Why is it that other sports have become more popular and made it onto tv? Do you really need to have played the sport to watch and enjoy it? I bet there's a lot of Americans who have never played football, but are die hard NFL fans. The same could be said for Canadians and their hockey teams. Why has our culture made some sports and athletes famous, but squash is not one of them? Why are no squash pros a household name? How come we don't get mentioned on sport highlight shows? I've never met someone who follows squash who doesn't play squash (outside of the parents of kids who play) and that's simply isn't good for the health of our game. Today I'm going to discuss bunch of reasons why that might be and mention some ways how we could begin to change this.
One area I think is missing from squash is a stand out in the statistical category. In baseball there's a lots of number chasing and following; batting average, era, strike outs, home runs and so on. In hockey they track plus-minus, goals against average, penalty minutes, goals and points. The top are given major awards for leading their respective leagues in these statistical categories. The same is true for a a lot of other mainstream sports. These stats also attract a lot of people to wager on the outcomes and take part in fantasy sport leagues.
In squash I can't think of any stats that are tracked which seem critical or exciting to me, let alone an outsider. As a player and coach I realize and respect a top pro for making just a few unforced errors in an entire match and having a 60+ minute match, but a non-squash fan could care less about what a player didn't do for over an hour. I believe what the PSA is doing by publishing shots of the month is a good idea, but still something more is missing. Could it just be more difficult for finding important stats in an individual sport?
Golf is a sport which also tracks numbers. How many shots under par a player is, how far someone drives the ball, percentage of times a player hit the green or fairway in regulation and how frequently each player makes the cut. Doing this we can all easily understand and appreciate the players who are the best at each area of the game and we also tend to marvel at those that are the best of the best.
In tennis things are a bit different. Most people (including myself) only seem to track the majors. How many majors someone has won and what spot they are on the all time major championship list. There are a few stats that tennis uses within matches, but I don't think they stand out like a basketball or baseball players do. In tennis they can show first serve percentage, aces, winners, errors, double faults and they can also track the areas on the court a player has hit.
At this point you might be thinking that tennis and golf has the advantage of being under the Olympic umbrella. Golf and tennis were popular well before they were added as an Olympic sport. And even still I bet ratings are far higher at the majors for these sports than they are during the Olympics. I also would be willing to bet that any of these athletes would rather win a major title over an Olympic gold medal.
Can squash use some of the advanced technologies from other sports to increase our popularity? Does the tour need to set an official 4 majors (British Open, World Championships and??) and make them the pinnacles? Who has won the most squash majors of all time? How far away are the current players? I'm serious about squash and I don't even know the answers to these questions, so I couldn't expect any non playing squash person to get into and enjoy watching squash based on the race for squash major championships.
I realize that PSA Squash and Squash TV has a limited budget so maybe a few of the stats and slow motion replays we see in other sports aren't possible at the moment. But if they did have unlimited resources what could they do to further increase and engage their audience? Here's a few ideas that I've come up with which could be helpful:
- clearly identify and set 4 majors and place priority and post records for the all time greats
- show percentage of time a player makes it to each round
- have odds for players to win major championships and start a fantasy league for prizes and money
- track the number of nicks per match
- track the number of immaculate winners per match
- track the number of average shots per rally
- allow people to pick the winner of each match on social media (I think I saw this recently on Facebook)
- find a way to post the speed of shots played during matches
- calories burned
- let the fans in the stands or watching live on Squash TV electronically vote for the let decisions (even if they're not used this would be more interactive for the fans)
- let the Squash TV announcers be the judges for video replays
- track the number of dives
- have season ending awards for leaders of some of the above mentioned stats
- interview the coaches before matches and after games to talk about game plans and adjustments or at least have them mic'd up and translated if not in English
- offer free trials for Squash TV and offer it for free for anyone who says they cannot afford it
How else could squash spice things up and draw some interest from the general public? What about more team events or pro softball doubles? What if more countries were guaranteed at least 1 entry into the biggest events? I know in Canada there's rarely anyone to watch or cheer for in the big tournaments and if they are they rarely reach the glass court.
A lot of sport viewership is also increased by having a villain and someone to root against. Squash is generally a gentlemen's game so you don't see a lot of bad losers and temper tantrums. Players aren't even allowed to open the door to talk with the ref. I hate to say it, but perhaps a Nick Kyrgios would bring a spotlight onto our sport. I know that's a not the type of attention most of us want or think we need, but like they say 'any publicity is good publicity.' People love to hate certain sport teams or players for a variety of reasons and often tune in to root against them. I'm not saying squash should allow fighting like in hockey, but the last time I remember squash in the media it was for the young man at Trinity who taunted his much smaller opponent after defeating him.
I'm okay with squash not being as popular as other sports, but I also don't want to see it dissipate and fade into the sunset. Should the PSA need to allow a timeout during a match where a player can come out and receive coaching? If this was a rule Elshorbagy wouldn't have had to fake a non-cramping injury in the finals of the TOC!
Squash TV has started posting heart rates for some players and they show the time of games and sometimes the distance covered. These stats are a start, but they aren't up to the standard of the other sports and after watching a couple of matches they all tend to blend together and not reveal anything too exciting. I think we have to create some new and more important stats that we can all follow and understand. In baseball they seem to come up with a new stat almost every year like launch angle, WAR (wins against replacement), exit velocity and OBPS (on base percentage plus slugging). They also have players that are capable of breaking a record or do something spectacular within a single game (a no hitter, perfect game, strike out 10+ batters, an immaculate inning, a 100+ mph pitch, 5+ hits, hit for the cycle or launch multiple homers). In squash all I can think of is a bagel. Beating another top pro 11-0 is a tough feat, but when a player gets down 5 or 6 points you often see them ease up anyways so it's not really the most telling stat.
I don't think baseball, basketball or any other sport is better than squash, but it makes sense why these other sports are so much more popular and closely followed. Even if squash has to change the rules or court dimensions in some crazy way it could be for the long term benefit and health of our game. This is why I applaud the RAM scoring system. I like the idea, but the fact that 2 people can't easily do this on their own (because you have to stop time between points and add time back on if there's a rally over 1 minute) it isn't the final solution in my opinion. Ramy is definitely onto something though and he knows we have a superior product that just isn't getting the exposure it deserves. Perhaps if we can figure out a better way to showcase our sport with the use of some new stats, a fantasy league or some other new ideas we can increase the exposure of our amazing sport.
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