Squash: Battle to prevent the boom sport going bust: The good times went bad in recession and all that remains is a struggle to survive. Richard Eaton reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS hard to believe that the boom sport has almost gone bust. Not so long ago, aspiring young macho businessmen with a concern for their appearance wanted to play the upmarket and upbeat game that simultaneously enhanced your social standing and improved your body.

But the edifice that Jonah Barrington so brilliantly helped promote in the 1970s, and which the Squash Rackets Association extended and developed in the 1980s, is in danger of tumbling down. A pounds 300,000 deficit and bankruptcy within months would follow if there was a continuation of the recent policies of the SRA, which is relinquishing organisation of its major events and many of its functions in one of the biggest shake- ups in its 66-year history.

Last year Barrington had his role as director of excellence abolished. At about the same time, the chief executive, Chris Gotla, was nudged into resigning. In May, the SRA's most experienced man, Andrew Shelley, voluntarily resigned as operations manager. Soon after, the executive director, Julie Goodacre, was abruptly sacked. None of the four will be replaced.

Let nobody doubt that it is the so-called minor sports which are disproportionately hit by the recession. Sponsorship is extremely difficult to get, affiliated membership is down, and squash has lost much of its thing-to-do image. 'It's not a crisis,' insists the SRA chairman, Paul Turton, in which case one only hopes that the SRA never has one.

Turton has spent most of his time trying to shore up the damage inflicted by the economic climate and the advent of less gladiatorial methods of getting fit. He will retire as chairman in December with the sport fighting for its future.

He will, however, have supervised the start of the fightback. The immediate campaign includes a presentation to the Sports Council to try to secure a better grant, the passing on of many functions to outside agencies, and, according to Turton, 'a complete change of culture' in the association.

This will see the SRA become principally concerned with monitoring rather than organisation. Outside agencies will run the British National Championships, the Premier League, and the British Open. A taker for the sport's best- known tournament is already nibbling, although the involvement of Hi-Tec, which set a record with nine continuous years of sponsorship, is said to be finishing.

An organiser has also been found for the Premier League, but only after a breakaway league had been threatened by club managers, led by Robert Edwards, who has made such a success of the Leekes Wizards in Cardiff. The SRA's unexpected response was to tell Edwards that if he wanted it, to get on with it - and to take the First Division as well.

The longer-term campaign will require that the game is marketed heavily and that no more mistakes are made with the reporting of the state of the SRA's finances or the appointment of personnel.

It requires England's women to regain the excellence that made them the world champions four times in a row between 1985 and 1990, and for either Peter Marshall or Peter Nicol to scale the final ridge and become the world No 1.

And it requires those involved with clubs to realise that the days of squash alone are gone. Squash must learn to integrate as part of multi-activity centres. If it does, the game which even now is still played by millions in this country can adapt and recover.