With the PSA Dubai World Series Finals fast approaching, Sam Price speaks to PSA Chairman Ziad Al-Turki – the man who has transformed the face of professional squash – about where he hopes to take the sport in the future
In the dramatic evolution of squash over the last decade, no voice has been more influential than that of Ziad Al-Turki.
The Saudi businessman, who fell in love with the sport as a young boy when his uncle built a court on the roof of his house, has poured his energy and wealth into revitalising squash since becoming chairman of the Professional Squash Association (PSA) in 2008 – with spectacular results.
Having lagged behind other sports in the crucial, interlinked areas of viewing figures, sponsorship and prize money, squash is now flourishing – with a viable structure on both the men and women’s tour thanks to the Road to Dubai points system, and a vastly improved television product, with PSA matches broadcast in 155 countries across the globe.
Al-Turki’s vision has been the driving factor behind this transformation.
“The game itself was always beautiful,” says the 52-year-old, as he looks ahead to his pièce de résistance, the PSA Dubai World Series Finals at Dubai Opera, in Downtown Dubai which begin on 6 June.
“Nothing has changed, and I didn’t make it any better. I just made the presentation better.”
He has also changed perceptions. Al-Turki made wholesale changes to improve the viewing experience and make squash attractive to TV companies. From different colour courts and balls to new camera angles and LED lighting to facilitate super slow-motion replays, no stone was left unturned in the chairman’s efforts to give the sport a much-needed facelift.
Investment in KHP Consulting – the global marketing agency that helped turn Formula One from a minority pursuit into a multi-billion dollar industry – came from his own pocket and he funded the PSA’s in-house TV coverage. Many observers wrote this off as a waste of money, convinced that squash would never generate enough popularity with viewers, yet the PSA were soon building relationships and signing agreements with TV heavyweights such as Eurosport, beIN Sports and BT Sport. Al-Turki’s investment in the PSA World Series Finals led to Sky broadcasting live coverage of the event, and in the process created a blueprint for other PSA tournaments around the world to follow.
In addition to the TV deals and accompanying media exposure, Al-Turki focused his investment on each event in the PSA World Series, creating a blueprint and consistent look for all the tournaments around the world, and making them more professional in the process.
But what was the motivation behind this insatiable desire to change the face of the professional game?
“I went into [squash] for the players themselves,” says Al-Turki, who has cited an encounter with Australia’s former world no. 2 Brett Martin – whom he discovered giving lessons for US$25 at a club in Connecticut – as a pivotal moment in his decision to invest his time and money into squash.
“I wanted them to be able to earn a living like a top sportsperson, and retire like a top sportsperson should.
“But when I got in it, I realised that to reach that, there’s a lot that you have to change – in terms of the structure, the presentation, and everything else. So I spent a few years really working on that, and taking over the World Series Finals – investing heavily in it and making it the showcase for squash.”
This has been a key element of Al-Turki’s strategy – experimentation was very much the name of the game. Rather than simply concentrating on the action on the court, he focused on turning the sport into an all-encompassing entertainment experience for the fans. He led the way in innovation, introducing HD replays and live Twitter feeds in 2010 when the World Series Finals were held at the prestigious Queen’s Club in London. Squash became vibrant, exciting and appealing to a new audience.
In 2016, the tournament moved to a new frontier in Dubai, providing a fitting stage for some of the most athletic, charismatic and intelligent competitors in the world of sport.
And after a successful inauguration in view of the Burj Khalifa – which notably saw Laura Massaro take home the highest cheque ever written for a female squash player – the 2017 World Series Finals will move to Dubai Opera, a 2,000-seat venue in the heart of Downtown Dubai which Al-Turki believes can take the event to even greater heights.
“[Hosting] at a venue like the Opera House is really exciting. It’s another brand new, iconic building for Dubai – and we’re the first sport to be in there,” he says.
“Coming to Dubai, you have the best of everything – tennis, golf, horse racing – and to be among that crowd is a major stamp of approval for squash.”
Having achieved so much with the PSA in little more than ten years, it would be easy to understand if Al-Turki was fatigued, or wanted a break from being the figurehead of such a global enterprise. But on the contrary, goals are being realigned and the enthusiasm is burning more brightly than ever as he sets out his ambition for squash’s future.
“I’m still just as excited to take it to greater levels as I was in 2008. If not more, because now I’m not afraid!” says Al-Turki, who as Chairman of ATCO – the industrial conglomerate founded by his father – has followed an unconventional path into sports administration.
“The immediate thing is that we’re hoping to land a major tour sponsor,” he adds, with the PSA recently announcing the New York-based Leverage Agency – an expert in procuring sponsorship opportunities – as its exclusive global marketing partner.
“But we’re also hoping to achieve complete parity in all the World Series events. Last year, the overall prize money for women went up by 19 per cent – and for top 10 women’s players, it increased by 43.6 per cent.
“We’ve set a bar for where we want to see the players earn a living. That way, we can make squash attractive to participate in, and to take on as a professional sport.”
With an equal prize purse of US$160,000 on offer in both the men’s and women’s tournaments and a stunning new venue in Dubai Opera, the 2017 PSA World Series Finals will take a major step towards doing exactly that.
The 2017 PSA Dubai World Series Finals will take place at Dubai Opera on 6-10 June. Tickets are available at www.dubaiopera.com