Friday 18 July 2008

squashblog poll: personality goes a long way

Poll resultsThe recent poll on this site that asked readers whether they thought that squash needed a 'Steve Redgrave-type' figure showed that opinion was divided.

The poll was in response to an article in the Guardian that suggested that the sport needed a popular figurehead/'personality' to attract greater participation and more money into the game ...

50% of respondents said that having a Steve Redgrave-type figure as the 'face' of the sport would be a positive thing.

And while around a third of you were unsure about whether such a figurehead would actually bring anything worthwhile to the sport, it was clear that those who thought that the players could effectively represent themselves were in a minority.

I don't think the problem here is in how the players perform in front of the media (almost every squash player I have ever seen interviewed is far more eloquent, humble and respectful of fellow professionals that in other sports I could mention). The problem is how the players access - or are given access - to the media, and the frequency and depth of coverage that they receive.

It is worth noting that the original Guardian article also drew mixed responses, so it's worth pausing for a moment to consider what the suggestion actually means.

Oliver Irish writes in the Guardian article suggests that "without a Steve Redgrave-type figure to both inspire young people to take up the sport and to attract sponsorship, how can squash become anything more than a minority sport?". The implication here is two-fold: that a) an inspirational figure in squash would generate the renewed interest that the squash craves, and b) someone like Sir Steve would help deliver those results for the sport.

The underlying suggestion that squash is crying out for a 'figurehead' is difficult to argue with, given declining interest in the sport of the past 20 years. Though perhaps some of the assumptions in the article are a little naive. Squash in the UK and abroad has a wealth of young, dedicated, highly marketable professionals who could all act as inspirational figures given the right level of media exposure. Some of the comments attached to the article make this point (though given how harsh some of the attacks were on the journalist, I'm not sure if the Guardian will bother to run a squash article again!).

Does squash need a figurehead like Sir Steve?Secondly, is Steve Redgrave the right kind of figure? The qualities associated with the five-time Olympic rowing champion are beyond reproach: commitment, dedication, physical and mental strength, the ability to be an ambassador for rowing and sport in general. An all round role-model that we should all aspire to emulate.

But Irish also mentions other, younger sportsmen that have caught the imagination of young people in the UK, such as Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray. The journalist's point is that squash needs to attract younger players and more money into the game via sponsorship. Hamilton and Murray have a long way to go to achieve Redgrave's successes, yet the principal factor that makes them more attractive to youngsters and sponsors alike is age. The nearest squash has to a Redgrave figure is perhaps Peter Nicol who, while continuing to play a important role as an ambassador for squash and is undoubtedly also a great role model for young people, is - like Redgrave - retired from professional competition.

A 'Redgrave-type' figure, then, suggests someone who has great experience, an unblemished record, who can teach the youngsters a thing or two. In a celebrity-obsessed age, I'm afraid this won't wash. Any 'figurehead' must be younger, at the top of their game, and project an image that young people want to identify themselves with. 'Image' is not just about having the right kind of values: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer espouse the right values, but their image is moulded also by their representation in the media and their sponsorship deals.

As some of the comments attached to the Guardian article suggest, there are any number of players (such as James Willstrop) who could provide this role. Yet it is the conditions for this to happen - principally greater media exposure - that allow for such a figurehead to emerge.


  1. I am writing an article on why squash isn't covered in British media and this blog was perfect to get me on the go. I agree that the celebrity obsessed culture we live in is scarily influential to the success of a sport

  2. Thanks Carla - your project sounds interesting. Drop me a line if you need direction to further sources (see 'Contact' above).


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