world better than it ever has.”
There has been a major marketing push behind squash in recent years, with courts being erected at iconic locations around the world in an attempt to maximize interest and intrigue of the sport.
“We are doing a lot to get squash out there,” Nicol added. “We are bringing the sport to the people and taking courts to landmarks around the world; the Pyramids in Egypt, Grand Central Station in New York, Canary Wharf in London – iconic places where we can really showcase the game.”
The effort was evident at Queen’s Club in early January when the world famous tennis club hosted the final leg of the World Series Finals. A number of attractive hostesses await your arrival in the marquee and direct you through to the showcase squash court – an obvious (yet welcome) ploy to ‘sex up’ the sport. Once inside, the stadium reverberates with the latest dance and pop music as the DJ spins catchy tunes to get the audience into the party atmosphere. As has become commonplace with darts in recent times, the players no longer simply enter the court as their names are announced. Instead, they enjoy their very own boxers entrance, with a theme song and lights display; again, an obvious but effective way to add to the evening’s excitement.
Being an occasional - yet far from competent - squash player probably means I fall into the demographic of people the squash authorities are targeting to increase the popularity of their game; a casual player and follower who enjoys a game, but would not automatically rush to the box office to buy tickets for the latest tournament in town. And it certainly worked on me at least. If you are promised an evening of entertainment involving squash, someone like myself would be more inclined to attend. On the other hand, if I were informed I would be watching hours of squash without the razzmatazz, I would be less tempted. Much the way darts has attracted new audiences with the offer of a good night out, squash is embracing a similar blueprint (minus the ‘Chase the Sun’ theme tune) to welcome new fans.
The exclusion of squash from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games is a major blow to the sport’s resurgence. While multiple minor sports have been offered the world’s biggest platform to demonstrate their qualities and attract new fans, squash has been left behind. Englishmen occupy the top two places in the men’s world rankings while the second ranked woman is English, making the sport’s absence from the London Games particularly stinging.
The bid to be included in the 2020 Games is being lodged next year and its addition is expected. There seems to be no slowing this latest publicity push for squash and as the next generation pick up their rackets for the first time, 2020 could come at the ideal time to complete the revival of one of the world’s most popularly played sports.