Not long ago I received an email from a respected member of the squash community, a man who has played the game for over 30 years, no doubt a hardball expert who probably plays a mean game of hardball doubles. He made several observations about the game in the US today and asked me to address some of them in a blog.
Briefly put, here are his observations:
1. The junior game is exploding in popularity. Some of these kids will play the game in college, with a few playing for the top squash college teams, although many of these spots will be taken over by gifted foreign players.
2. Upon graduation, however, the players drop off significantly in participation. Women players after college become rare birds indeed. He posits that the college teams may be so athletically demanding that the players are frustrated upon graduation as they see their performance on court necessarily drop.
3. Men's amateur weekend tournaments, usually plentiful on both coasts, have similarly plummeted. The social nature of these meetings, a glue that kept the squash community strong, has therefore suffered.
4. League play in historically strong squash centers like New York City has also plummeted.
He adds an observation: the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York recently held their Silver Racquets tournament, with 32 teams battling in a hotly contested doubles tournament, which occurred alongside big draws in the club's court tennis and racquets competitions. Yet he says that there was no singles squash draw at all.
So, here are my comments, which are delivered in two ways. First, personal observations, and second, data culled from the US Squash association.
Personally, I'm a bad person to ask these questions, so I apologize from the start. I rarely attended tournaments and league matches simply because my work and, later, family life rendered such luxuries onerous. So I don't have a very good base with which to compare these things.
I can make a few comments, though. I have noted before, in an earlier blog, that I have observed that there seem to be more women playing the game post-college than before. (Women in Squash). At the club where I play, seeing a women on the court used to be as rare as seeing an eagle come swooping by my window. Now, on any given evening, women are playing at the club, and some of them are damned good! (I also might add that eagles are making a comeback as well.) In addition, my club has always had a healthy roster of players, numbering about 500 active players 10 years ago. I recently read that my club's roster now lists 600 players, a significant advance. Because of the large number of in-house players, my club has never been too active in league play since you can always get so many players at your level right there under the same roof.
But to adequately address these comments, which on the whole refer to the numbers of both players and tournaments, one has to consult the game's association. US Squash (USS) notes the following:
1. Women squash players made up 14% of the USS membership just 4 years ago, a percentage that now stands at a healthy 25%. Not enough, perhaps, but a trend in a very positive direction.
2. Membership in USS itself is up 50% in that time. While membership in USS overall is small compared to the overall squash playing public, a phenomenon against which I have also ranted in the past (USS Membership), this too is an excellent trend.
3. In re the transition from college to citizen squash, USS is extending memberships to graduates for 3 years in order to maintain contact with these young adults. In addition, USS partners with the College Squash Association in supporting their league.
4. As for leagues, the numbers don't lie. There are now more active leagues in the US than at any other time, ever. New York City has about 70 teams, up fully 25% from last year. My club with its mob of racket-wielding enthusiasts has even begun fielding one league team -- a women's team.
5. There are more USS-sanctioned tournaments than ever before. I am not sure if there are more sanctioned and unsanctioned tourneys now, but the trend is to get these tournaments sanctioned, which is good for ratings.
6. A very important element in increasing competition has just been introduced by the USS. PLAY SQUASH is a free program that offers online software tools to organize ladders, box leagues, club rankings, and club championships, allowing results to be used for official rankings. Member clubs can even obtain free sanctioning of their club championships, which will make club rankings much more accurate. Players can use these accurate rankings to set up matches anywhere in the company, through a USS 'Find a Match' feature. What's more, the USS office tells me that the PLAY SQUASH program will be expanded to cover hardball doubles in 2010. This is analogous to golfing's handicap system, and if it catches on -- which I very much hope it does -- it will revolutionize how we play squash in this country.
I have no idea why the Racquet & Tennis club did not set up a singles tournament, by the way, but it may involve indifference by the pro, the demographics of the club in question, or a scheduling problem. Out of curiosity I'd like to hear from someone about that.
So, given these facts, it could be that the perception has not kept pace with the reality of the game as it exists today. I think the writer who brought up these points may look back on the social interaction of the old amateur tours with affection, but today there is not just one such 'tour.' (It should be noted that the very popular INSILCO B/C/D tour, dating back to the 1980s, was actually a softball tour.) Maybe the greater opportunities to play in tournaments that one has today have served to diminish the social interaction that came with the game. If so, that's a problem that I herewith punt to tournament organizers who might consider more or varied social events during the tournaments.