As excitement builds ahead of the PSA World Series Finals at Dubai Opera, Vision Sport speaks to Kevin Klipstein, President and CEO of US Squash, about how successful strategies for growing the sport in the United States can be replicated worldwide
Squash is on the rise. Recent improvements to the structure, tournament delivery and broadcast quality of the PSA World Tour have given the sport a much-needed revamp, and the decision to stage the climactic PSA World Series Finals in Dubai has provided a fitting stage for some of the most durable, engaging and inspiring athletes in the world – as well as a solid platform for future growth.
But it is vital to capitalise on progress at the top level of the sport by connecting it to the grassroots, in order to grow awareness and participation. This is something that has been done to great effect in the United States under the stewardship of Kevin Klipstein, who has overseen a 178 per cent increase in participation to an estimated 1.6 million players across the country since becoming President and CEO of US Squash in 2004.
An expert in sports marketing and sponsorship management, Klipstein laid the foundations for this growth by establishing partnerships between US Squash and a number of national organisations at all levels of the sport, including high-school programmes, the College Squash Association and the professional tour.
“That was the first step,” he says. “All of us getting on the same page to say, ‘we’d like to grow the sport’. And so by speaking with one voice about squash, it was helpful in increasing people’s awareness of it.”
This concerted approach attracted more national funding and sponsorship, allowing US Squash to build new facilities and lure professionals players and coaches from across the world – all motivated by the potential to grow the market in the US.
“These weren’t dark, cold facilities,” Klipstein adds. “These were very bright, attractive facilities at universities, commercial clubs and private clubs.
“So we’ve ridden that wave, and now as the sport becomes more accessible to people of varied socioeconomic abilities, we think we have real potential to grow it even further.”
The impressive spike in participation at the grassroots level in the US has mirrored the rise of the PSA World Tour, and US Squash has been at the forefront of this process by hosting three prestigious events on the Road to Dubai. The Delaware Investments US Open, the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions – held at the stunning Grand Central Terminal in New York – and the Guggenheim Partners & Equity Trust Windy City Open in Chicago all enjoy the sponsorship of big-name corporate firms, indicating the success of US Squash in building partnerships and generating funding for the sport. But these tournaments have also pioneered in other ways.
“I would say the most significant change in the pro tour over the last few years is the merging of the men’s and women’s organisations,” says Klipstein, who highlights US Squash’s decision to establish parity in prize money at the 2013 US Open as a game-changer for the sport that encouraged other events to follow suit.
He adds: “The depth of the field for the women is now much greater, and that has continued on to the PSA World Series Finals – which is the biggest example of squash being equal for men and women.”
Indeed, the showdown at Dubai Opera will offer an equal US$160,000 prize purse in the men’s and women’s tournaments, and despite the absence of star American name Amanda Sobhy due to injury, Klipstein is excited about an event he believes can play a vital role in replicating the growth of squash seen in the US across the globe.
“Squash tends to look a little bit inwardly, so the idea that we’ve brought the World Series Finals to Dubai opens it up to a whole new audience,” he says.
“One of the keys [to further growth] is reaching outside the sport and creating connections through partnerships, and hosting at Dubai Opera is brilliant for something like that.
“To a large degree, there are a lot of corporate leaders that are involved in squash now, both in finance and technology. Real influencers participate in the game, which is helpful to us in promoting the sport, but can also be helpful to Dubai in terms of garnering their interest to come to see [the PSA World Series Finals] – and to tie it in with another business interest.”
With powerful benefactors onside and a stunning new venue for its end-of-season extravaganza, strong foundations are in place for squash to continue to grow. But how far would this growth be boosted by a long-awaited spot in the Olympic Games – as well as the television rights and access to a global audience that go with it – now that Olympic host cities are being given the responsibility of suggesting new sports for the programme?
“We’re very focused on doing what we feel is best in order to drive the sport’s growth. So we almost think of it as icing on the cake, should we get into the Olympics,” says Klipstein, who could dream about amplifying the effect of a ‘home’ Games if Los Angeles prevail in a two-horse race with Paris for the right to host the 2024 edition.
“In terms of furthering our efforts, clearly if you have a television audience that’s helpful, and reaching a youth audience is helpful as well,” he adds. “So those are things we’re focused on in the US, in partnership with the PSA World Tour.
“But we feel like we’re on the right track, so if and when we get into the Games it’ll be that much nicer.”
The 2017 PSA World Series Finals take place at Dubai Opera on 6-10 June. Tickets are available at http://www.dubaiopera.com