This article was created as a resource for club promoters who are trying to enlist the assistance of their members in the task of attracting new members. All of the articles in this series offer suggestions to club members regarding how they can help to attract new members. Club promoters are encouraged to link to it if they wish to provide suggestions to their members.
These days, we live in a grow or die business environment. Either your business grows, or it dies, and squash clubs are no exception to this rule. Either your club expands and adds new members, or your club loses a few members each year until the club runs out of money and closes.
When most clubs and provincial sport organizations consider who their core audience is, they consider primarily:
A) Competitive juniors and
B) Frequent adult A/B/C level players
As a result, most programming in squash clubs tends to involve junior high performance training (private lessons, group lessons, tournaments, etc.) and leagues and drop-in sessions for A/B/C level adults who already have a network of squash playing friends. Consequently, when most clubs think about ways of adding members, they tend to only focus on recruiting juniors or attracting frequent players from other clubs in the city.
While increasing junior participation ought to remain a priority of squash organizations, there is a relatively fixed and aging pool of A/B/C players. Moreover, the goal of most A/B/C players and their friends is, generally speaking, to play as much squash as possible, mostly during prime court hours, and pay as little money as possible while doing so.
To truly grow their membership base, the segment of the population that clubs ought to focus on is raw beginner adults who do not have a network of players already established. Not only are raw beginners highly motivated to spend money on lessons, leagues, and merchandise, but their enthusiasm for the sport is infectious and can spread to re-energize current members. While it’s important to not alienate the established players, squash clubs and organizations need find ways to attract and retain these enthusiastic new players.
A sport that squash can learn from is pickleball. Pickleball has been exploding in growth over the past few years. The USAPA membership base grew by 64% from 2010-2016, which likely only accounts for a fraction of the actual growth of pickleball participation.
Why is it that a sport like pickleball, with no certified coaches and a tiny high performance community, is growing like a weed?
While pickleball has some growth advantages over squash (court costs, easy to learn, etc.), the answer to why pickleball is growing while other racquet sports are stagnating is that pickleball communities are almost exclusively focused on participation rather than performance.
The dominant form of pickleball participation is beginner drop-in play. Without exception, every pickleball club organizes weekly drop-in times run mostly by volunteers, and players of all abilities, from raw beginners to frequent players, attend and play games with many different partners. Players who want to play at a higher level either enter tournaments or schedule matches with players outside of drop-in times. There are very few (if any) pickleball coaches or teaching pros and most of the clubs are organized and operated by “pickleball ambassadors.”
While there are some flaws to this model, the growth of pickleball can be attributed to the fact that the general focus of most pickleball programs is on increasing grassroots participation, and only a relatively tiny segment of the pickleball community is focused on high performance. In contrast, the provincial governing bodies of squash tend to focus heavily on high performance junior players, playing little attention to raw beginners. As a result, participation numbers in squash are dwindling and courts are closing down.
Here are the top three ways to cater to beginners:
1) Offer beginners organized drop-in squash during peak hours
Squash clubs ought to copy the pickleball model of offering weekly organized drop-in play reserved for beginner players. These drop-ins need to be held during peak hours and need to have somebody organizing the players, such as a pro, staff member, or volunteer. From a business perspective, it is better to have a lot of beginners, who are enthusiastically spending money at the squash club on memberships, lessons, and equipment, rather than lots of A/B/C players who will be looking for ways to economize their squash budget.
2) Embrace bad squash
I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out: not everybody wants to be a good squash player. When beginners join a club, the pro will typically suggest that they take private lessons to improve their skills and then go off and find matches with other club players. However, not everyone cares about proper stroke mechanics and efficient court movements. Lots of people will be satisfied with simply burning calories and chasing the ball around the court. Not everybody wants to take lessons, but everybody wants to get out and play.
Most squash pros will tell you that they get the most satisfaction working with high level junior players who spend several hours a week with the coach. However, for a squash club to grow, clubs need to have a large base of players who just want to chase the ball around and have fun.
3) Have leagues that raw beginners can join right now
After taking some lessons and gaining confidence, many beginners won’t want to take lessons anymore and will want to join a league. While Interclub leagues are a critical element of the squash community, the drawback for beginners looking to join an Interclub team is that interclub rosters are finalized by September, making it very difficult for beginners to join a team part way through the season.
Instead of telling beginners to wait until next year to join a team, consider different weekly league formats that make it relatively easy to add and drop beginners as necessary. If you have a weekly team house league, ensure that one place on each team is reserved for raw beginners and allow beginners to move up depending on how fast they improve.