Squash is on the up in Russia, and key to the growth of the sport in the nation are a range of public events which have attracted new players to the sport by hosting a number of professional players in eye-catching locations.
Squash is typically a sport held inside – save for certain locations on the professional tour – but a number of events in Russia over the previous few years have helped to bring stunning all-glass courts to places as varied as music festivals and shopping malls.
Thanks to the great work done by the Russian Squash Federation, squash featured at the renowned 2017 and 2018 VK Fests held in St Petersburg. Held by the biggest social media network in Russia, the VK Fest typically attracts in excess of 100,000 people. In addition, hundreds of spectators were treated to live squash at the 2018 Subbotnik Open, which was held in the lively Metropolis shopping centre in Moscow.
“Public events, where we used our mini-court and especially full size glass court, are definitely the most effective offline marketing channels for squash,” says says Anton Odintsov, Presidium Board Member of the Russian Squash Federation.
“For example, over the two days of VK Fest, around 300 new people tried squash at the glass court, and around 40 per cent visited the city clubs afterwards for free group masterclasses. Eventually, around 10 to 20 per cent became regular club players, which is a very good conversion rate for Russia.
“We have found it very hard to promote squash in a region like Russia, where 98 per cent of the population have never even heard about squash, which was recognised by the Ministry of Sports only in 2010. Explaining what squash is, via standard channels such as text or even video is very difficult. People need to try it. Then they fall in love with it.
“Public professional tournaments are also great for promotion of squash in the media, attracting sponsors as well as increasing the loyalty of the local squash community.
“We did have a pipeline of events for 2020, but COVID-19 restrictions ruined the calendar as well as some of the sponsorship discussions. However, we are looking forward to resuming the season, so we will at least arrange all the national tournaments, which we had in the calendar for 2020. But most summer and autumn mass public events are postponed for an indefinite period.”
As well as bringing squash to the masses via public events, efforts are being made to establish Russia as a key player in the professional squash scene, with the 2019 Russian Open – held outside at Moscow’s National Squash Centre – being designated a World Championship qualifying event for the 2019-20 season.
State of the art facilities – seven ASB courts, two of which are moveable, as well as a fitness centre on-site – have made the National Squash Centre the jewel in Russia’s squash crown.
But the country’s capital has plenty more to offer in terms of squash, with the modern Squash Club Moscow boasting nine CourtTech courts as well as holding the Junior Open last year.
These facilities have helped bring some of the world’s leading players to Russia, including top 10 players Paul Coll and Diego Elias, who competed at Squash Club Moscow in an exhibition event two years ago.
The RC Club in St Petersburg also boasts an impressive selection of pros to have taken to the court at their facility, with stars such as former World Champion Gregory Gaultier and former British Open champion Miguel Rodriguez both competing at the biggest [10 courts] squash club in Russia. The RC Club is also an important club on the national scene too, with just shy of 100 players turning up for the Junior Nationals earlier this year.
Global sport has come to a standstill following the outbreak of COVID-19 and Odintsov says that squash in Russia is no different, although the federation has made efforts to help coaches, clubs and players around the country through this difficult time.
“Our federation has initiated a support fund for squash coaches,” Odintsov says.
“We have collected a small amount via crowdfunding and distributed among those who were in the most difficult situation. Our federation has also launched various online activities, workouts, interviews, lectures, zoom meetings and more. Each stream got on average over 1000 unique viewers, which is good for Russia.
“But more importantly, we brought the community and different squash clubs around the country together, which has helped us overcome this tough period by virtually staying in touch.”
So, once normality resumes following the pandemic, what is next for squash in Russia?
According to Odintsov: “We need to increase the number of courts. We still have less than 150 courts for the country with a population of over 145 million.
“We also need to increase awareness about squash. Still less than one per cent of the population in Russia knows what squash is. We can improve this by doing more PR activities, including online and offline promotion of squash, using celebrities and influencers and utilising public events.
“We also want to increase the availability of squash for children by putting together school programs and making courts cheaper for kids.”
Odintsov is now also eyeing up expansion into the WSF squash scene, saying: “We will apply our three biggest clubs for next year’s ESF and WSF championships. Each of them will do at least one PSA Satellite or Challenger Tour events every year.
“Our major targets and dreams are to arrange major squash events at Red Square [Moscow] and Palace Square by the Hermitage [St.Petersburg]. These are very challenging locations but, if with WSF’s support we bring in a big international squash event and attract sponsors, everything is possible.”
WSF Chief Executive William Louis-Marie has welcomed Russian Squash’s involvement in WSF events, saying: “Bidding for future WSF events would send a strong message to the squash community, help them develop their sport and expertise locally, as well as enhancing Russia’s national players, creating new facilities and attracting new sponsors. I’m fully ready to collaborate with Anton and the Russian Squash Federation to attain these objectives, and I very much look forward to this.”