Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hard Truth About Hardball Courts

Several months ago someone sent me a link to a story in a newspaper serving a Seattle-area university, in which the writer bemoaned the large number of squash courts that were always vacant. The school’s gym was not so big that the amount of space taken up by these big, dark rooms, which were allegedly never used, didn’t go without notice. Tear them down, the writer said, and put something worthwhile in there.

Well, I thought, that’s a little harsh!

Knowing Seattle to be a good squash town, my curiosity was piqued enough to email the writer, in which I gave a little summary of squash in the US, how the numbers of players are actually on the rise, and surmising that what the school needed was a decent program and perhaps a good coach. The writer wrote back tauntingly, saying that there was no way a good coach could resuscitate a dead sport, and it was time to tear the courts down!

At first I wanted to wring the little bastard’s neck, but thought it would be unduly expensive to fly cross-country to do so. Then I realized, wait a minute, it just can’t be that no one is playing squash. I emailed the Seattle naysayer and, after a few more responses, gradually ascertained that the school had a bunch of hardball courts, upon which no one ever ventured.

Those hardball courts are a bad advertisement for squash -- they are a negative to the popular conception of the sport. They are uniformly underused throughout the country; most hardball courts exist nowadays only to provide a field upon which dust balls might play. And yet almost half the existing courts in the US are hardball courts, remnants of days gone by.

Look, I started playing squash with a hard ball. I liked it a lot, but the game has evolved and the softer ball and the larger court now represent the game. There are a few clubs that still have some active hardballers, and there is still a tournament or two, so I’m not suggesting that we throw these older players out in the cold. If the courts are still used, then keep your constituents happy and leave them alone. But most courts are visited by no one. Tear ‘em down.

I am hopeful that one day ball manufacturers will come up with a ball that has the feel of hardball singles but can be played on a softball court. The quick-reaction junkies enamored with hardball could then have a great time on the wider court without shorter rallies. Hardball exists today in a thriving and thoroughly entertaining form -- doubles. Long may it prosper.


  1. I would say 1/3'rd of all US squash players play softball squash on a hardball court. The hardball courts are everywhere in small to mid size towns and universities. Just a few days I played at the washington DC downtown YMCA which had 4 hardball courts...

  2. You're right, and I would never propose tearing down old hardball courts that are A) used by hardball players, or B) used by softball players but for whom no new international court is planned. The YMCAs across the US contain a lot of these old hardball courts but they may not have the cash to make the change, or just not feel it is all that important. A separate issue but related is the presence of many unused racquetball courts, which can be converted to nearly standard softball courts. I believe that US Squash either has a program, or is planning on rolling out a program, by which USS will contribute some money to any club who would like to convert a racquetball court.

  3. Where are the unused hardball courts in Seattle? I'm involved with Seattle squash an have never heard mention of these courts. Maybe with the support of US Squash and some help from the Seattle SRA we can get a few of these courts converted.

  4. I wanted to put the name of the school in my blog but I forgot it; it's been nearly a year since this exchange occurred and I unfortunately didn't save the emails. I believe the school had 'Seattle' in its name, but beyond that I can't remember.

  5. One of the issues is that "old courts" most often have poor HVAC and lousy viewing. In my opinion the introduction of attractive glass back walls with open viewing areas (along with improved lighting and HVAC typical of most conversions and new facilities) has had as much of an impact on the growth of the game as has the conversion of courts. Almost invariably the conversion of courts includes glass back walls and open viewing with improved HVAC. Kids (and many adults) are attracted to these new settings while they are not attracted to cold in the winter, hot in the summer, often poorly lit closed in rooms with small doors you can bump your head on. While we are on the topic of court conversions, everyone playing squash in the U.S. should remember that almost everyone involved with organizing the sport over the last 20 years spent a large part of their time raising money and speaking with architects, school trustees, athletic departments, club boards etc. about building new courts. The $ are in the 100s of millions I would guess. All of the leadership energy and resources of the game went in to these issues to the detriment of organized competition. With court conversions for the most part behind us, squash leadership in general is now in a position to focus on getting organized and improving the competitive infrastructure. Hopefully the surviving hardball courts can be brought alive (or renovated) with renewed organizing leadership.

  6. Several excellent points, Anonymous. It is a very good observation that a huge amount of money within the squash community has been dedicated to making the conversion from american to international courts, and I think you are right in your assumption that the amount is in the 100s of millions. At the club where I play, it was easily over a million, no question. So it is logical to assume that now that the major conversions are out of the way, some of the money floating around might be redirected to furthering the game.

    And the observation that the old courts with the heavy, sepulchral door were far from inviting is certainly true. I can remember closing those doors and hearing a whoosh of air as if you had just been locked in a crypt. The new glass-backed courts, often open at the top, are much more inviting...

  7. I was in Madison Wisconsin this summer (went to school there 30 years ago). Their Nielsen Center has five or six beautiful hardball courts that, I was told, almost no one uses. There is a new off-campus private facility with international courts that has attracted the local squashers.

  8. John, that's an excellent example of what I'm talking about. To my mind they are at this point just bad PR for the sport of squash....


Sorry, but due to increasing spam, I've added the Word Verification step. My policy on comments is anything goes, as long as it is about squash and as long as it isn't unnecessarily nasty....