Friday 14 August 2009

Media response speaks volumes in aftermath of 2016 failure

Women's boxing and golf grabbed the headlines, with squash hardly warranting a mention. After recent optimism that squash would be put forward for the vote in Copenhagen for inclusion in the 2016 Olympics, the sport will now not even be put through to the final voting stage.

Again squash has failed. Those who have followed the campaign might see a drawn-out investigation into the reasons for failure as rather pointless – it would surely throw up the same reasons squash failed to make London 2012. Yet the media's reaction yesterday – at least in the UK – perhaps provides the best clue to this huge disappointment ...

Squash's mass media profile, as evidenced by the reaction to the victory of golf and rugby sevens, is still woeful. Yesterday, no UK newspaper I read (save the Telegraph) or radio coverage provided any analysis of squash's merits, or those of the players who could quite conceivably win medals for Great Britain. Discussion centred purely on the merits of the two winning sports, with their heavyweight media profiles and marketing power to attract new audiences being cited as the factors that clinched it. Some discussion was given over to whether participants in rugby and golf would see an Olympic gold as the pinnacle of their sport. Journalists mostly agreed that it wouldn't. But they also agreed that it wouldn't matter.

BBC Radio 5 Live spent a good part of its post-evening news programme discussing the vote. When squash was mentioned as one of the losers at the end of the discussion, Matthew Pinsent – briefly an IOC official himself - muttered something about the winners easily being the best two candidates on the list. That – together with the fact that almost all the other sports journalists I have heard/read over the past 24 hours did not even mention squash – tells you all you need to know.

Briefly, where did squash go wrong?

Emails and articles seen by this website from as late as last autumn showed that a centralised campaign had barely begun, when the golf and rugby marketing machines were moving into top gear. What had squash's administrators been doing from the (far closer-run) 2012 vote up until then? The organisational changes at the top of the WSF and PSA may turn out to be for the better in the long term, but all the changes in personnel over the past 18 months surely cannot have been conducive to a co-ordinated campaign. Efforts in the past few months have showed a greater professionalism, but it may all have been too little too late.

Badminton caught the imagination of the UK public in Athens, just as swimming did in Beijing. This was due to performances in Olympic games, of course, but individual successes would not have had such far-reaching implications for those sports if the media had not got onboard to celebrate them.

Maybe squash was always destined to be unable to compete with the money of golf and rugby. If that is the case, then maybe next time there won't be other challengers with such muscle. However it was depressing to see, after a spirit of optimism that pervaded the squash press over the past few months, that during the vote IOC delegates quite obviously never intended to press for squash's case. The vote in the run up to London winning the 2012 Games now looks in hindsight like the best opportunity for a generation.

The squash 'community' is – relative to the other sports mentioned here - a small one, and those who have a stake in it, in may different forms, are - perhaps understandably – hugely protective of it. The long-term consequence of this has been a tendency to look inwards and resist outside help (interference?). There has been lots of behind-the-scenes discussion this year – much of it ill-tempered - about media rights. These differences need to be resolved: simply fighting for one's corner will not deliver squash its long-term objectives. Those agencies quite content with their stake in the sport should realise that they would have more to gain from smaller slice of a bigger pie.

From all the correspondence I have received, those arguing about the best way for the media to serve the sport all seem to have the sport's best interests at heart. There is a wealth of energy to be tapped and some great ideas being suggested.

If certain bodies, organisations and individuals could see fit to work together, maybe the 2020 campaign (if deemed worthy of a bid if the general profile has not improved) will deliver a happier result

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