Squash, platform tennis and other specialty racquet sports are seeing a resurgence at club facilities across the country.
Born in England in the 1830s, squash is now enjoying an exciting rebirth on this side of the pond. “Between 2007 and 2011, the United States saw the fastest-growing squash participation level of any country worldwide, with remarkable growth of 82% in that period, to an estimated 1.2 million players nationally,” says the US Squash organization, citing a Sports & Fitness Association study. In 2012, there were an estimated 1.3 million squash players in the U.S.
|SUMMING IT UP
As with pickleball, the newest racquet sport to burst on the scene (see “Club Facilities Of the Future,” C&RB, October 2013), squash’s upward trend, along with other “alternative” racquet sports like platform tennis, deserves a closer look from properties that want to stay in step with the changing activity demands of their members and guests, both current and prospective.
“The reason why squash has become so popular in the U.S. is because of how it ties into academics,” says Lee Witham, Director of Squash and Paddle for Westchester Country Club, Rye, N.Y., which hosts professional and amateur squash events throughout the season. “The top squash scorers attend Ivy League schools. Even here, my five best junior players now attend Amherst, Harvard and Dartmouth.”
The discipline of squash translates well into attaining higher education, maintains Witham, who has coached squash teams in England, Germany, Malta and the U.S. His assistants are from Egypt and El Salvador. “When you walk into the lounge outside the courts, you’ll find students who are waiting to start their squash lessons studying diligently and doing homework, and those who don’t go pro usually end up still enjoying it at the collegiate level,” he says. “At tournaments, too, you’ll see world-ranked pros coaching the kids.”
Westchester teaches the sport to kids as young as five years old. The love of squash that many junior players are gaining often transitions into adulthood. “You can burn 500 calories in 30 minutes, enjoying a game with a colleague, and then get back to the workday,” Witham says.
Boar’s Head Sports Club, Charlottesville, Va., shares the newly built, $12.4 million McArthur Squash Center with the University of Virginia. “We all have the highest aspirations for [Virginia’s] squash [program],” says Club Manager James Neiderer. Noting that Director of Squash Mark Allen was ranked 42nd in the world, he adds, “Mark has grown the program at both the club and university levels, bringing on a lot of people who have never played the sport, and creating a lot of energy.”
Low Cost of Entry
Compared to tennis courts, squash courts are relatively low-maintenance. It’s also inexpensive for a player to start with the game. “A good racquet is about $150, and with a pair of shoes that won’t mar the floor, you’re good to go,” Witham says. Most players use their own racquets, but Westchester has a demo program for trying the game three times, using club equipment. The pro shops at both Westchester and Boar’s Head restring and repair racquets as needed.
Mark Allen, Director of Squash for the newly opened McArthur Squash Center at Boar’s Head Sports Club, shares several tips for squash court maintenance:
“Whether you’re a tennis fan, a casual player or a pro player, we have strived to create the best tennis experience possible for all,” says Neiderer at Boar’s Head. “Now we’re going to do the same for squash. We’ve started with the junior programs and are building the program through to the collegiate teams, with open nights, men’s nights, etc.”
With the Charlottesville community’s family-friendly reputation, Neiderer adds, attracting families has been relatively easy. “And when you get kids involved, the parents usually follow,” he says. “This bodes well for the sport, because it’s all about a healthy lifestyle.”
At Westchester, Witham notes, squash is popular among tennis- and golf-playing members when the club’s golf course and 20 outdoor tennis courts are full of snow and slush. Because the seven squash courts (six single, one double) are air-conditioned, they’re also full on hot, humid days.
As an introduction to the game, Westchester offers “Squash Plus Fit,” a class that consists of squash skill drills, game play, core-strength exercises and an end-of-class stretch.
“With squash, you’re playing in such a small space—you’re literally lunging and sprinting for 30 or 40 minutes,” Witham says. “In fact, the biggest drawback to the game is that you can’t really play it to get fit—you need to already be fit.”
McArthur’s Allen, however, notes that he has taught several players whose lack of fitness prowess “has not prevented them from making a start and picking up the game.”
Regardless, Witham says he believes the growing popularity of squash practically guarantees a strong return on investment. “When we installed the courts eight years ago, there were maybe 15 to 20 member players,” he says. “Now we have about 300. It continues to be a success.”
A Cold-Weather Hit
For properties seeking an extra revenue stream during cold weather, platform tennis might fit the bill. Also known by many as “paddle”—the racquets are the same, although there are definite differences between the two sports—platform tennis was invented in 1928 in Scarsdale, N.Y., as a tennis alternative. While there are pockets of play in the western U.S., the sport is mainly played east of the Mississippi, particularly along the East Coast.
Central to most platform tennis facilities is the “Paddle Hut”—typically a glass-enclosed structure placed in or near the center of court play, so spectators can watch players from the comfort of indoors. Most huts feature a fireplace, bar seating, flatscreen TVs, and menu options.
For Mike Marino, Director of Racquet Sports of North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill., it’s a great way to keep members engaged in the colder months, when the outdoor tennis courts cannot be used. “The great thing with platform tennis is that the learning curve is low,” he says. “High schools are starting to form clubs, and lots of kids have parents who belong to clubs, so it’s growing in popularity.”
Witham agrees. “It’s a very social sport,” he notes. “Players will sit inside the Paddle Hut, eat and watch the game.”
Those who don’t want to join a team can still enjoy open play or a weekly drill. At North Shore CC, weekend platform tennis parties are becoming popular, Marino reports. “A couple might book the courts for a Friday night and have about nine other couples over to enjoy cocktails and play the game,” he says. “We realize some income from that, through about 10 to 15 parties a season.”
Westchester’s six courts are often full during the NFL season, Witham says, with informal round-robin games being played while the football game is on TV inside the Paddle Hut. The program has been at the club for about 30 years, and the club’s most recent Hut remodel was last year.
North Coast’s Paddle Hut gets use during the warmer weather as a reception venue for a golf tournament or a meeting spot for junior sports camp. Charity events are popular, since one doesn’t have to be a tennis ace to enjoy the game.
Underneath the courts, blower/heaters keep ground moisture from snow and rain to a minimum. These units, typically gas but moving toward electric, can be expensive to install and maintain, Marino admits. But otherwise, the costs are low.
“You do have to replace screens and resurface the courts every so often,” Marino says. While the screens can be replaced in-house, Marino recommends that the resurfacing be done by a company that specializes in paddle tennis courts.
Some costs can be recouped by selling gear such as paddles, tennis shoes and protective eyewear. Platform tennis balls are solid rubber and slightly more expensive than tennis balls. No uniforms are needed, but the outdoor weather exposure means that new players seek layering apparel after a few minutes of play—and Marino keeps a cupboard at North Shore’s Paddle Hut stocked with merchandise just for the occasion.
North Shore currently has about 250 members playing platform tennis, many of whom never played racquet sports before. “It’s an addictive, fun sport,” Marino says. “The biggest thing is getting people to try it—they’re likely to get hooked.”