World Squash Day: Alan Thatcher talks Squash and its potential future

World Squash Day was launched by a group of squash friends following the 9/11 attacks in the USA.

The largest social media campaign the sport has seen encourages athletes, fans and federations to promote the game and spread the word.

In its most challenging year yet, World Squash Day has taken a different approach for its October 10, 2023 edition.

In this feature, we catch up with the founder of World Squash day, also editor of SquashMad, Alan Thatcher on the beautiful sport and cultivating the future of the game.

World Squash Day 2020.
Learn more about World Squash Day here.

Zushan Hashmi: World Squash Day has been around for what will become 19 years this October; where did the idea come from?

Alan Thatcher: World Squash Day was launched in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when numerous squash players were killed in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

One of them was a former Scottish junior international called Derek Sword, who was a contemporary of Peter Nicol and Martin Heath. A group of friends wanted to do something in their honour, and also do something tangible for the sport.

Derek’s colleagues at the KBW finance company in New York donated the money for the Derek Sword Trophy, a beautiful rose bowl that was played for between teams from the UK and USA.

Our very first event was a 15-a-side match between teams from London and the UK alongside an eight-man professional event including Peter Nicol, John White, Paul Price and Alister Walker.

It was an amazing day at the wonderful Lambs Club in London on January 11, 2002, just three months to the day after 9/11. It was a hugely emotional occasion. Derek’s family were simply amazing.

His parents told me: “He would have been the first one to put his name on the list for an event like this.” Derek got engaged two weeks before 9/11 and his fiancée, Maureen, supported all those early matches, even five years down the line when she had met someone else and got married.

One thing I have always tried to achieve in squash is bridging the gap between the grassroots of the game and the world’s top players.

We absolutely nailed it on day one thanks to those pros flying back through the night from the rearranged US Open, which was cancelled in the September because of the 9/11 attacks. Every squash professional begins his or her career in their local squash club. That’s why it’s so important to build and maintain that connection.

Check out World Squash Day here.

Since then, what have been some of the highlights of the event?

During the first few years, return matches also took place in New York (hosted by NYAC and Heights Casino) and Edinburgh Sports Club.

Various ideas evolved for WSD to develop into a major project to promote the sport on a global basis, and particularly the Olympic bid. In 2012, we had 40,000 players take part in a single match between Team Squash and Team 2020.

In 2009, James Poole had the brilliant idea of hiring a London bus to drive around the city and another friend, Paul Howard, then working for Channel 4, filmed us waving flags and banners backing the 2016 Olympic bid outside City Hall, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Tower of London.

Another time we had a drummer from a New Zealand rock band filmed by local TV doing a bungee jump off Auckland Bridge waving a flag saying “Squash For The Olympics”.

On another occasion we collected an amazing portfolio of images of squash fans outside the world’s most iconic buildings, all wearing T-shirts and waving their flags to support the Olympic bid.

This year, we aim to do something similar, and I hope nobody gets arrested for smashing any historic windows. That’s actually how squash started, almost 200 years ago, with the games master at Harrow School in London pricking a hole in a rackets ball to stop the damage to roof tiles and windows as pupils larked around as they queued up outside the rackets court.

Last year, during my 24-hour social media marathon, we encouraged an amazing World Squash Day Bake Off Challenge as we saw all these incredible cakes and cookies on show, and barbecues taking place across the world. Despite the lockdown in so many parts of the world, I hope we can still hold another Bake Off competition!

Oh, I also persuaded the Diary Editor of The Times in London to write a limerick about squash. That doesn’t happen every day. It’s all there on Facebook.

Source: Supplied.

This, of course, is probably the most unique year in its existence, where having a large-scale event will not be possible. What do organisers, supporters and athletes have in store?

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in various parts of the world, it would be irresponsible and potentially catastrophic to suggest inviting large numbers of people to congregate inside poorly ventilated squash courts.

However, this gives us the opportunity to be creative and showcase squash in an entirely new way: by taking to the streets. It’s something we’ve tried before in different ways, as you can see from the answer to the previous question.

On Squash Mad, we provide an independent platform to share ideas to help grow the game and have campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the sport.

This past week alone I have heard about squash being on the brink of collapse in major cities like Toronto and Rome.

World Squash Day provides a massive opportunity, and a global platform, for squash lovers in those cities to create campaigns to keep the sport alive.

All sports are facing the same issues of falling participation numbers, and the difficulty in persuading children to put down their phones and gaming devices to actually get some real exercise.

How has the endorsement from both the World Squash Federation (WSF) and Professional Squash Association (PSA), assisted in raising the profile of the event?

Partnerships with the WSF, PSA, PSA Foundation and national governing bodies provide significant support in raising awareness of World Squash Day.

This year we are working more closely together than ever. William Louis-Marie, the new CEO of World Squash, has a marketing background. He is constantly bringing new ideas to the table and quite rightly expecting high-quality delivery from all partners.

Three-times world champion Nick Matthew has always set a great example inside the PSA. Nick has always supported World Squash Day because he is heavily involved at his home club, Hallamshire in Sheffield, where he is now growing his own coaching academy.

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He understands that major events like WSD can raise the profile of the sport at every level.

This year we are partnering with the PSA Foundation and clothing brand 305 Squash to sell special edition shirts to raise money for the We Are One campaign, helping players who have not earned a penny since the lockdown began in March.

James Roberts will also be working with Andrew Shelley to arrange the World Squash Day Auction of squash memorabilia to raise funds for the We Are One campaign and the World Squash Library.

You’ve obviously spoken out significantly on the failings, and perhaps, the decline that we have seen in squash in recent years; how does World Squash Day address this?

All sports are facing the same issues of falling participation numbers, and the difficulty in persuading children to put down their phones and gaming devices to actually get some real exercise.

Also, there are so many options available in the leisure market and squash has to constantly evolve and adapt to address these challenges.

The trouble is that squash takes place inside private boxes, often inside private clubs, and the people running these places often tend to have a narrow, inward-looking vision.

I have tried to engage with squash committees and discuss what we can learn from the growth of other activities, like Parkrun, Padel and now Pickleball. I am usually greeted by a sea of blank faces.

Too many committees appear to have been hijacked by pushy parents who are only interested in what benefits their own children, not the sport as a whole.

One of the main thrusts of World Squash Day in recent years has been to promote the health benefits of squash to fight another global pandemic known as childhood obesity.  

At this point, it would be useful to highlight the phenomenal work put in last year by England Squash, who partnered with racket brand Karakal to deliver a nationwide programme aimed at helping clubs to attract new members.

Some cash incentives and bags full of free rackets attracted close to 200 clubs. It was a brilliant template that ES and Karakal were happy to share with the rest of the world but sadly the Coronavirus got in the way this year.

What would you say to fans of sports, who are not exactly squash enthusiasts, about getting involved on the 10th of October 2020?

Your body will thank you! Let’s keep talking about the benefits of regular exercise. Squash will also give your friends for life. So many players build their whole social life around a group of friends at the local squash club.

There is no, more, high-intensity sport than squash. But, to survive, we need to be a million times better at marketing the sport to people outside the game.

So, as well as the obvious physical benefits, squash can also have a massively positive impact on your mental health as well. Making a call to their local club on World Squash Day could be the first step on a journey to better health.

And how about in regards to the game itself? (ie. something around why squash is worth a viewer/players time?)

There is no better work-out than a game of squash, whatever level you play at. I don’t want to repeat the answer above, but I just want to throw this out there. A fitness chain in the UK decided to close more than 100 squash courts last year. Squash Mad was the only website to cover the issue, by the way.

We are seeing the same things happening in different parts of the world, so it’s time that squash enthusiasts realised that ownership of squash courts needs to be in the hands of people who actually have a clear, professional, businesslike vision for the future of the sport.

That health chain I mentioned filled the courts with gym machines to sell what they advertise as a “high intensity” fitness programme. There is no, more, high-intensity sport than squash. But, to survive, we need to be a million times better at marketing the sport to people outside the game.

World Squash day with Squash's top athletes
Source: Supplied.

We often come across empty stands at many squash tournaments. How do you think World Squash Day can address this as it continues to grow?

Watching squash is a totally different issue. We have been fortunate at Canary Wharf to have enjoyed the spectacle of sell-out crowds creating an amazing atmosphere around the court every day for many years.

Tickets sell out within days of going on sale. That tells you everything you need to know about the skills, the explosive drama and the huge entertainment value that top-class squash delivers.

Clubs who have hired a couple of pros to finish off their World Squash Day activities with an Exhibition Night have always sold out the tickets and filled the bar with happy customers!

Yes, it’s always sad seeing rows of empty seats at tournaments. At the local level, on finals day you could hold a 20-a-side friendly match with a neighbouring club, lay on a buffet and some liquid refreshments, and you’ve instantly sold your first 40 tickets.

Learn about the game of squash here.

With a band playing at the party in the evening after the final, you will happily bank a grand or two from the F and B sales. I know this is not possible in countries where religious restrictions apply, but partnering with a local brewery is always a good place to start.

For the bigger tournaments, I would like to see events offer more weekend party packages where a bunch of fans can fly to a tournament, have a cheapish hotel, play some fun squash at a local club in the morning, watch the pros play at the tournament, and then party at night.

It’s the ideal mix for the genuine squash fan. It ticks all the boxes. It’s not rocket science. But it’s not a job for World Squash Day. Maybe Sportageous could set up some travel deals for global squash fans! I’ll be the first to sign up.

What can squash enthusiasts here in Australia do to support the global event?

Keep an eye on the great media work being driven by Chris Yeend at Squash Australia. With different parts of the country reopening and others still in lockdown, I would suggest that we have to err on the side of caution, which means no large gatherings inside courts.

Encouraging a small group of World Squash Day Ambassadors to take to the streets and hit a few balls, while observing safe distancing protocols, is a simple and effective way to generate some fantastic media coverage.

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Look at the video on social media of Roger Federer enjoying a hit across two apartment rooftops with a couple of kids in Italy. We can do the same.

Actually, a few years ago some squash fans in Canberra donned their squash gear and jogged all the way to the parliament buildings, waving their rackets and hitting some balls along the way.

This year I would suggest doing the same, and simply add two things: make sure you let the local media know so that you can generate some coverage, and make sure that squash-loving MP Peta Murphy is there to greet you when you arrive!

I receive emails all the time from people complaining about their national federations. But allow me to put in a word on their behalf. Many are poorly funded and struggle with the admin load.

She held her own cross-party open day for World Squash Day last year and invited other MPs to join her. Who knows, maybe squash can be the sport to bring rival MPs together for the good of the nation.

There are endless opportunities to hit some headlines across Australia. All the ideas are in the World Squash Day Toolkit. Simply get your Ambassadors to hit a few balls against or outside the Sydney Opera House or other iconic locations, and share the movie clips and images to our social media channels.

That way we can create the biggest social media campaign in the game’s history and show the world the passion we all share for this fantastic sport.

Now to the social media side of things. World Squash Day is often referred to as one of the largest squash-focused social media campaigns. What have been some of the challenges of organising something at this scale?

The biggest personal challenge, after the first few years, was being the only guy left to run it and keep it going on my own! Fortunately, I have managed to create a network of brilliant people here in the UK and across the world to help share the workload.

They all understand the value of World Squash Day, the simplicity of its execution, the fact that it costs absolutely nothing to set up, and the huge value it delivers to the sport at a time when we need all the help we can get.

Sometimes these people are making great things happen despite the inertia of their own national federations. That’s the worrying thing, that the game is being let down by the very people who are being paid to lead it forward.

I receive emails all the time from people complaining about their national federations. But allow me to put in a word on their behalf. Many are poorly funded and struggle with the admin load.

They tell me they don’t have the time to spend on World Squash Day, even though they can see the sport collapsing around them. They simply don’t know what to do.

A comment from a Squash Mad reader this week described this malaise as a spiral of decline. Fortunately, many of these nations have enthusiasts who are prepared to go the extra mile and run events and encourage other clubs to do the same.

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Two years ago, we released a beautiful song called Africa as the Official Song for World Squash Day. It was recorded live during a charity concert in Zambia masterminded by Stuart Sharp, who tragically died last year just as we were building plans for some very special events.

Stuart, who wrote the song, put in weeks of work arranging all the permissions with record labels to ensure that all the proceeds went to deserving squash causes in poorer African nations.

But not one of the federations in Africa bothered to help promote it with calls to their local radio stations. Maybe this year will be the time they all step up for the good of the game.

Don’t forget, some countries are still struggling to get to grips with this internet thing. Some nations need to have a committee meeting in a month’s time before they will respond to a simple email.

Last year we had around a million engagements on social media. I got up at 3 am to see what was happening as the day began in New Zealand, then Australia, and kept in touch with events as they unfolded across all the different time zones, finishing up almost 24 hours later checking in on Rob Pacey from Squash Republic at his event in Vancouver.

At St. James's Place Canary Wharf Classic show with Alan Thatcher chatting with Daryl Selby and Tarek Momen.
At St. James’s Place Canary Wharf Classic show with Alan Thatcher chatting with Daryl Selby and Tarek Momen. Source: Supplied.

And what do you think needs to be the next step moving forward to grow it even further?

I would like to see World Squash encourage every salaried federation officer across the globe NOT to take the day off on World Squash Day, but to put in a double (or triple) shift like I do (for free).

There is a communication line between the WSF, the national federations and on to the clubs. I’m not being nasty or aggressive, I’m merely saying that the future of our sport is at stake, we’re all in this together, and we need the federations to raise their game.

Millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity are out there for the taking. Go and grab it. Make it happen at a national level yourselves and encourage your clubs to do it at the local level.

Any other thoughts/comments?

Ultimately, I would love someone to come forward and say: “Alan, you’ve spent 20 years running a project that’s delivered a multi-million-dollar benefit to the game, absolutely for free, here’s a few quid for your pension fund at a time when investment returns are almost at zero.”

When that happens I will retire and hand it over.

Actually, I am working on a succession plan right now. I envisage World Squash Day in the hands of a squash-loving computer nerd, who will be able to manage the media work, someone ideally with a multi-ethnic background, maybe living in a non-UK place like Australia, who will happily put in the hours to keep it going to support the game. Any ideas who that might be?

You can follow World Squash Day on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or visit their website here.
Reach out to Alan Thatcher via LinkedIn. 
For more Squash related content, visit Sportageous.
The curation of the article was supported by Kinza Tahir. You can follow her here on LinkedIn.

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