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From just 27 members to over 1,000 users: Doncaster Squash Club’s rebirth after controversial plan

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Doncaster Squash Club was in trouble. With the number of regular members down to just 27 and an “exclusive culture”, the future of the club, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, was in real jeopardy.

In 2019, new owners Les Close and Dave Cooke put forward a controversial plan to reverse the club’s fortunes: abolish membership.

The move, which saw the club tear up its old strategy and implement a pay-to-play system, represented a dramatic departure from the traditional club model.

Under the previous system, members would pay an annual membership fee, £86 ($110USD), as well as £3 to book courts. Now, anyone wanting to play simply pays a flat rate of £6.25 per person for a court.

Besides making squash more accessible to casual players and beginners, the move to pay-to-play also helped Close and Cooke in their goal of changing the club’s culture and go some way to securing its financial security.

Doncaster Squash Club is bustling once again

“We found that instead of welcoming people, the membership system was pushing people away,” Cooke, a fitness expert and retired Army Major, explained recently at the Squash Summit.

The change quickly paid dividends, despite the devastating impact on sports facilities caused by the global pandemic shortly after, and the club now boasts over 1,100 subscribing players and is on a sound financial footing.

Cooke is keen to stress that the change did not happen overnight, and nor was it a simple flip of a switch.

The change to pay-to-play was accompanied by a major outreach campaign, with the club utilising social media to encourage the local community to give squash a go and reaching out directly to local businesses and schools, as well as local and national sporting bodies, with England Squash providing a grant to fund a free women’s squash programme and the Big lottery providing a grant to use squash as a vehicle to improving mental wellness and social inclusion post COVID.

The club was also turned into a Community Interest Company (CIC), meaning all profits were to be reinvested back into the club.

“We spread the word that everybody had the opportunity to come and play. The elitist/exclusive culture started to change and become more welcoming and we soon had about 100 new regular players coming to the club,” Cooke says.

After the pandemic, the player base expanded rapidly, with the number of court bookings on an evening up from an average of 6 in 2019 to an average of 16 in 2024.

The player base is also more balanced than pre-pandemic, with far more junior players and women getting on court than in previous years.

“It wasn’t easy and it was initially unpopular with the members,” Cooke concedes. “But we knew it was what was needed and the club has really become a fantastic community asset once again, with former members now investing their time and effort to bring on new players, grow teams and the community surrounding the sport.”

Analysing Doncaster’s success, CEO of ESF working group Squash Facilities Network Markus Gaebel said: “What we see with Doncaster is a perfect example of the right club finding the right system. All over the world, at clubs such as Squash On Fire and Open Squash, we have seen successes with subscription models, pay-to-play and others, but it is essential that clubs choose the right system for them and their potential player base. Doncaster’s remarkable success is a result of that, as well as the hands-on and active management of the club, which is just as important.”

Find out more about Doncaster Squash Club at doncastersquash.co.uk

For more case studies on what makes a successful club, and to read the landmark Global Squash Report on the squash ecosystem, head to squashfacilities.com

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