How’s it going at England Squash…?

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I think the three biggest organisations in squash are probably The PSA, US Squash and England Squash. It seems like The PSA and US Squash couldn’t be much higher at the moment. The PSA is a smooth operation putting on fabulous events every week, they’ve just had a massive investment from Mark Walter’s company who are already heavily involved in top sports ownership in football, basketball and baseball, and PSA Squash TV is the envy of many other sports. US Squash is flying high with its involvement in thriving college squash, their new national centre in ‘Philly’ is absolutely phenomenal, and together the PSA and US Squash have got our sport Olympic status. Need I say any more?!

So where are England Squash at the moment? “What have they been up to?” I hear you ask. Let’s have a look….

Two and a half years ago they appointed a new CEO. A likely indicator that they wanted big change to occur. At the time I did question whether their choice of CEO was a “conservative choice” and if Mark Williams was the right man to make enough good change happen.

We’ve seen a few major changes over the last two years, and I regret to say that they’ve been pretty poorly thought out and have created mainly negative responses. The changes I’m talking about are:

They changed the junior ranking system to use Squash Levels. Obviously, every country is trying to increase participation in their junior tournaments, juniors are literally the future of our sport. This is a tough task as there are so many other distractions and options for kids these days. Any change of protocol is an attempt to improve the experiences of our junior squash players and their parents, and to increase participation.

In my day you generally had to beat players in order to leapfrog them in the rankings. Obviously this is flawed because if you don’t get the opportunity to play players immediately above you then you can’t progress your ranking as you’d like to. This put the onus on certain players having to travel much more than others in order to forge opportunities to play their competitors, and still it wasn’t guaranteed as it was ‘draw based’. In the 2000’s the rankings were changed to employ a points per round system, like we see on the PSA World Tour. This then rewarded players who could play more tournaments, therefore totting up more points throughout the season. As you can see, it is hard to create a perfectly fair system and I genuinely sympathise for people in charge of doing so…. maybe somehow devising a hybrid of the two above methods…. but that is difficult and reasonably complicated.

The Squash Levels ranking system has been a great thing for squash, especially at club level. I coach many people who play local leagues and also internal club leagues, who are obsessed by their Squash Levels ranking, because they can gain or lose points every time they step on court. It gives people a tangible, goal orientated focus (other than just winning). The problem however, with implementing this solely as the England Junior Ranking system is that is doesn’t help participation in our junior events. Juniors would be better-off playing in their local leagues, and especially playing against higher-ranked, beatable men in-order to notch up ranking points. This rewards all sorts of different players as opposed to others – maybe the junior playing regular league matches against higher ranked men, losing but still gaining points because they had competitive game scores; or the kid playing others who are ranked way below them, thrashing them and gaining ranking points; or players who live in a competitive area so regularly play league matches which contribute to their Squash Levels score (whether internal club leagues, or regional leagues). As you can see specific factors of what club you play at, or what area you live in can have a positive or negative effect – meaning the ‘playing field’ is not equal. But most importantly, what this new system doesn’t do, is encourage juniors to play in junior tournaments, because they can get their ranking points elsewhere, and specifically damaging, by not playing against other juniors – which is surely the opposite of what England Squash want to achieve. We all want more juniors playing in junior events, and we also want more junior events, so this was an absolutely counter-productive initiative – and it did understandably create uproar within the junior community.

Following that junior bombshell, came a change in the ‘Club Affiliation Membership Programme’. Let me try to outline the changes…

The existing system is: All clubs who wish to be affiliated with England Squash (ES) (which is a generally must if a club is to have any teams in their local or regional league) – have to pay for their squash courts and their players who wish to play league squash outside of the club internal leagues. Players must be affiliated with ES if they wish to play in any ES sanctioned events, eg. Inter-county, Masters events, junior events, ES tournaments etc. Affiliation also provides a few other benefits, non more important than insurance for club and player. ES also pays a small rebate back to individual county squash associations depending on the number of ES members from that county. Yearly costs are: £55 per court, only pay up to a maximum of 4 courts, additional courts have no charge. £12.50 per adult member (wanting to play external leagues or ES events), and £10 per junior.

The new system and it’s yearly fees: Club court fee upped to £75 per court, capped at a maximum of 6 courts, and player membership fees increased to £25-30. Also, any club player, even if they are not wanting to play in any leagues or events, were also “encouraged” to be affiliated to ES at a cost of £10-15. Clubs should also affiliate active coaches for £65 each. England Squash did say the “package” benefits of the membership scheme would be greater than before for every club and player, but had not decided what these “benefits” of being an ES member would be. 

This new scheme was explained to all clubs in our North West Counties Squash League AGM in the summer. As you can imagine, this massive price hike was met with severe opposition, borderline pandemonium ensued in the meeting room! To commit to a scheme which is more than doubling in price for unknown benefits, was obviously seen as outrageous! After the initial shock and bedlam, the general consensus would be for the league to change their 30 year constitution so players could play in our league without being ES members, saving each club hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. The shame in this would be that the small rebate which ES then pass on to our county associations (Cheshire, Lancashire and Merseyside) to help toward local squash development, would be lost. Several quick-thinking club-representatives then suggested that their members would happily pay the old fee of £12.50 per player to the league, for them to distribute all the funds to the three individual counties. This would actually far outweigh the rebate which ES currently give our counties, as I think the current rebate is about 20%, so in-fact our players would be paying half of what England Squash are now asking for, and our county associations would be gaining much, much more money for development. An absolute win-win for squash in the north west. The loss to England Squash would be monumental – a reduction in ES members would hugely reduce their funding from Sport England, which they largely rely on to operate.

But… a strong governing body is essential for the development of any sport, so perhaps we don’t want to turn away from England Squash just yet…

Sensibly, ES have taken on-board the general feedback and ill-feeling, and delayed the start of this new affiliation programme. It is still going ahead as of April next year, but hopefully they are working a clear and improved benefit package for players and clubs to make it a more appealing scheme. We cannot blame ES for putting their prices up as every business in the country forced to do so given the current economic climate, but they also need to consider expenditure is a struggle for every individual with the ‘cost of living crisis’ we are living in, so any increases have to be seriously thought-out and reasonable.

ES have also accepted feedback on the junior ranking system. They have applied some changes to create a fairer system, which hopefully increases participation and doesn’t decrease the support of our junior tournaments.

Sadly, another piece of bad news / incompetence came out of the ES camp this week. The Premier Squash League (PSL), billed as the “premier” league competition in England, which was due to start next week, has been postponed, likely cancelled for this season. This has been a dying league for several years now and recent changes in format have been desperate and ridiculous, and this year only 4 teams had signed up anyway – a far cry what has traditionally been a wonderful competition with 10-12 teams competing nationally. This league has been the pride of English Squash and has given this country some truly great Tuesday nights. I lived through many a memorable night playing for Duffield in the National League / PSL. Another similar and previously popular ES institute is the Inter-County competition, which is also dying a slow, sad death.

PSL is an important platform for ES, and for club squash. This league needs to be revived – and I’m sure there are ways in which ES could prioritise the competition, encourage new clubs to enter and support them with funding. It shouldn’t be solely down to the individual clubs to come up with all of the funding required to pay top players for 8 matches per season. If I were ES, I would hire someone to increase funding options, so the organisation are not so totally reliant upon Sport England. There are most definitely private companies who would get involved and financially back the organisation, or even financially support individual events like the PSL, if the package they are offered is appealing enough. Firstly, PSL needs to return to a format of 3 or 4 men, and 1 woman per team. Ranking requirements for every position to guarantee teams of a certain standard. Obviously they should plan fixtures with the PSA schedule so players are available. ES should help PSL clubs considerably more with marketing to increase awareness and ticket sales.

The new club affiliation scheme needs to be reduced in price. As I said, a rise in price is understandable but not double! Upping individual memberships to £17 would probably be acceptable, and do not force “leisure only” players to join. Make benefits very clear as to what each individual gets for their membership. Coaching qualification courses should be free, or at most a very small fee when you are an ES member and/or member of an ES affiliated squash club; certainly not the big fees they currently demand. (The costs to ES to run these courses can’t be that great; to use a club for a weekend and pay two coaches to run the course?!). This will encourage clubs to have highly qualified coaches as a reward for their loyalty to ES. I believe a good coaching set-up, ideally with a resident club coach, is exactly what clubs need most of all. An organised coach / team of coaches will drive membership forward almost limitlessly. As well as offering individual sessions, a resident coach will organise everything from a booming junior section, a thriving adult section with weekly team training and organising team selections (so members don’t have to do it), to arranging local schools coaching and putting on special events.

I’m not one to simply criticise without constructive feedback and provide legitimate suggestions of ways in which to improve, and I’ve thrown a few in, but I feel there are many areas which need to be thoughtfully addressed (way more than I’ve talked about here), and a new ES leadership could be in order. It would be a difficult job as it’s not just one person to blame, and possibly a more drastic overhaul is required, but initially a strong, proactive, visionary leader is the first step. There are some intelligent, ex-squash players out there who have also shown superb entrepreneurial skills, who I believe would be perfect for the role. They have intimate understanding of the sport and also know how to move forward in business. Ex-pros who have set up a successful coaching business and possibly another side-hustle or two would be a good place to start. Sports professionals who have achieved a high playing standard are some of the most motivated individuals on the planet (making them incredibly valuable), and then if they have demonstrated an understanding and passion for business – they can be a massive asset to an organisation like England Squash. To finish I’m going to tease you with a few initials who I believe it’d be worth England Squash having a chat with…. (MF, DS, LS, HS…).