The sport of squash was mentioned in the New York Times yesterday and not surprisingly the article focused on squash as an elite sport played by the wealthy and used as a means to get budding yuppies cubs into the nation’s top colleges and private schools.
Squash currently suffers from a problem that most brands would kill to have: its perception as a luxury product. The issue is one of mass appeal. In order for squash to attain more mainstream sports status, it must shed its connotations of the Ivy League and Greenwich, and instead return the focus to the game itself. Squash is really one of the great branding case studies that could ever exist. The sport’s brand also creates an interesting question: can a service or product de-luxurize itself? Of course the answer is yes, as has been witnessed by many products that loose their niche appeal when they appeal to a more mainstream audience. In the case of squash, however, it’s not nearly so easy.
For example, when Trinity College started beating Harvard and Yale by many accounts, squash should have lost its elite appeal. It did not. The best players started to attend Trinity over Harvard and the sport become more popular among college players â€“ not less. Nevertheless, despite such a shifting paradigm and the best efforts of squash publicists and organizations to dispel the elitist aura, the media continues to push the â€œsexier’ story of squash being played among the Gossip Girl crowd. And unfortunately, US media still controls the world.
While squash isn’t close to popular here in the States, overseas it is a widely played sport with many public court facilities. Egypt, India, and the UK. In fact, the top American player worldwide is barely in ranked in the top 50 â€“ a non-squash player would likely assume squash to be an American sport. They’d be wrong. The key to squash’s ability to gain traction and change its image starts with acquiring major sponsors in the United States. The reason being that US based tournaments are the only ones capable of generating significant money and media endorsements (television, etc). And here in lies one of the many conundrums. The big sponsors, all want to sponsor squash the luxury sport (past sponsors include: Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, etc) not squash the sport played by the world’s most fit athletes.
In another post I will dive into why squash would be such an interesting brand case study, but until then, some â€˜highlights’ from the article:
â€œYou’ve already enrolled your teenagers in advanced-placement Mandarin, retained a $9,000-a-year college admissions consultant to help refine their applications, and sent them off to Kyrgyzstan to dig irrigation ditches for the summer. Still, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get into an Ivy League university. What are you going to do? Like a small but growing number of parents, you might hand the kids squash rackets.â€�
And wait! There’s more:
Parents, Mr. Sher said, like the idea â€œthat not everybody can play it, not everyone can afford it â€” it’s almost like it’s a more upscale product.â€�