LTSC’s prosperity shows that racketball is not merely a
way of filling courts out of hours but a key ingredient in a squash club’s
success. The Squash Player visits the Warkwickshire club to find out why and
Stourbridge Lawn Tennis & Squash Club is a members’ club
located in an attractive rural setting on the western fringe of the Black
Country, 15 miles west of Birmingham. It has 14 tennis and six squash courts
and around 1,300 members. Membership has recently been boosted by the
addition of a high-quality 25-station gym to its traditional rackets
facilities. Each section (tennis, squash and racketball) is still run
largely by volunteers, with a full-time bar manager, a club manager and a
range of other part-time staff. It has traditionally been one of the
prominent squash clubs in the region, consistently competing for
Worcestershire and Midland League titles (men’s and women’s).
The club is unusual in the way racketball holds equal
‘status’ in numbers and influence alongside tennis and squash. The success
of racketball over the last 25 years has enabled the club to ride relatively
comfortably through more than two decades of nationwide contraction in
squash, whilst also enabling it to re-invest to maintain and enhance the
quality of its facilities.
Also unusual is the way the club has maintained its profile
of roughly equal male/female (around 60%/40%) membership, unlike the
national profile of squash, which is predominantly male. This atypical
membership profile has also heavily influenced the way the club has been
run. This may be because racketball members tend to be far more willing
Racketball was introduced to the club by Malcolm and Liz Bate
in the early 80s, shortly after the club’s commitment to a large loan to
build two new squash courts. Then the recession hit, which signified the
start of the end of the squash boom. Initially, racketball was targeted as a
day-time activity for women and it grew almost exponentially, mainly via
word-of-mouth recruitment amongst family and friends. As a result, the first
decade of racketball was almost exclusively a female day-time activity, a
stereotype which took almost another decade to break.
By the late 80s and early 90s, the growth of racketball
started to create far greater pressure on courts during the day (9am to
3:30pm) than did squash on weekday evenings. At its height, in the early
90s, Stourbridge had six teams playing in the day-time West Midlands
racketball league, which had six divisions. Sadly the league folded in the
mid-90s due to the demise of many clubs in the area and the return of an
increasing number of women to full-time employment. Stourbridge simply ran
out of opposition.
The additional income from 200-300 day-time racketball
membership subscriptions was boosted significantly by extra bar profits from
the gallons of tea and coffee drunk throughout the day. Court occupancy
rates are also higher during the day than in the evenings due to the
popularity of doubles racketball.
“Day-time racketball is as much a social activity as a form
of exercise or competition, so it relies upon an all-day bar for drinks and
snacks between and after games,” says Club Manager, Judith Hardy. The
racketball section also has an active and varied social programme including
lunches, walks and other events.
Racketball has helped the club to overcome the tennis-squash
‘tribalism’ which exists in many traditional tennis and squash clubs,
because tennis members venture inside to play racket-ball in the winter and
racketball players play day-time tennis in the summer. “It has helped
integration across the three racket sports,” Hardy observes.
Moreover, since the mid-90s, more and more squash players
have ‘crossed the line’ to take up racketball. The shift was helped by
having top level squash players such as Darren Bradbury and Jim Lord
contending club racketball finals in the late 90s, which made it a more
‘acceptable’ alternative to squash. These days the club racketball finals
attract more spectators than the squash finals.
Most importantly, it has retained playing members in the Club
well past their physical capability to play squash. A number of previous
men’s team players play only racketball these days due to back and knee
problems. “The longer rallies are great for aerobic fitness with less
pressure on ageing joints,” explains Dave Allen. “And these days it’s almost
easier to find good racketball opponents than squash.”
Now the six courts are just as likely to be filled evenings
and weekends by racketball as squash players. In many cases they are the
same people that were on court ten years ago, just playing a different game
of bat and ball. And the club has more racketball leagues than squash
leagues – singles and doubles leagues (and juniors) for day-time players as
well as for evening/weekend players.
Racketball is attractive to a broader market (across age and
gender), because it is easier to get started and have rallies as a beginner,
and the game provides continued fitness and fun in later years, when the
physical demands of squash become too great.
What of the future? Racketball is still growing at
Stourbridge, especially with the conversion of more squash players and gym
members to the game. The club’s challenge is to feed enough young squash
players in at the bottom to balance the transfer of ageing squash players.
Stourbridge has two teams (one of them female) in the new two-division
Midland Racketball League, which hopefully will grow and may even rekindle a
day-time inter-club league in future.
For Stourbridge, racketball has simply made good business
sense. It generates significant additional income, improves the balance of
its membership, creates more volunteers and strengthens the social base of
the Club. Most importantly, it keeps players playing longer and keeps courts
in almost constant use throughout the day.