Squash has flirted with the Olympics since 2005 where squash made their first real bid to enter the 2012 Olympics and since then have failed to get included in the 2016 and 2020 Games. It is only the failed bid of the 2020 Games that has gotten the attention on the Malaysian public where our own Nicol David personally put in a great effort for the inclusion into the Games.
In 2005, squash missed the chance for the 2012 Games because it missed the two-thirds majority required to be included in the 2012 Games which meant no sports was added despite the IOC dropping softball and baseball. Squash then lost out to rugby and golf in 2009 for a slot in the 2016 Rio Games but the hardest defeat must be the most recent failure to get into the 2020 Games where squash despite its best presentation could only finish last. To add salt to the wound, wrestling which was initially dropped got reinstated! The IOC is really messed up with their internal politics. How can a sport be considered dropped when they have not missed an edition of the Olympics? IOC, please explain.
Instead of putting the blame on the IOC, I’d like to focus on squash itself and why I think it didn’t appeal to the IOC and also why squash should forget bidding for inclusion for the 2024 Games.
Squash despite being a sport that fulfills all the Olympic ideals, failed in one major area for all IOC members, the total medal count. Wrestling has 21 events for men and 4 for women in the previous Games and 52 countries have won medals in the past! Multiply that by 3 and you have 75 medals to compete for in each Games. That was clearly reflected in the voting when wrestling got 49 votes which I deduce are from medal winning countries. Squash’s bid only offered 2 events with 6 medals at stake. Obviously we can see a greater chance for wrestling to gain more votes based on probability of total countries participating versus medals to be won as compared to squash.
Despite squash pitching a bid that is low cost, dig deeper and look at the bigger picture we will find that it is more costly than wrestling. Why do I say that? In terms of hosting, squash needs a dedicated facility, be it a permanent complex or the portable/movable courts while wrestling on the other hand just needs a hall. Of course wrestling needs more officials but with 75 medals at stake, I do think that is justified. In terms of athlete preparation, again the same issue comes up. Wrestlers can train in any hall or space but squashers need their squash courts! And squashers need shoes, rackets and balls while wrestlers need a mat. Imagine a 3rd world country to invest a medal potential sport, wrestling then looks a whole lot cheaper doesn’t it?
Administration of Squash
Squash has 3 major bodies, World Squash Federation (WSF), Professional Squash Association (PSA) and Women’s Squash Association (WSA). PSA runs the men’s professional tour while WSA runs the women’s tour and both are affiliated to WSF who in turn is the world body that is recognized by the IOC. Each body has their own agenda and goals which are more often in conflict with each other. The only common ground they stand on is the Olympics and all 3 are based in England. Then there is the Pro Squash Tour (PST) in the US which is at loggerheads with the PSA.
Member nations of WSF gain no major benefit except the obvious recognition as the governing body at the country level and hosting or participations into WSF event. And the sad thing is that the same concept is used by regional and national associations.
However, anyone can join PSA or WSA and participate in any of their events and anyone can organize an event under these 2 bodies. And then we have both these bodies (WSA and PSA) having different operating procedures and objectives. This is a long story which I will not go into details.
Marketability of Squash
How marketable is squash? All we know is that from the Back the Bid brochure is that squash is played in 185 countries and 50,000 people. Where did these figures come from? Is it by a research company or by WSF themselves? How many people know about squash? In Malaysia where Nicol is endeared by the nation, squash has a very small following. If there is a telecast of a squash event featuring Nicol, the maximum viewership is 20,000 including the repeats. This is however based on paid TV but with local football able to reach in access of 100,000 viewers despite it’s standard, the numbers are low. Even the official back the bid Youtube video for Back the Bid got 175,000 hits compared to some videos of the Malaysian badminton team training which has excess of 150,000 hits. Worse still, Malaysians would not be willing to pay to watch squash!
How to increase the marketability of squash? Starts from the top with WSF. Instead of wasting money with the Olympic bid and hiring consultants for the bid, invest the money in a proper marketing team/person that has real marketing background and not just ex-players. This is imperative to allow the sport to generate income which can then be channeled back towards development of the sport in form of technology, information and assistance to member nations. And bear in mind that most sports that have gotten in the Olympics in the last decade are economically viable on their own before the Olympics.
PSA and WSA need to work with WSF to form a higher tier circuit with the member nations. 185 countries and if 10 countries out that can host an event of either USD 200,000 event for men or USD 100,000 for women, there will be a big additional number of events for both the circuits! And remember that national associations have the support of their governments unlike independent promoters. On top of that PSA and WSA also need to relook their policies to support promoters of events rather than suppress them or be overly concerned about their members’ welfare as promoters for squash events do not make money. They’ll be lucky if they make a small profit. Let promoters clash events as they will be the ones trying their best to please their sponsors and keep the events running year after year. The industry needs to grow not restricted.
PSA and WSA too need to get better marketing people. I do support the idea of ex-players having a role but are they qualified to plan and strategize on how to capture new markets or sponsors? Would you take an engineer and put him/her in charge of marketing? Point to ponder.
Olympics will bring more money to the sport
This thought is slightly flawed as there will be more money pumped in by governments for preparation of athletes to win medals. On the contrary, will it bring more sponsors or boost the popularity of the sport all by itself? Of course, WSF will get some financial returns from the IOC as part of the Olympic Games but does it really bring a whole new level of financial benefits? Will sponsors pour in and bring the prize money on the circuits to the levels of badminton? With no marketing strategy, I don’t think so.
For Malaysians we have to also remember that once squash gets into the Olympics, the Olympic giants will also start funding their own squash teams. China, US, Japan, Korea, Germany, Great Britain and so on will start their mechanism moving and even if their funding can exceed us anytime. They already have world class mentality in sports and their support systems and with the additional funding, who knows what would happen especially with China.
Yes, squash has come a long way since the days of Jahangir and Jansher Khan. The technology of courts and ball together with high definition cameras make watching squash much better on TV. The addition of video review and the use of the 3 referee system have changed squash although I think if the referees are good, only one is needed. 3 wrongs don’t make a right. However, the fundamentals of the game are still the same. It is like having an old Proton Saga with a new coat of paint and a new sound system.
I say let’s take a bold step forward in changing the game. I remember watching cricket when I was young and was wondering what boring sport it is when someone runs and pitches a ball and the batter just blocks it and everyone around them just stands looking. Little did I know I was watching a Test Match. Much later, I watched a special 7 Overs match and that was a totally different cricket match! There was hitting, running and excitement. So I decided to watch the 20/20 cricket World Cup and I was amazed with how interesting the sport was even though there were parts that were boring but nothing like Test matches.
So why not have a squash match decided by time? Each game ends at whoever reaches 11 or the 10 minutes duration is up with a single point playoff if tied at the end of each game. This will then shorten the game to an hour more or less and makes matches easier to plan. Or team events run on continuous scoring till a team reaches 100? Changes like these could spark interest of the public with more dynamic rallies like what some of the Youtube videos shows of the squash compilation instead of the long drawn matches.
Maybe it’s just me and how I see things. Maybe I am wrong or inaccurate. But I am strongly of the opinion that the Olympics don’t need squash but squash needs the Olympics. Instead of trying to convince them to accept squash, why not develop squash to a point that the Olympics must have squash in the Games and offer/invite squash into the Games.
Improve the fundamentals of the sport and the economics of the sport as well for all levels not just players but promoters, racket companies, court makers and so on. More promotional videos need to come out from WSF and WSA like what PSA have done on the social media (their Youtube videos). Major events should be a 3 party cooperation between host, PSA or WSA and WSF. The Women’s World Open debacle could have been avoided if WSA and WSF had worked together to source a global sponsor for the event instead of waiting for a host to work out everything. It would be great if the idea of PSA and WSA merging into one body becomes a reality but they still need to work with WSF
There is a lot of work at all levels if squash is to attract the attention of the IOC and the focus should be on squash itself rather than convincing an uninterested partner.